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On the relationship between the media and government of the day

...By its very nature, the media is prone to conflict with the government of the day because facts and realities sometimes can be very complex and the need arises for both sides to understand one another’s role with a sense of mutual responsibility and trust…” A Tanzanian media scholar’s abstract for a Dissertation: The Development of an Independent Press in Tanzania (1991).

A FUNCTION by the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) last weekend to honour local journalists for exemplary performance -- a function of which was graced by President Jakaya Kikwete -- was to me, instructive for two reasons. As I watched the function covered live on television from the peace of my study at my residence, an impression was steadily building in me that the president had a grasp of the characteristic of the Tanzanian media today in its neo-liberal context. That context is a “fast buck” sought by some owners of media outlets with utter disregard to the welfare of media people or “scribes” working for them.

To them, media owners, what matters is the bottom-line in terms of sales and hence the drama in the headlines which sometimes do not reflect on the content of a given story! The neo-liberal or capitalist setting (although the president did no put it in this context) has utterly no regard for principles or the foundation stone upon which this country is laid, such as adherence to secularism, that is, not mix affairs of state or politics with religion.

But if this is true for journalists operating in this environment, the same is true for political leaders across the political divide. To win political ground, we are all today witness to the trend where some political leaders frequent church or mosque functions, with some them literally lobbing to be invited! You, as the reader of these lines, know them!

So, as I was watching this media function on television, this was the overall picture I was making from the president’s speech, which gave me the impression that he has been following with interest the media landscape. And when he came up to mention the name of my old fellow veteran colleague, Journalist Fred Jim Mdoe, of his struggles to put up a private newspaper on his own, I was particularly aroused.

Fred, a poor man like me as he is, although professionally savvy and creative, I did not know that the president was also aware of the fact that professionally competent men like Fred are today abandoned on the road by the state which should have fended for them as struggling working class entrepreneurs but lacking in capital to sustain a newspaper. So, as always in capitalism, it is the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest!

Here now comes the gist of my perspective: When you look at the quote at the start of this perspective, (fortunately that media scholar being referred to above being myself when I was putting up my thesis for a Master’s programme!) the function organised by the MCT is an indicator that here we have in place an arbiter or a referee in the name of the MCT. This body could play a role of an arbiter when it comes to resolving conflict of interest between those in government and those in the media.

Today, we have a number of media men and women facing charges in a court of law ranging from sedition to what have you, and the impression being that certain published stories or commentaries were not taken kindly by some powers that be in the government of the day. Actually not long ago, we had a drama that looked like a movie thriller when a number of toughies, presumably from some state apparatus invaded a weekly newspaper and there was a battle to wrestle computers from the office of the weekly!

As impressed upon elsewhere in the course of this perspective, the media anywhere is prone to conflict with the government of the day because facts and realities sometimes can be very complex especially when each side stands on its guns as safeguarding the national good which ‘good’ comes in varied forms of expressions, one of which includes “state security”.

Only the other day, we saw how that bastion of all freedoms, the United States of America getting up in arms with an online media called outlet– ‘Wiki-leaks’. So governments anywhere tend to protect what they think is for the eyes of a few only and not everybody! But journalists or media men and women think they have a job to do: to dig for information, which they consider in the public interest and right to know.

There we are! What should be done in the context of our country? Wouldn’t be helpful if there was an independent non-governmental body that would play the role of arbiter or referee, so that aggrieved parties, from individuals to a given government of the day would file a complaint seeking redress?

From what I saw last weekend, the independent Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) enjoys considerable public prestige as one could see; it was even able to win the president’s acceptance to officiate at a roll call of honour for journalists who have distinguished themselves. This body could effectively play the role of an arbiter where there is a conflict of interests between media outlets and government or aggrieved individuals.

This role, I understand, is already being played by the MCT. I have seen a number of complaints and petitions against some media outlets being handled by the MCT. What is required now is political will on those in government to take the route of MCT mediation other than the courts. This President should be advised to take this route so that other state agencies could see a middle ground for arbitration.

Thus recommended, this perspective would not be complete without a piece of advice to the MCT on how it arrives to pick media people for the roll call of honour. Surely, it makes a lot of sense if the MCT were to evolve a system where people named to deserve excellence or courage in Journalism awards were selected in such a way that they themselves would be surprised for the honour because they did not “compete” for it?

Can’t the MCT take a leaf from Oslo, Norway, and learn how the Nobel prizes are awarded? People read newspapers and follow radio/TV programmes and they know who is a coward or courageous, isn’t it? This is just food for thought!

E-mail: wakuhenga@gmail.com

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Author: MAKWAIA WA KUHENGA

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