What makes a responsible journalist?

We have responsible journalists and we have mere news writers, public relations workers and mercenaries in our media houses in Tanzania. But in the eyes of the public, all media practitioners are treated as journalists.In Tanzania we have so far two categories of journalists: there are those who practiced during the socialist era – between 1967 and 1985, and those who began doing so from the free market era in 1990s.  The former, now remain a few and are either editors or sub-editors.

Early journalists were professional and had opted to go into journalism because they had great interest in the profession.Most of them underwent training at the only two journalism institutions in the country, namely the Nyegezi Social Training Centre (NSTC) in Mwanza owned by the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC), established in the early 1960s; and the state-run Tanzania School of Journalism (TSJ) in Dar es Salaam, set up in the mid 1970s.

The main role of Tanzanian journalists then, was to mobilise the society to implement the socialist and self-reliance ideology after the ruling party promulgated the Arusha Declaration in 1967. Between the 1970s and 1990s most of the journalists were absorbed in state-owned media outlets such as Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam (RTD), Maelezo, Tanzania News Agency (SHIHATA), Daily News; and others worked for Uhuru owned by the ruling party and Mfanyakazi, a trade union publication.

When SHIHATA was instituted in 1977 it became the sole gatherer, disseminator and distributor of news in the country, a task it also entrusted to appointed agents – newspapers and the radio.Whatever Nyerere said then, was lead news in the local press and the press accorded high priority to nation-building efforts by wananchi in responding to socialist goals.

When Nyerere stepped down in 1985 and Ali Hassan Mwinyi took over, Mwinyi instituted political and economic reforms that led to multipartism, a free market economy, liberalisation of news services and an end to SHIHATA monopoly. As a result, there was a mushrooming of private newspapers and the freedom of the press was excessive to the extent of being abused. Ever since there has been no national ideological direction and news has been transformed from a service into a commodity as newspapers race for audiences. 

Everyone now felt he was free to become a journalist even though he was untrained. Opportunists, rogues, politicians, streetwalkers, traders among others penetrated into journalism. Some joined it imaging that it’s a mixture of glamour and adventure; it is a lucrative business, while others thought it was a means of gaining popularity and power.

There are those who joined journalism simply because they longed for gifts, special courtesies and concessions from business people, politicians and bureaucrats. As a result, the yellow press and unethical reporting of news emerged in the country. Some newspapers carry stories which threaten national unity and security, others trespass on an individual’s privacy under the “false” banner of press freedom. 

There are also allegations about affluent politicians and ambitious businessmen yearning for publicity who have bought journalists off. Hence, the emergence of mercenary media practitioners dubbed “envelope” or “on payroll” journalists.Ethical behaviour is an important element in any profession including journalism. Adroitness, good manners and consciousness of his responsibilities are important assets for any journalist. He cannot claim it as his rightful privilege to have free passes and favours. The receipt of these would certainly give him a feeling of importance. But seeking them would make him encourage those who seek publicity through him.

Today Tanzania boasts of more than 750 newspapers and magazines, and scores of TV, radio stations and journalism schools. But journalism that adheres to professional standards and ethics is still a big challenge in this country. Private media owners have individual editorial policies that are not necessarily geared to serve national interests, but rather business or political interests or both. 

Before the liberalisation of news services in Tanzania, journalism was not a lucrative job, it was for those who felt the call of it and was highly respected in the society. But today it is tainted with corruption and partisanship, and as a result respect for it has diminished. 

A responsible journalist, apart from having a good nose for news, is ethical, approachable, sociable and governed by logic in reaching decisions. He is interested in people, all people – from the ordinary, to high-placed people. This is because all people are potential sources of news information and news tips as well as consumers of media products.

The task of a responsible journalist is equated with that of a watchdog or an activist geared towards safeguarding human, legal and democratic rights and improving the wellbeing of the society. He is sympathetic with the voiceless, the disadvantaged, and the marginalised. He tackles nagging issues in society such as corruption, injustice and maladministration. 

For instance, he exposes poor road construction due to corruption, high mortality rate in health facilities due to negligent health care workers, embezzlement of funds by public officials, and environmental pollution that is threatening the survival of living things. These are risky assignments but a committed and intrepid journalist pursues them because he thinks he represents the voice of the people and wants things to change for the better. In countries where freedom of expression is lacking such journalists are victims of torture, are jailed or murdered. 

Awareness of the needs of society or social modes and people’s likes and dislikes is essential for a professional journalist.Some people, nevertheless, might argue that it is not easy to have media men with all the mentioned qualities. These are just guidelines; the intention is not to force an employer to look out for the perfect when scouting for employees. But if bodies in such professions as medicine, law and engineering have strict entry requirements, stringent codes of behaviour and practice, why not in journalism?

Apart from news service, the other responsibilities of the media as a public servant is to educate, entertain, advise and guide readers. In so doing it also bears in mind its independence, responsibilities, sincerity, truthfulness, impartiality and fair play.Fortunately, there are several institutions in the country charged with the enforcement of ethical behaviour in the media, improvement in the quality of journalism, accreditation and training of journalists.

These are the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) which codifies professional ethics and practices, and the Tanzania Media Fund (TMF) whose mission is to create an independent, quality, diverse and vibrant media by enabling investigative and public-interest journalism and facilitating critical reflection and learning.

There is also Maelezo entrusted with the accreditation of journalists, registration and licensing of newspapers and other publications, and there are many schools which offer training in journalism. However, there are still several newsrooms staffed with untrained or mediocre people. 

Therefore, there is an urgent need to set up investigative reporting desks in media houses and to identify journalists who can man them to complement the work of the Tanzania Media Fund. In this area, the print media can effectively compete with the electronic media as it will carry exclusive reports.

The Media Council of Tanzania and Maelezo should respectively ensure that ethics are constantly observed and only duly qualified journalists are accredited; and the government should identify shortcomings in local journalism schools with a view to producing capable graduates.  

Whatever the editorial policies, experience has shown that the majority of serious readers always go for newspapers and other publications that are impartial; carry well-researched, analytical, critical and public-interest articles.

The writer is a veteran journalist 


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