By Eng. Abdirisak Ismail Qalinle (Itaqile)
SomalilandPress – The air was full of the pungent smell of cannabis as sacks of confiscated Marijuana and liquor burned; spirals of smoke were visible across the district court in Hargeisa. The press conference was held by Hargeisa police department as a part of their routine drug burn to get rid of drugs confiscated in past busts.
In a matter of minutes the police begun so set fire to the seized drugs while the pressmen took pictures and recorded videos of the event. Then the regional police chief briefed the media and the press conference ended. The gangs clutched tape recorders, notebooks and identification cards that instantly identified them as ‘pressmen’. Desperate to accomplish their mission, they cornered the regional police chief while he was trying to leave by driving his vehicle.
“Thanks for coming, guys,” the regional police chief said after shaking hands with all of them. They paid him courtesy but refused to move. “The boys are going,” one of them, a tall guy with guttural voice, announced. The regional police chief wished them well again and made to return to his vehicle nearby. “The journalists are leaving sir,” the tall ‘journalist’ said, moving fast to catch up with the police chief. “Is there no ‘transportation payment?. Of course, the regional police chief perfectly understood their language and retorted appropriately. “This is our duty, your duty” he told frankly. They murmured. He ignored them and begun to drive his vehicle.
The above scenario depicts a typical case of ‘brown envelope journalism’, a cancerous phenomenon that has ravaged and inflicted serious injury on journalism practice in Somaliland, my country, and much of Africa.
To define brown envelope journalism, I find the definition by Terje S. Skjerdal of the Gimle kollen School of Journalism and Communication, Norway, all encompassing. Skjerdal states: “The term ‘brown envelope journalism’ is applied to denote journalistic activity which involves transfer of various types of rewards from sources to the reporter.” (p. 369]
In Somaliland, ‘QABAX’ is the most famous terminology frequently used by and among journalists in Somaliland. A friend of mine journalist once told me that getting hooked to ‘QABAX is like getting hooked on narcotics. And like illicit drugs, it is very addictive.
In my first solo reporting assignment, I was disturbed at receiving QABAX but both the event sponsor and my boss told me it was normal procedure. Since the event was nothing but a promotion for a new product, I was tortured about what to write. Finally, as the money was biting me through my pocket, I wrote a short report, going against my judgment as to its newsworthiness. The self-torture gradually phased out as I undertook further reporting of business events.
Most journalists in Somaliland have probably had similar experiences. They are generally paid by business event sponsors to show up and report. Recently, some government organizations have joined these business circles by adopting a standard payment of $30. The direct consequence is that journalists are not able to maintain an independent view with that Qabax in their pockets. Next time when you read a report that seems to carry no real news, such as my first individual assignment, you can figure out the existence of such a payment.
To make things worse, the critical role of a journalist has been replaced by a milder tone. In a word, journalists are paid, albeit a small amount of money, to write news stories as the mouthpiece of their interviewees rather than of the facts. Furthermore, the indulged journalists have become less sensitive to real news stories.
Like myself, a lot of journalists initially questioned the practice but at the individual level there is little they can do to solve the dilemma. This dis-empowerment comes from severe constraints upon particular moral agents. One individual cannot change the situation while everyone else is taking the practice for granted. If one refuses to take the small envelope, companies may end up just offering more, assuming that journalists are not satisfied.
Only at higher levels can the morally imprisoned journalists be helped. Individual media companies should establish strict policies explicitly laying out their moral standards, which should be reinforced by ethical training. On the other hand, since even individual companies may constrained, the National Journalists Association should play a bigger role.
Last but not the least, the government should also make an effort to promote professional codes of ethics and discourage this practice.
The Author, Eng. Abdirisak Ismail Qalinle aka Itaqile, is the chief editor of Somaliland Monitor. You reach the author through his e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or cell phone: +252-634060807.