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Gambian media aid – rather than fight corruption

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By Mamsait Ceesay

Corruption is a significant obstacle to development, democratic consolidation and environmental security, particularly in the developing world. It involves a misuse of power in serving private ends at the public expense. Corruption occurs in all three arms of government including the private sector. There are different forms of corruption. Political corruption is a classic example. It is often committed by politicians and top government officials acting alone or collaborating with other actors to advance private agendas.

In democratic societies, free and independent private media can investigate and expose political corruption. They can also pressurise relevant authorities to address the problem.

But this isn’t always the case. The question is whether media liberalisation and freedoms make the private media a powerful anti-corruption force in developing countries such as The Gambia. Let’s focus on for-profit electronic (television, radio and internet) and print media organisations.

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Contrary to the popular view that media freedom, pluralism and competition can help tackle corruption, democratic freedoms aren’t adequate safeguards for private media to fight political corruption. Despite Gambia’s prevailing democratic freedoms, Gambian private media actively contribute to political corruption. This happens through biased reporting, propaganda peddling, indulgence in corruption, weak investigative journalism, and limited follow-up reporting. These activities all contribute to weakening anti-corruption struggles in The Gambia.

The question is whether the private media play a constructive role in combating political corruption? Media corruption usually occurs when the press solicits – or accepts – cash or kind from those who want them to do their bidding. The Gambian private media have become a “rented press” or “cash for coverage”.

People talk about the practice of “brown envelope journalism”. This mostly involved money being handed over as a bribe to influence a story.

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One common practice is transport (fares). This refers to money given by individuals or organisations whose events reporters travel to cover.

Media personnel are divided on whether receiving transport fares constitutes corruption. One editor commented: “transport is something you take to influence. I don’t take transport money”.

But not everyone agreed. For some journalists, transport is not a bribe because they consider it their “legitimate” per diem, which provides a crucial means of survival.

Careful observation shows that brown envelopes and “transport” practices compromise critical anti-corruption reporting and embolden those involved in political corruption. For example, in The Gambia, paying and refunding reporters their transport costs as well as freebies and brown envelopes undermine anti-corruption efforts.

Media houses and journalists that maintain strong ties to political candidates and parties tend to engage in partisan reporting. Some journalists defend the political party they are affiliated with corruptive practices or attack opposition or people who raised issues about corruption.

Those who provided biased coverage – sometimes openly, sometimes subtly – for political candidates and parties did so for different reasons. This could include being offered money, cars and political appointments.

Reporting that comes from these corrupt relationships is partisan and tends to mask or distort the truth about political corruption cases.

Sections of the Gambian media have become propaganda tools in the hands of unscrupulous politicians and political parties to advance their political agendas. Politicians understand how to capture the media and use propaganda to destroy (otherwise credible) stories.

It is common knowledge that propaganda peddling weakens anti-corruption efforts.

Undercover journalism is the media’s major weapon in the fight against corruption. In The Gambia’s Second Republic, only a few people have been visible in the anti-corruption journalism field. The name Mustapha Darboe (Malagen) comes to mind.

Most private media houses don’t have investigative desks. As a result, media reports tend to rely on allegations and counter-allegations. Media houses should go underground and find out the information. This is important because sometimes, people allegedly involved in the corruption feed you with what they want you to know.

There are challenges in pursuing investigative journalism in The Gambia. The first is that journalists can be harassed, or worse. Prominent investigative journalists have been murdered during the former regime led by Yahya AJJ Jammeh. These murders have not yet been solved.

Some journalists talk about political interference and nonavailability of funding as barriers to investigative journalism in the country.

Another weakness is that media outlets don’t consistently follow up on cases where political corruption has been exposed. There have been many instances in which we bring critical issues to bare and discuss them for a week or two and leave them.

Sustained monitoring helps keep the pressure on politicians and law enforcement agencies to ensure a logical conclusion.

Journalists are expected not to allow money and political affiliation to influence their work. They should see their work as a calling. To uphold their journalistic independence, they should decline offers, including payments and cars, from influential people they investigate.

Civil society and state institutions should support media houses and journalists that demonstrably play a critical, active watchdog role in society.

Security agencies also ought to protect media houses and journalists threatened by thugs because of their anti-corruption work.

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