Mercenary Journalists [Archives:1998/38/Focus]

September 21 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!

By: Abdulqawi Al-Udainiy,
Journalist with
Al-Usboo’ newspaper
They all promised me a “reward” once the article was published. What made them all think that journalists are mercenaries?!
This is a real life story while I was conducting a field survey. I was interviewing government officials in five different public organs, based on a random sample. The objective was to figure out how these bodies were performing.
But that was an experience I will never forget. It made see how officials looked at journalists. They believe a journalist exploits his or her profession for material gains! And they react on this basis.
There is no doubt that this is a very negative view. The existence of one or two or a few opportunistic journalists does not mean that it is a general phenomenon. Generalizing would almost certainly lead to mistakes, and it does harm the reputation of the media and the people of principle who work in it.
By pure coincidence, I found in front of me proof of why people think of us journalists this way. In the office of an oil company, I met a colleague – one of the people responsible for the distorted image of journalism. He looked quite pathetic in those circumstances, but seemed to have accepted his predicament. At the oil company, he was met with a lot of contempt and derision, because he attempted to pressure the company’s management to publish advertisements in the newspaper he works for.
Many newspapers seem to disparage and vilify prominent individuals or establishments. This is usually a pressure tactic. If the individual or company respond “favorably”, such reports are then followed by praise and accolades of the same individual and/or company.
I am not accusing all the people who work in journalism with this kind of behavior. The objective is certainly not to slander these people, as there are quite a few honorable ones, and who have high morals and ideals. I am trying to protect these honorable ones from the evil deeds committed by some people in the name of journalism. I feel it is my duty to write about this issue, however uneasy it make us.
What I experienced while doing my investigative journalism piece was very serious indeed. Some officials offered me a “reward” on the spot; while, many others asked me to see them again after publication. Of course, I understood what they were saying. I tried to hiding my embarrassment with a few general words before saying ‘good-bye’ while trying to avoid a bad situation with the people offering the ‘reward’. But I did make sure that I did not accept the offers.
I related my experience to one of my more seasoned colleagues. He surprised me by saying that he can give me dozens of cases of similar situations of his own:
“I was new to this business and unaware of its ins and outs. I had just finished my studies abroad and was full of enthusiasm. A few months after starting my new job, the newspaper’s chief editor asked me to conduct an interview with a particular minister.
“The interview was published and I was told that the minister phoned to thank me. He left instructions that he wanted me to drop by at his office. I thought that it was a good opportunity to cement a new friendship. To my great surprise and astonishment, the minister gave me a piece of paper – a money order to collect a few thousand riyals. I mumbled a few words of disgust, which I can’t well recall now, threw the piece of paper on his desk and went out.
“A similar incident happened again while I was on vacation in one of the important governorates. For personal reasons, I had to extend my stay. So I phoned my newspaper, and suggested that I do some interviews whilst I was there. They agreed.
“I talked to the governor. He posed artificially for the picture taking moments. Following the interview and when I was about to leave, the governor handed me a rather bulky envelope. When I declined to take it, he justified his act by saying that the money was to cover my accommodation expenses, and is a usual practice with visiting journalists. I refused to take the envelope, and retaliated by never publishing his interview. Although known for his flamboyance and love for the spot light, the governor never contacted me to find out what became of the interview.
“In light of these experiences, I decided not to interview any more officials. I frankly told my chief editor of my decision, and he agreed not to give me any assignments which involved such visitations.”
Upon talking to my colleagues, I realized that I was not the only journalist to be involved in such a situation. I asked myself, ‘Who is responsible for this state of affairs?’ Is it the senior officials who now believe that everything has a price tag, including a journalist’s conscience? Is it the cheap journalists who give us this bad reputation? Such people are in urgent need of a shock therapy to make them realize the harm they are inflicting on journalism. They must be condemned at misleading the public and harming the professional ethics.
These ‘rewards’ – mukafa’ah are bribes. A culture of disguised bribery is being created here. These ‘rewards’ which take many forms, can only be classified as bribes. They have nothing to do with generosity. Bribery has eaten into our social fabric. Can we protect journalism from this dangerous malady? There has to be a very strong mass, impartial media to support the alleged reform program.
Journalism needs credibility to achieve its noble aims. Writers and journalists form public opinion. Bribery in journalism is liable to create a distorted system of thought and a betrayal of the lofty principles of virtue.
Journalism has a great mission which is courageously undertaken by hundreds of people without fear of retribution by despotic rulers or without an eye on the ‘money order’. This has been the case throughout the ages, and it shall remain as such. For, in the beginning was the word…