How can the media in Tanzania be meaningfully transformed to promote accountability?


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These are some of the questions that I believe Tanzanian journalists should ask every day, if we want first to transform the media itself and then the government and our society.

As a non-Tanzanian, I want to ask my fellow panelists to think for once like journalists – and not about our jobs or employers.

The IPTL story was one of the biggest stories in the past 18 to 24 months and it was uncovered by one of the panelists here.

I have always asked myself: “Did Tanzanian readers understand what the story was about and how it impacted on their lives?”

When government ministers resigned or were fired, was this because of the public outcry or because of donor pressure?

I am asking my Tanzanian colleagues because I do not know the answer.

Now that I am feeling a little comfortable, I would like to offer my opinion on how I believe Tanzanian media can be meaningfully transformed to promote accountability.

First, the media is a business. For media to be meaningful and to play any role in society, it has to be a viable business. It has to be self-sustaining. It has to have good advertising revenue. Advertising revenue should be enough to cover all costs of producing the media, at least after the first two years of formation or establishment of the media, unless the owner has deep pockets to subsidise it. The cover price of the media, newspapers and magazines in particular, should just be there to give value to the publication not to sustain it.

The question then becomes, who provides the advertising revenue? The government, in most developing countries, is the biggest advertiser, but at the same time, in most countries, it is the worst payer. You will be paid eventually but it can take months or years which means you run the danger of shutting down before you are paid if you do not have other sources of revenue. There should therefore be a good mix of advertising revenue,  from individuals (yes through classified ads), the private sector, civil society sector and, of course, the government.

Too many good media projects, sadly in most cases those started by journalists, despite their noble intentions, collapse because they are not founded on a good business model but on good (theoretical) objective-mission-vision-model.

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I also believe that for Tanzanian media to play a meaningful role and promote accountability, the key players, that is the journalists, must be paid a reasonable wage or salary and on time. When journalists are forced to supplement their income through freelancing or moonlighting, or even brown envelopes, what is likely to happen is that they will give the best to those who pay the most. In most cases this means they will offer the best stories to outside media- BBC, Al Jazeera, New African, Mail and Guardian, East African, VOA.

Please do not misunderstand me here. I am not saying journalists employed by media houses should not freelance.  I have been a freelance throughout my career even when I was employed full-time by a media house, including when I worked for a state-owned daily. But I did so openly and always negotiated this as part of my employment contract. The freelancing, I believe made me a better writer even for my own publication because of the mentoring I received from my overseas editors.

This brings me to my last point on how media in Tanzania can be meaningfully transformed to promote accountability. The answer is mentoring. Having been mentored throughout my journalism career that now spans more than 40 years, I cannot think of any better way to transform a journalist than mentoring.

Studies have shown that 70 percent of workplace learning (not just journalism but any job) is through on the job experience and practice. Most of you, especially those who were associated with TMF will say: “but we have tried it and it has not worked to our satisfaction.”

I believe it worked. TMF has wonderful mentors, seasoned journalists who have a passion to impart what they have learnt the hard way to their younger professionals.

In my opinion, TMF had a noble objective but dithered or hesitated to stamp its seal of approval, its brand, under the pretext that it did not want to be seen to be interfering with its clients. In my opinion, TMF should have insisted on ensuring that the high standards it had painstakingly and scientifically developed should be adhered to.

Here I am specifically referring to TMF sponsored and mentored grants.  TMF insisted that grantees be mentored until the end of the story and that the final story should be cleared by the mentor. That was a very noble objective.  With the high calibre of mentors TMF employed, most of them former editors or producers, I could not, and still do not, understand why TMF did not insist that media houses that used its mentored stories could not change anything. I have argued, and still argue, that TMF should use the ProPublica approach where a story mentored from beginning to end should not be changed at all.

Here is what ProPublica, one of the leading non-profit investigative journalism projects, says: “You are free to use our stories but you can’t edit our material, except to reflect relative changes in time, location and editorial style. (For example, yesterday can be changed to last week, and Portland Ore to Portland or here.”

I am not saying that media houses should acknowledge that this is a TMF story, No. All I am saying is that TMF stories must be a brand, a standard bearer of quality that can set standards for the entire media outlet. Our readers know quality when they see it and they will demand it of their media.

The second point is much more difficult to implement. It relates to the in-house mentoring that TMF introduced. If TMF is to continue with this model, which I must admit is very empowering, then TMF must ensure that mentoring is actually taking place in the newsrooms. In my opinion, there is still too much editing and fixing and this frustrates writers.

(30 VIEWS)

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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