The Cancer That Is The Brown Envelope

Recently at a get-together with colleagues from the Dikgang Publishing Company (DPC) newsroom, as I was sharing my two-thebe worth on the pitfalls of journalism, a young journalist wondered why she has never been corrupted, or approached with a ‘brown envelope’.

A colleague’s fast answer was “you are doing something wrong…” to which, I responded, that “No, you are doing something right”. My argument was that only those opening themselves to be corrupted would be.

The brown envelop practice, is monetary inducement of journalists by corrupt individuals, companies, political parties, institutions and governments to get favourable coverage and kill off stories exposing their dirt. In the competitive world of politics, business and even sports, the corrupted journalist would be paid to write or broadcast negative, even create false stories against competition. 

The term, brown envelope, was coined as the cash used to bribe journalists, is not always transacted through the bank accounts, but hard cash is supposedly exchanged under the table, in an envelope. While there is limited research on how extensive the practice is, it is usually in badly run, corrupt and poor countries, in Africa, Asia and the South America where it is most common. But it is a world phenomenon.

While shunned upon, justification has always been journalists being among the lowest paid professionals in the world, accept bribes as a means of survival. In poorer mismanaged countries, we have heard stories of journalists going for months without pay and surviving solely on selling their souls and professional integrity to the highest bidder.

Compared to many African countries, I dare to say the majority of our scribes, report without fear or favour. But, just as Botswana is showing growing signs of corruption in almost every sector, we are caught in the bribery trap. The ‘media wars’ on social media in recent times have had colleagues accusing each other of being ‘bought’ or captured. The accusations of such a journalist or media house, being paid, by politicians especially, have since the last general election, of 2014, gained momentum. 

Being the profession of materially poor workers, but well-known, as ours is a profession that thrusts one in the public domain, we have wondered, in corridors of gossip, how some of our colleague suddenly live a high life, acquire expensive cars and property, even buying clothes from the high street. While the best car majority of our scribes can afford is a Japanese or Singapore second-hand acquired from Mogoditshane via Durban port, we have seen some colleagues driving the latest top of the range from local garages.

Of course we have some of the hard working colleagues, who do not depend only on meagre salaries, but knock off to run businesses and offer other services, and thus deserve the high lifestyle many dream of, consummate with the names, titles and status.

But then there is the brown envelop, an evil that has entered our newsrooms. It is not just the monetary inducement that is troubling. In the competitive world of business, we have seen overtime, some corporates, if not most, entrapping unsuspecting journalists with expensive gifts. In the earlier days of independent media in Botswana, after exhaustive story hunting and late deadlines, many of us looked forward to ‘legala’ at the end of the week. These were corporate events where food and booze would be flowing and overtime, corporates dished out freebies to media workers in attendance. While freebies were small inexpensive corporate merchandise, the quality and size of the freebies have, over the years, gone a notch up. Suddenly journalists have gadgets they would not otherwise afford to buy. Then there are expensive ‘fun’ trips to exotic tourism places. Unless declared to management, the recipient can be, does get compromised.

Also in this poor industry, where the pay is not only low, but in some instances media workers get paid late with publishers struggling to keep the media outlets going, necessities such as vehicles are in great shortage. Journalists, always challenged to give national coverage, are at times forced to do so without the services of company vehicles. The poor scribes have, at times, had to depend on the clients, a source, for transport and even accommodation. How does one in that predicament, return to the newsroom and deliver an honest, fair, ethical and professional copy, against the sponsor?

Of course, it is not always the case that embedded journalists are compromised. To travel the world especially, unless you work for CNN or BBC, journalists depend on sponsorship, including from host governments. Professional ones, still return to give an honest account. But it is different when it is individuals, receiving favours from the source, the poor scribe can easily be compromised.

As there is a difference between the world of journalism and public relations, some of these freebies can and have, turned journalists into PR workers. When we reach that level, we lose credibility. As the DPC managing director, Titus Mbuya is fond of saying, our currency as journalists is public trust. If the client, the public, see us as hired guns, we lose the right to call ourselves the Forth Estate. We cannot be the ears, eyes and voices of the public, when we feed the public a lie that is bought by the powers with monetary muscle. The brown envelop, like any other corrupt practice is a cancer, unless is uprooted from the roots, will kill off the profession.

For engagement with the writer,

email: [email protected]

Editor's Comment
Escalating fuel prices cause panic

Nowadays it is not uncommon to purchase an item for a certain commodity and return to the shops in a week, to find the same item has gone up by a significant amount of money.Botswana Energy Regulatory Authority (BERA) last week announced yet another fuel price increase, which follows yet another increase that came into effect on March 29. Hardly two months later on May 12 boom, BERA announced yet another increase, which came into effect at a...

Have a Story? Send Us a tip
arrow up