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Homework for post-split Sudan: cure journalism of corruption

Hassan Faroog
Sudanese newspapers need an overhaul to restore credibility by putting a stop to unethical practices.
1.09.2011  |  Khartoum
Even if government restrictions on press freedom are lifted, journalism in Sudan could use a makeover.
Even if government restrictions on press freedom are lifted, journalism in Sudan could use a makeover.

In the offices of a local newspaper, a reporter was recently overheard speaking into his cell phone loudly enough for everyone in his midst to hear: I’m not doing the story unless I know how much they’re offering,” he said. Raising his voice, he added, No sir, I won’t repeat my last mistake; it was too little money, so if they want us to cover this tour they should tell us from the start how much they’ll pay or I won’t go.”

This type of coverage-for-hire is just one illustration of a glaring lack of ethics in Sudanese journalism. The payment for news reports, interviews and opinion columns in local newspapers is no secret. Corruption has become entrenched in everyday reporting to such an extent that it’s now the subject of public debate.

Newspaper managers basically rent out their reporters to anyone who comes to them, be it a political party, a governmental agency, an institution or a company.”
Anonymous journalist
According to a prominent newspaperman who wished to remain anonymous, a large number of publishers and chief editors are behind these unethical practices.

Special interest representatives sometimes target individual journalists directly, away from the management. In the absence of a clear editorial policy on this subject, consent is usually granted to reporters to accept such invitations, even when it’s apparent the resulting articles may well resemble public relations handouts more than factual news articles.  

Chief editors usually sanction such junkets, the source explained, because the newspaper pays nothing to send a journalist into the field. The result is a rush of reporters into the arms of these parties that cover all their expenses,” he said.

Two documented examples illustrate the deterioration of journalistic standards in the Sudanese capital.

I. We pay your way, so we buy your words

In March 2007, Khaled Fatehy, formerly with the daily al-Sahafa, accompanied a government delegation on a trip to northern Sudan. One of their stops was Kajbar, where the construction of a controversial dam project had recently triggered bloody unrest.

Reporters should never travel with any party because when it foots the bill, their ability to convey the facts freely and honestly is compromised.”
Khaled Fatehy, formerly with the daily al-Sahafa
A public gathering with the regional governor was on the verge of becoming a violent confrontation between police and protesters when the situation was contained by the chief of police. But the atmosphere was still tense, and citizens gave the visiting officials a hostile reception. In an effort to calm the crowd, the governor told the gathering, We came with an open heart to start a new chapter.”

Fatehy was later chastised for doing his job as he saw fit: reporting events the way they occurred.

I made sure to communicate the scene as it was without any omission or addition,” he said, but the next day, some of the senior members of the delegation accused me of exaggerating what happened, and that by doing so, I might contribute to a failure of their initiative by fanning the flames of discontent.”

Fatehy said he felt ostracised by the officials, who eventually stopped speaking to him.  

The lesson that I’ve learned from this experience is that  reporters should never travel with any party, because when it foots the bill, their ability to convey the facts freely and honestly is compromised,” said Fatehy.

II. Toe the line or be fired

Some newspapers rate their journalists according to how closely they adhere to their employers’ editorial alliance with the governing regime, or a certain institution, company or individual. Those who stray can be arbitrarily dismissed from their jobs or forced to resign.

In general, there’s evidence of a serious overlap in journalism between advertisement and questionable relationships.” 
Haitham Capo, chief editor of the daily Fenoon
In one recent incident, the daily al-Ray al-Aam fired a number of its staff reporters. In a recent phone conversation, Mohammad Abdul-Qader, deputy chief editor, denied their dismissal had anything to do with their politics.  

Describing the 66 year-old paper as distinguished,” Abdul-Qader insisted that al-Ray al-Aam evaluated its journalists’ progress according to their skills, capabilities and potential.

The newspaper’s creed is based on encouraging diversity,” he said. We haven’t fired any journalists because of their attitudes.”

While he admitted to suspending the reporters, he refused to name the reason. He referred to the action as a reshuffle,” adding they represented different political backgrounds including the ruling National Congress Party, the left, and independent movements.

Self-aggrandisement, conflicts of interest and bias  

Personal ties with members of the business community, political parties or other ventures often get in the way of factual reporting in Khartoum.  

In general, there’s evidence of a serious overlap in journalism between advertisement and questionable relationships,” said Haitham Capo, chief editor of the daily Fenoon. For example, certain stories of public concern are not published because they might hurt the standing of our advertising clients.”

At another paper, a journalist who did not want his name used said his chief editor regularly criticises his reporting staff while taking sole credit for the success of the publication, even though the paper is 16 pages in length.

Such editors climb on the backs of correspondents and build  personal glory through our efforts,” he said. This kind of star mentality is incompatible with the practice of good journalism.”  

The role of the media is far greater than merely disseminating honest news. Journalists should personify professional integrity, a sense of justice and unbiased observation. Instead, Sudanese journalism is mired in censorship and favouritism.

Meanwhile, the truth about any given issue, which it is our job to uncover, becomes all the more elusive.

But there is hope that we will revive the long-forgotten values of our trade and make our profession respectable once again. The stakes are high, as the words of the early 20th century poet Ahmad Shawqi remind us: Nations are nothing without ethics; once they are gone, nations will follow.”

Editor: Alexa Dvorson