Brown envelope! journalism leaves Kenya in reverse gear

ILLUSTRATION: They had just had dinner. Politician looks at the journalists. She doesn’t want to open the envelope; in fact, she gets half a mind to tear it up and flush it down the toilet but she remembers rent arrears to the Landlord. She finally puts it in the bag.

The current working conditions of Kenyan journalists present a major impediment to them upholding professional ethics and obligations. Pitiful salaries, some of which are owed for months at a stretch, have seen brown envelope journalism gain traction.

Put simply, brown envelope journalism is a practice where journalists accept money from sources to either write glowingly about them or ‘kill’ a negative story. Joy Doreen Biira, a Kenya-based Ugandan multimedia journalist says the mushrooming of brown envelope journalism owes to a number of issues.

She lists poor pay, a weak union with few members and gender inequality as some of the reasons for the growing vice.

It occurs because journalists are poorly remunerated or are not paid on time,” she says.

Lydia Gachungi is the Regional Expert for Safety of Journalists and Media Development of UNESCO’s Regional Office for Eastern Africa.

She says that UNESCO has tried to fight the vice while partnering with Kenya Media Forum (KMF). “The issue of a brown envelope has been discussed extensively by UNESCO through sensitising journalists, but the several attempts have been futile.”

Article 19 is a non-government organisation that by its own admission “works for a world where all people everywhere can freely express themselves and actively engage in public life without fear of discrimination.

” It states in no uncertain terms that the Kenya Union of Journalists lack the basic capacities and means to design sustainable, progressive programmes of action on behalf of its members.”

This, Article 19 adds, has created an environment where journalists divert from their professional route.

Lydia Gachungi is the Regional Expert for Safety of Journalists and Media Development of UNESCO’s Regional Office for Eastern Africa.

Gachungi explains that despite several interventions into the matter, politicians continue to take advantage of journalists’ poor pay. In Kenya, journalists — especially those in the lower entry positions — are ill motivated.

They receive between USD 198.6 and USD 297.9

Reports show that, a brown envelope can contain more than a few months’ salary for a journalist in Kenya.

Gachungi says it not just the poorly paid foot soldiers that receive brown envelopes. “In Kenya,” she notes, “senior management are paid pretty well, but reports we have indicate that they still receive bribes to kill stories or to promote them.”

August Sanga, the social media editor at a leading Kenyan daily, Daily Nation, has no kind words for the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ). Sanga says KUJ has failed to address problems affecting the media especially low pay.

“One of the areas the union has failed to tackle is the problem of low pay and job security of journalists. This has resulted into them getting other forms of putting bread on the table.”

A 2017/18 Transparency International report on media freedom in Kenya indicates that most journalists working in the country have no job security.

The report grimly adds that the journalists are deprived of any form of social security, health benefits or other forms of social welfare benefits. It also notes that some are owed numerous months of salaries.

Keven Mabonga, the communications officer for Transparency International Kenya

Keven Mabonga, the communications officer for Transparency International Kenya, says brown envelope journalism is a “huge problem” that needs to be tackled decisively.

“It is a very huge problem to the Kenya media,” he says of brown envelope journalism, adding that Transparency International intends to petition government to set the minimum standard pay for journalists.

 Eric Oduor, the General Secretary of KUJ, says attempts to unionise have not been a resounding failure as many claim.

Odour says resistance from government and media owners has proved to be a big impediment for KUJ.

“Most media owners take direct coercion of editorial staff, most stories are killed because those involved are their customers, advertisers,” he says.

Biira, who has practiced journalism in Kenya since 2012, however, says the grim conditions explained in the Transparency International report cut across East Africa. Before joining KTN, Biira worked for Ugandan TV station, NBS. She says that most of the private media houses in Kenya don’t care that much about the working conditions of their employees.

“Journalists negotiate their contracts on individual bases and others do not have any employment contracts, there are no collective agreements leaving the ground for employers to decide as they deemed fit,” she adds.

While it remains to be seen whether brown envelope journalism will be decisively dealt with, its impact is not it doubt.

It has greatly affected Kenyan journalists attempts to hold those in positions of authority accountable.

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