What happens when journalists are caught between patronage and politics?

 20 Jul 2016 - 1:32

By Thembisa Fakude


There was a moment when journalists were regarded as a “pack of hunting wolves”. This implied that journalists were driven by similar interests and were uncompromising in reporting the truth.
       Journalism has for the better part of its modern professional existence been biased in favour of Europe. It was not surprising for newspapers to report on the “civilised world” and the “dark continent full of savages” for an example in the early days of journalism. The European journalism had a single view of the world. The entrance of journalists from other parts of the world altered the editorial outlook and the coverage of the world.
       The socialisation and politicisation of the new entrants in the journalism fraternity introduced different worldviews, opinions and perspectives. The tales of the hunting were no longer told only by the hunter but by the hunted as well, to paraphrase a famous African proverb.
     The new status quo introduced dynamism in the newsrooms and helped bring a new perspective to the world. It also meant that the justifications of the wrongs and costly political projects got exposed, political carte blanche by the European states were suddenly curtailed.
Journalism is entering yet another different stage, world journalism is fragmenting. Journalists are divided between politics and patronage, competing truths now make up the news.
This has led into the branding of news institutions each promoting a certain brand of truth. The once sacrosanct and essential profession to democracy is rapidly succumbing to politics and patronage. This was demonstrated over the weekend by most media organisation in their coverage of the failed coup in Turkey.
It is difficult to sum up in an article why most media institutions and political commentators, particularly European based institutions, covered the events in Turkey in the manner they did. Suffice to say that there was a clear compromise on objectivity.
Most were overwhelmed by their disdain and loathing of the ruling AK Party and President Racep Tayyip Erdogan. Hours before the failed coup tragic events unfolded in Nice, France. Scores of people were killed, injured and terrorized by a truck driver Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel a known petty criminal in living in France from Tunisia.
The report of this story followed a normal process of newsgathering which interrogates what happened, who did it and why it happened? The first two steps of the process are easy to gather and if not sure most media institutions quote news agencies. Where things get complicated and polarized views emerge for most journalists is in trying to answer why events occurred?
At this stage the investigations concentrate on various aspects, in the case of a terror attack for an example the background of the perpetrator is a great starting point. Journalists seldom investigate the background of victims of a terror attack, it the perpetrator who is of primary interest in the earlier stages of the story. Indeed it was the case in the events that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Ataturk international Airport in Istanbul airport and in Nice, France.
The coverage of the failed coup in Turkey deviated from the normal newsgathering practice. Surprisingly the first step of the investigation concentrated on the “dictatorial government of the AK Party”, the background and the significance of the perpetrators was relegated. Secondly the translated statement of the coup plotters, purporting that they were attempting to reinstall a democratic rule in Turkey, became a talking point for most journalists.
The coverage and commentary without question jumped on the bandwagon of criticizing President Erdogan’s policies whilst overlooking the destructive nature of the coup.
Even the clear display of unity by the people of Turkey across the political and religious spectrum was reported with skepticism. Journalists and commentators alike instead choose to question and report on the longevity and sustainability of the current political unity.
Furthermore what was surprising was the insistence of the labeling of thousands of Turkish citizens who are rallying in Ankara and Istanbul as “Islamists”. The categorization has a negative connotation and has been used by the media interchangeably to suggest and link the ousted government of President Muhammad Morsi of Egypt to that of president Racep Tayyip Erdogan.
The story has since developed into some sort of a witch-hunt particularly after the government instituted the arrests of hundreds of suspected coup plotters.
What is clear is that Turkey is not only fatigued of military coups, Turkish polity, politicians and the government cherish democracy. Journalists should be part of that process. Any democracy with whatever imperfections is in the interest of journalism not coups.
Secondly journalists should always remain above politics. Importantly, notwithstanding the difficulties, journalists should at all time attempt to maintain balance and objectivity in news coverage. It became clear at some stage during the coverage of the failed coup in Turkey that the divide in journalism has reached very polarised and dangerous levels. The world is rapidly transforming it will therefore be naïve to think that journalism will be immune from this transformation.
The social media, socialisation and politicisation of journalists including media patronage and the juniorisation of the newsrooms are proving to be a challenge for modern journalism.
Amidst all of these challenges, unbiased professional journalism is still essential. Journalists should resist the demands of patronage and politics. Continual introspection of journalism practices and provision of feedbacks towards the improvement of journalism is very crucial.

The writer is a Researcher at Directorate Studies Centre, Aljazeera Network