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Being a Journalist in Tanzania and the Information Officer’s ‘Superior’ Attitudes: A Reflection

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There is never a job that can easily pass for the description of being easy in this world. It goes without saying that there is no need for human beings to sweat their way throughout life if there were no huddles placed in the way. Life would be more of a paradise with no appreciation!

Having been a member of the ‘nosy – peoples’ club I and the members of this seeming ‘undignified’ community – as the majority would call us; thought that the existence of the communication officer at different department run by the government would make easier the job of a journalist. However this assumption is far from being closer to any truth.

I am not sure hoe journalism in Tanzania is fairing. But what I remember is that a journalists’ work is seasoned with walking long hours in the sun, rain and windy spells looking for information from the private sector, community members and most of the time – for daily news, the government departments.

Masters of ‘Merry-Go-Round’

In the government departments and ministries, journalist’s encounter the ‘elevated officials’ a.k.a. information officers. Thought of by many to be helpful but in reality most of the information officers are not. Information officers, especially within the government departments and the private/business sectors (during my time as a journalist) were masters of merry-go-round and information hiding. One thing that characterised a journo’s day in the said departments is to be directed from one ministerial department to another if not, from one side of the city centre to another on grounds of being “sent to a department, which will avail the most needed information.”

The funniest thing of all is that the same journalist ends up at the first place where their fellow pen-wo/men sent them to a futile and unproductive trip. This unnecessary tour is not all that they do but they also had a way they handle the reporters and this is by using belittling words on them. Words which suggest that they know more while the reporter standing in his/her office knows very little, which in a number of occasions introduce ‘tangy’ working relations between the information officer  and the media house officer who gathers information for public consumption.

I recall a day when I was taken aback as I visited the information unit at The Ministry of Lands, Housing and Human Settlements Development. I was accorded the run of my life from one office to the other. The worst of all is that some of the offices I was directed to were not in the same building. For those of us who have lived in Dar es Salaam, we know what this means. One striking thing is that the information officer there started telling me about his time in German and how I should conduct myself when asking him for information “because [he] has power to give or deny me information!!!” After all the run, I obviously went back to him sweaty and tired.

One most amazing thing is that the same people who sit in those cosy seats (at least in my time as a journo on the road) chatting their way on the computer to an extent of not even paying attention to the reporters, were once in the field. Amazing how easy and fast humankind forgets!

There is an old saying that says, “the poor man’s soles end on the road” and this can as well be said about the Tanzanian reporters whose daily work includes rounding the city centre and the outskirts of the Dar Es Salaam city looking for information, unless they go to Habari Maelezo (the information bureau) for press conference or to collect the press circulars to have something for their editors and keep ‘a dry morsel on the table.’ One of the most interesting ending of this is that with such a ‘merry-go-round’ most journalists end up not submitting an article on time. You know what that means with regards to the individual journalist’s daily provisions…

Female vs Male Information Officers

In the government departments, and in my experience, most of the male information officers were the worst compared to the female information personnel. For an investigative reporter that I was, and working on sensitive issues, I was made to think that the situation was created by the nature of issues handled that I enquired about or may be the sensitive nature of issues handled by the related ministry or government authorities. This in my view, then and now, would only make the roles of the information officers that of a doorkeeper. Most of the time, the people we teamed up with would give up. One would only succeed when you have a way with them, either by promising to not tell the whole truth or agree to write exactly what they tell you. The latter and the former is completely the same.

I remember one to my fellow journalist complain by saying that, “The majority of the male information officers are the worst. They are always defensive non cooperative and arrogant but surprisingly the female information personnel show and will give a reporter all the assistance he or she needs,” said one reporter.

Arrogant Gate Keepers

Viewed as a stopping strategy by the government to keep the reporters at bay, the information units I believe were meant to alleviate the troubles faced by the ‘nosy’ camp members. Above all the information units should not only make the work of journalists easier but also be a way to sensitize and or educate the citizenry about things the government is doing.

Unless things have changed in my Mama land, yes, in Tanzania – Africa’s ‘harbour of peace’, the information units within the government needs to be revisited. As the government has always been vocal about freedom of speech, which has been tarnished by a number of scathing treatments on journalists, the government must employ the ‘do-as-you-say’ principle and make available all the information that is required to educate the citizenry in a democratic and transparent way.

As the world discusses development and as Tanzanians look for development, there must be a measure of transparency on issues related to information dissemination. A strong, democratic and well informed Tanzanian society cannot be built through this attitude that has for a long time invaded the information units within the government corridors.  Whether an information officer at a government office/department has been supported by the same government to study abroad or not, journalists have principles upon which they operate.

Furthermore, a reporter does not need to know whether the officer has a thousand degrees in the field, all that he cares about is the relationship between the two parties for a smooth business transaction. Further the reporter is as much dignified as the information officer who treats him or her as a ‘good-for nothing’ fellow. It is high time, the information units stop being the government’s ‘macho-men’ by mistreating their partners in information industry.

As I close this reflection, I would also be naïve not to mention the fact that most people in the information sector – mainstream media in Tanzania and perhaps in a number of countries elsewhere in the world are not there because they really wanted to be journalists. Whatever the circumstances that led me other journalists (those with whom I worked), it is still a wonder that the once fellows whose shoe soles ended on the road, as mine did, have now confirmed the line, “Our fellows, Our foes”.

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This entry was posted on April 11, 2014 by in Integrity & Accountability.

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