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One of the things I enjoyed about being a journalist, and being around my fellow journalists – is listening to my fellow journalists talk about the list of organisations and government/ministerial departments who offer ‘mshiko’ (you can call this greasing of the hand, bribe or just severance/travel allowance – have your pick!)
As a ‘seasoned’ and ‘hard-working’ journalist that I happened to be (during my time) it was interesting to hear a discussion between two giant media houses in Tanzania on the sitting allowances. It was (in my time) common for host institutions to support reporters by offering buku jero (five thousand Tanzanian shillings), or mwekundu wa Msimbazi (ten thousand Tanzanian shillings) whenever they went to cover a story. Now, some of the institutions which were well endowed would give as much as wekundu wawili wa Msimbazi (twenty thousand Tanzanian shillings)! Did I just say common? Oh, yes! It was the hinge upon which to determine whether your story is going to be made as rosy as a rose in the valley of Sharon or it will be just a curtain raiser. A ‘curtain’ raiser, is when an event that has run for two hours with a number of presentations is only given a paragraph on a hidden section of a newspaper. At least that is what it was during the time I was in the field of journalism. I believe I still am but may be not as active…
Measures to Stop Mshiko
If my memory serves me better, some senior officials and reporters from the two media houses and the rest drew a bold line, or may be just wanted to feed the public with garb with the talk to end the dishing out of the sitting allowances to the reporters whenever they are called to report on an event. In principle, I agreed with them but in reality, I could not disagree more. I could not agree because when I started off as a journalist, I had no money enough to transport me to work, buy lunch, and don’t forget that I always left my home at 0500Hrs to be able to get to work early enough for the post-mortem. This means, I had no means even to have breakfast. Does this ring a bell to anyone out there? In principle I agreed with them as the genre of journalists known as the makanjanja (gutter press personnel but can also refer to those who impersonates to be in one of the mainstream media houses) in Tanzania were on the rise. This was as a result of mshiko but majorly, the high rates of unemployment.
This stance was seen to be the right measure on stopping outside influence on the reporting but also in the same breath stop this trend which in many ways resembles corruption at permissive level! It was also claimed that quite a number of media houses incur great revenue losses due to this trend as reporters act as marketing officers writing articles in favour of the mshiko offering guys. This is unethical and undermining the principles of reporting.
No Mshiko, No Articles
What I found interesting in the whole discussion is the element of stopping the sitting allowances at a time when Tanzanian media houses have not even established proper infrastructure to make the work of the reporters easy. Writing from personal experience, Tanzanian media houses have not been so supportive to their reporters and the reporters in many ways find the sitting allowances helpful. It is the only way they can keep going, it is the only way they can manage meeting with their sources as well as taking care of their personal needs. Take an instance where the reporter is paid say like a take home ranging between 400,000 to 600,000 shillings (some get even lower pay than 400,000) and out of this he or she will do all the rounds on assignments. Need I say that even to be paid that amount (during my time) was like a lucky star shone on one helpless traveller calling him or herself a journalist. I remember when I started, I was being paid Tzs. 150,000 per month. My rent per month was Tzs. 80,000, transport to and from work was Tzs. 40,000 per month. I have not eaten, and bought any supplies for a whole month. The deal was, if a journalist in my standing wrote an article that made it as a lead story or second led story, that will bring Tzs. 10,000 and 7,000 respectively. The deal was even better if one journalist was able to bring a full package comprising of a good article and a photo! All the feature and Opinion sections which paid even better were left for the big and preferred personnel or outsiders in the likes of academics, scientists and doctors who didn’t want the puny coins from the media houses. The scenario presented here is a modern image of what Karl Marx envisaged when he talked about primitive accumulation.
David Harvey, a neo-Marxist summarises it this way, “There were some people that were hard working and some people who were not. Some people who could be bothered, and some people who could not be bothered. And the result of that was that, bit by bit, those who were hard working, and could be bothered, accumulated some wealth. And eventually, those who could not be bothered, could not accumulate wealth, and in the end, in order to survive, preferred, actually, to give up their labour power as a commodity, in return for a living wage.” The paradox in this excellent summary, when I take it personally, I did not get rich. All I got was a lot of messy situations.
The mind boggling question, which none of the editors and senior journalists asked is; how the hell does such a person survive? How does such a journalist support a family, educate children (for those who have children), and drink to forget the huddles of the already spent day and help a relative upcountry?
Most of the serious and ‘never-give-up’ type of journalists finds that they use (at that time) more than 5,000 shillings a day on bus fare and communication. The media houses give their reporters neither communication nor transport allowances in many instances. This leaves the reporters in a state of need and by no means can and or should refuse the favour from the hosts. I hope all this has changed as I want to go back to my field and I will not go back until I am assured that the conditions in the media houses back home has changed or that mshiko has not been stopped.
Media Houses and Mshiko System
The sitting allowance issue has in great proportion been encouraged by the media house owners who have for so many years to date not seen the importance of creating a friendly work environment for their employees who I always saw as the ‘infantry.’
It is very easy for an editor to call on a stop on all the sitting allowances because they are well paid and have transport whenever they want. However, the poor reporters, even when they have a permanent employment in a certain media house; still haggles to meet the deadline as well as feed themselves even before mid month as the salary goes into expenses, which should have been covered by the respective media house. The latter kills professionalism in the media, and morale of the well-meaning reporters.
Media Houses Killing Talents
Such ‘alien’ principles have in many ways contributed to the dangerous compromises among the major contributors in the media houses – the reporters. It does not just hinder competency but also gives very little time — if any, to the individual reporters to even think of taking their career further by acquiring modern principles in reporting as all that they spend time thinking of is how to get money for subsistence.
I know that many editors will not agree with what I am saying but the fact is reporters are victims of circumstances. They are the ‘black-sheep’ in the newsrooms and yet the main contributors to what people read on the dailies each day. I do not deny the fact that the sitting allowances causes a lot of compromises among the pliable and unstable reporters but I would and will not advocate for the end of Mshiko and organisations covering the costs of the a particular reporter for coverage until the media houses improve the working conditions otherwise we will not have news! Otherwise, there will be no news.
Media houses in Tanzania need to create and implement an enabling environment for their reporters. Reporters should not be beggars and people to be pitied as far as payments are concerned. They are the ones doing the lion’s share of the job seeing the paper in the market so why can’t they also have an accepted treatment?