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Media’s Hamlet moment: to know or not to know

Martin Aliker’s article titled “In the world of newspapers, heads you lose, tails you lose,” [Daily Monitor, October 19, 2017] was such an insightful rendering of the challenges of the media industry wrestling with political correctness under a pseudo democracy. 

As former chairman of Monitor Publications, through hilarious, but equally somber anecdotes, Aliker allowed us a little entry into the media’s tragedian world of reporting evil while living under evil: the teller of the news becomes the criminal, not the actor of the news being reported.  

Because the audience voraciously (and forcefully with their wallets) demands to know as much as possibly could, journalists struggle to find the minutest details of any story.

But how much should they tell without hurting and thus attracting the wrath of the very powerful newsmaker, but also to the satisfaction of their audience?

This is a classic Hamlet moment: to know and not to know; to tell and not to tell.  Knowing and telling makes a media house, but this very truth – of not keeping quiet – can potentially bring down a media house.

As majority of the news-reading audience and watchers crave for more and finer details of particular stories, especially relating to the crimes of the powerful, my contention is that they should chasten themselves with the little they have been enabled to access.

If newspapers knew the deeper truths of the crimes of the powerful and reported them verbatim, there would be no media at all.

A story is told of a powerful soldier who threatened to drop a bomb on one media house if they went ahead with printing one incriminating thoroughly researched story. (And from history, this fella was not known for empty threats).

The cliché that “politics is a dirty game” does not, even an inch, capture the reality of most politics in Africa: it is just bloody.

Over the years, politics has become an exclusive sport for the ruthless and remorseless flesh-eaters, who ironically are charged with deciding the lives of many simple mortals. We have politicians who are actually legally sanctioned criminals.

Talk of massive theft of money counted in kilograms, and not notes or land grabbers dealing in square miles of lands with thousands of victims in their wake.

Talk of owners of several prime properties under innumerable front-men and women; bloody murders, and terrible conspiracies. All these crimes are often committed in utmost secrecy.

The victims of these crimes (plus media consumers, MPs, and sometimes, police) crave to know the identities and workings of the oppressors, and possibly bring them to justice. This uphill task has been placed on the fragile investigative shoulders of the fourth estate.

These are all life-and-death situations. As Aliker showed us, these are stories upon which the powerful not only closed down newspapers, but also sought to sack individuals who had dug the skeletons from their closets.

In other places, journos are summarily executed. My contention is this: as readers, we should sympathize with media’s obvious self-censorship or failure to bring these finer details to light.

It is under these circumstances that one is persuaded to appreciate the wisdom behind the mantra, ‘ignorance is bliss’.

Or half a loaf is better than no bread. Better with a journalist who knows five per cent of any of these stories, and can comfortably report it. It is highly likely that if the reporter knew 80 per cent of any of these stories, readers would not even have the five per cent.

There is another explanation for this: the commonest way any reporter could know 80 per cent details of crimes of senior officials is not through meticulous investigative journalism, but access granted by the criminals themselves.

Voluntarily inviting you into their secret crimes is a gesture of friendship, of trust and confidence.  It is such a double-edged invitation. The perpetrator would be either seeking the journalist’s pity or asking the journalist to join them and, by extension, defend/protect them.

To turn around and expose a man/woman who generously allowed you into their dirty inner world would be the highest betrayal.

Such an action sets the premium really high. The journalist then has two options: silence or defense of the oppressor.

This dilemma partly explains why some of our finest investigative journalists (I often forget their names), became friends/spokespersons of the former targets of their journalism. Of course in addition to their greed and other factors!

The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd