No, manipulating public opinion should not define our trade

The media has been wallowing in hot water in the last fortnight or so and many in the fraternity do not even know how to swim- cold water notwithstanding.

But allegations of corruption was not the monopoly of the media, some of the most important government institutions were the subject of the Ombudsman’s annual report, singling out the police, judiciary and the Rwanda Revenue Authority as the worst culprits.

This did not go down well with the mentioned parties, especially the judiciary, who came out with all guns blazing in defence of their offices.

They went for the jugular by unleashing a media blitz, highlighting recent successes in curbing the vice.

The action had some positive sides (damage control), but it failed in one aspect – communication. One of the cardinal rules to avoid is information overflow, especially when it’s done in an uncoordinated manner.

You drown out the most essential part of the message, especially when your back is against the wall. Sometimes the choice of action is driven by impatient spin doctors, but in most cases, the major culprit is nothing other than emotional attachment to a subject.

Information on the positive things accomplished by the judiciary should not have been triggered by the Ombudsman’s report, but should have been made public earlier. This helps avert suspicions that the action is a desperate attempt to pick up the pieces.

Now back to the media:

When news broke out that a couple of journalists had been nabbed extorting a bribe in a police sting operation, dust rose in many a newsroom — in most part driven by emotions.

But Contact FM — one of the most popular and reputable radio stations —went overboard, I believe for no convincing reasons.

But it even went further by airing a series of stinging editorials that were not kind at all to The New Times and Radio Rwanda, an actionwhich, in my opinion, was not the epitome of professionalism.

It instead accused The New Times of unprofessionalism because: one, we reported the story using only one source-the police, which in this case was its spokesman, Chief Superintendent John Uwamungu.

This argument does not hold water because the news was already in the public domain and Uwamungu’s role is to give information, and use it we did. By the way, we tried to get access to the suspects after their arrest but were unsuccessful.

The second very glaring reasons  for the disproportional airwave attack was because we mentioned that one of the accused, Frank Kalisa alias “K”, a popular radio host, was an employee of Contact FM.

There again I am left clueless as to whether mentioning where a person works is a sin, especially when the information is contained in the communication from the police.

One thing that should come out loud and clear to whoever thinks otherwise; The New Times tries to work within the strictest confines of journalistic ethics.

Even though we were to lift our guard and something slipped through, it would be human error and no Machiavellic intentions behind it.

Journalistic ethics dictate that you give the other side of the story, especially when both sides do not see things the same way.

It is in that vein that when the Director of Contact FM, who also happens to be the president of the Press House, Albert Rudatsimburwa, requested to put his opinion of the saga in our paper, we were more than happy to oblige.

But honestly, while I totally agree with my friend Albert that our priority as journalists is to minimise harm, I was equally disappointed by his stance, which will definitely be a subject of discussion when we next meet.

In his commentary “Niyonambaza blackmail saga: Did we get the whole picture?”(The New Times of Thursday July 16, 2009), the boss of Contact FM asked whether we were trying to “push for a guilty verdict in the trial” or an attempt “to influence the outcome of a trial”.

He goes on to give his version of what he heard in court, questions the police operation and literally tears the prosecution case to pieces.

Won’t you call that “trying to influence the outcome of a trial” an action which the author calls “unethical” and “immoral”? Legally it’s referred to as contempt of court, and it is a serious matter.

One thing that became clear out of all this is that my friend was very emotional and very protective of his firm and employee- the protective part I concede and applaud. Even I would not take it down well if I lost a star reporter and tarnished my name.

But as I said earlier, our actions should not be dictated by personal emotions.

“This case also highlights the public’s misconception of what really constitutes corruption. If we are to fight it, we have to first define it and understand it,” he writes.

If allegedly soliciting money in a bid not to tarnish the image of someone using the media is not corruption, then corruption is a myth.

This embarrassing chapter in our profession should be an opportunity to go back on the drawing board and reinvent ourselves.

If we start using the airwaves and papers to manipulate public opinion, it will be our one way ticket to dooms land.

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