Of gutter journalism and outright lies
THE Right Honourable Tšeliso Mokhosi was an angry man this week. So was his counterpart Khotso Letsatsi. And for all the good reasons. They encountered what can at best be described as gutter journalism, descending straight into the raw sewer pond. Ntate Mokhosi is the Minister of Defence while Ntate Letsatsi holds fort at the Communications portfolio. Before I proceed to write in defence of these two gentlemen’s seething anger, let me say a few introductory remarks about the field of journalism.
I often don’t want to criticise the media and other fellow journalists. Not least out of professional fraternity or sorority but because our struggles are often the same even though our professional motives and agendas might differ vastly. The excesses of the media in Lesotho, however, leave me with no option but to lambast my colleagues at times.
For instance English is supposed to be our main official medium of communication. But some of my peers sometimes show a complete disregard for the Queen’s language. Not only do they murder or mutilate the Queen’s language, they do so with gay abandon. They write it like they are attempting to reinvent the language. Just consider this unpublished example from one journalist who was reporting a story about rape.
Instead of simply stating that the rape occurred “when the man penetrated the woman without her consent,” the concerned journalist wrote, “the man committed the rape case when he dropped his longing penis into the woman’s vagina without her authorisation”. Such wobbly writing is commonplace in Lesotho.
Journalists from one newspaper in particular are renowned for their penchant of murdering the Queen’s language. I have often wondered why they do so with such abandon. Maybe it’s because their newspaper is distributed for free and they simply don’t bother since readers are not expected to pay a penny for their publication.
Journalism is an exciting albeit low paying job which may nonetheless prove daunting. The most daunting task for any journalist, particularly those in print publications, is to deliver good material timeously within printing deadlines.
A lot happens behind the scenes before a newspaper finally lands in the hands of a reader. Most readers don’t appreciate this complex value chain which begins with the reporter getting the story, to the editing process, followed by the production process which involves sub editing, page design and layout using the appropriate software to the actual printing before final distribution. Each level requires a lot of work and is handled by different sets of people.
Mistakes can indeed happen at every level resulting in a poor final product. Wrong pictures and captions can be used and spelling mistakes are common place. Most mistakes are tolerable and can be explained by the newspaper in correction columns, accompanied by the necessary apologies.
This is not to say mistakes are tolerable. No. Every self-respecting newspaper makes concerted efforts to avoid mistakes. But sometimes they are just unavoidable. What is unacceptable of course is to manu- facture lies and present them as facts
Most efforts to avoid errors are thus concentrated at the core or beginning of the production process which goes to the very heart or essence of journalism. That process begins with the reporter who brings the news and who, with the assistance of his editors, must ensure that the story produced meets all the basic tenets of journalism, which are accuracy, fairness and balance.
Accuracy is a non-negotiable tenet of journalism. Journalism is guided by the old adage that “Comment is free but facts are sacrosanct”. A journalist or reporter must never allow their whims and caprices to get in the way of reporting facts. Above all, a journalist must never manufacture facts. Facts are facts and they are sacrosanct but comment is free. Such commentary is made on established facts. This explains why Bontate Mokhosi and Letsatsi were rightly enraged at the reckless manufacture of facts by one reckless local journalist.
As an example, it is a known fact that Maaparankoe Mahao was killed by the Lesotho Defence Force. The manner of the killing is nevertheless contested with the LDF providing their own version of events and the Mahao family and other sympathizers providing their own accounts.
The duty of any journalist in a hard news story is to report on the fact of Mahao’s death and the various versions put forward by the various parties without colouring the story with the reporter’s own emotions.
In a comment or opinion piece, the journalist is free to comment on whichever version they believe and to proffer any opinion. Every newspaper is free to run a comment column in which it expresses its opinion on any subject.
No one ever wants to take responsibility for the bad they do. If a criminal goes to commit a crime, they never hope to get seen and caught.
If a politician steals from the public purse, they, by all means, want to hide their loot. It is therefore the duty of one branch of journalism, called investigative journalism, to dig deeper and establish the facts to expose such malcontents. Some facts are publicly known and easily volunteered. For instance, if the Prime Minister appoints a minister to any cabinet portfolio, then it becomes a fact that the person appointed has indeed become a cabinet minister and a news story must record that fact.
However if reference is made to the person appointed as being a moron, that is no longer fact but opinion of the reporter who believes that the person appointed is indeed a moron.
Again as an example, a proper ethical hard news story should simply read: “Prime Minister Sekatso Simakalenge has appointed prominent business executive Chiapiopio Bhiriadi as the new Minister of Finance……..etc, etc.
A proper ethical hard news story should never be written as follows “Prime Minister Sekatso Simakalenge has appointed that proven moron and idiot of a person called Chiapiopio Bhiriadhi as our new Minister of Finance.
This all means that all our nation’s finances are now in serious jeopardy and buckets of money will now be stolen……etc”. The latter example represents gutter journalism.
As stated above, facts are sacrosanct while comment is free. In news pages, it is the duty of every journalist to present facts.
If indeed any journalist believes that Ntate Bhiriadhi is a moron who should never have been appointed Minister, they are free to say so in an opinion or comment piece.
Still an opinion piece is not a free passage for defamation and reckless slander. All opinions must still be based on facts and be expressed in good faith.
Because of the very nature of any society’s ordering, there are always plenty of facts to provide commentary on. Which explains why every newspaper has a comment section and there is never a shortage of analysts or general readers wanting to comment or provide an opinion on something.
Indeed, the events in Lesotho over the past few months have provided plenty of cannon fodder for commentary. I have commented on Mahao’s death and provided my opinion on that controversial topic. If you want to criticise Ntate Kamoli, the LDF commander, and his boss Ntate Mokhosi, then you won’t run out of material facts to use for your critical opinions.
Which is why I cannot understand why any journalist would go out of their way to manufacture a story with serious implications to national affairs.
In its edition of last week, a new entrant into Lesotho’s media scene thundered that the LDF had through its lawyer Advocate Salemane Phafane announced that it would no longer cooperate with the SADC Commission of Inquiry into the Lesotho’s instability.
“Army Walks Out…” read the new entrant’s headline with the front page resplendent with quite a handsome image of King Kamoli as well as the second page. Upon reading this story, I exploded with anger.
Firstly I admonished myself for having missed such an important story as I have been spending all my time at the State Library. “Did Phafane say this during the brief moment I had gone to answer the call of nature?’’.
I asked myself. Still I did not remember having seen Phafane at all during the entire period of proceedings referred to on that day.
But assuming this was true, then it means King Kamoli had staged another coup, I said to myself. I then started writing a scathing column against him before it emerged
It’s one thing to get facts wrong, or to even write a misleading column based on one’s own prejudices. However, it is completely another to fabricate facts in a hard news story. This is totally unacceptable and I am inclined to agree with Bontate Mokhosi and Letsatsi that this kind of journalism is simply unacceptable. It is also one thing to say the LDF is not cooperating with the Inquiry because it is providing long winded evasive answers and totally another to claim that the LDF has now decided to boycott the commission.
What did Ntate Caswell Tlali have in mind before fabricating this story? Did he have any idea of its consequences? Didn’t it occur to him that what he was in fact suggesting was that Ntate Kamoli was now toppling the entire SADC as an authentic regional body?
Did he think of the consequences of the story? To say Advocate Phafane made this bold declaration before the commission when the good lawyer was in fact in Bloemfontein at the time he is said to have been before the commission is criminal.
This is a textbook example of a story that not only violated the basic tenets of journalism, it is a textbook example of what not to do in journalism. It shames the entire profession.
It’s not surprising that the writer and his newspaper decided to absent themselves from the press conference convened by Ntate Mokhosi to respond to their fabrication. They could probably not bear the shame.
Alternatively, they feared to be gunned down on the spot by the feared King Kamoli.
Instead, the management of the newspaper in question decided to send an “apology and withdrawal of story” which Ntate Mokhosi seemed happy to copy and distribute to the assembled journalists.
What Ntate Mokhosi did not realise is that the statement of apology still lifted the middle finger at him by addressing him as “Dear Honorable Minister Mokhosi”.
At first Scrutator thought this was an honest error as management meant to say Honourable. But I later discovered that “Honorable” is in fact a dialect of one language in Cambodia which means witch or a gangster who uses witchcraft to short-change his victims.
But to their huge credit, the management said they had since taken undisclosed strong measures against Caswell Tlali. Maybe the man was indeed tired and dreamt Phafane at the commission informing it that the LDF had launched a total boycott.
He then woke up and fired the fabrication to his superiors. Whatever the case, his work has shamed the profession and for a change, the politicians are right to protest.
But to the entire credit and good of everyone, the management has humbly conceded and the politicians seem to have accepted. It’s always great when everyone eats humble pie.
Defence Minister Tšeliso Mokhosi
communications Minister Khotso Letsatsi