Of gut­ter jour­nal­ism and out­right lies

Lesotho Times - - Scrutator -

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

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