Surviving on Brown Envelopes: Tanzania’s ‘Volunteer’ Radio Journalists in Limbo

The Sheriff

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Oct 10, 2019
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Dar es Salaam. Salma Mashallah is a journalist based in Dodoma, the centermost city and the administrative capital of Tanzania, about 451 km from Dar es Salaam, the country’s commercial capital. Her day starts at 7:00 AM with an editorial meeting, where daily tasks are distributed.

Like her colleagues, she handles multiple tasks: collecting, preparing and presenting news. She has eight programmes a week, all of which she produces and hosts. Juggling roles is commonplace in most impoverished stations in Tanzania as a way to cut costs by avoiding hiring more people.

Radio is by far the most popular media across this East African country where 45 per cent of the population uses radio as a daily news source. Four out of five Tanzanians use radio monthly to get the latest information, and stations that air their programmes in Kiswahili attract the highest listenership, according to the 2017 Afrobarometer survey.

Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) says the broadcasting industry has grown from a sole broadcasting station in 1977 to more than 210 stations in 2021. From 2015 to 2021, 99 radio stations were registered with the authority.

However, despite such impressive growth in the number of radio stations, the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) 2016 State of Media Report suggests that radio in Tanzania continues to face a number of challenges.

Working without formal contracts

Mashallah has worked with Nyemo FM for five years without a formal contract. She is not alone; most of her colleagues are equally considered to be ‘volunteers’ despite having worked at the same station for as long as she or even longer.

“This disheartens me,” she says, citing difficulties she faces due to a lack of constant and reliable income. “But I do it to serve people with accurate information.”

The mother of one has worked with eight radio stations ― privately owned as well as affiliated with government institutions ― in different parts of Mainland and Zanzibar.

However, she has never in her life seen a work contract, and a salary slip remains an alien term to her since she started practising journalism nearly ten years ago. She now makes money elsewhere so that she doesn’t starve her dependants due to the unfavourable economic conditions of her station.

After earning her diploma in journalism and being equipped with the skills she expected would support her to achieve her dreams, Mashallah has worked hard hoping to serve the profession well and earn a living. But the future is murky.

“When I was in college, I constantly dreamt of becoming a successful journalist,” she says. “I was inspired by the big-name media personalities that delivered the news to us and entertained our households. Now I understand that it is a world completely different from what I saw in my dreams.”

Most inland radio stations in Tanzania are not generating enough profit, some are not generating any profit at all. Their survival depends on the volunteer workers, most of whom are severely underpaid, if at all. Many of Mashallah’s colleagues call the station kijiwe, a Swahili word for a place where people wait for any daywork that comes their way.

“You can’t make money if you don’t have at least a ‘base,’” says Bilson Vedastus of Nyemo FM, who himself juggles the posts of editor-in-chief, producer, host and reporter. “Most journalists I know in this town just get by with brown envelopes.”

Due to staff shortage, Vedastus is responsible for hosting about 20 programmes a week while overseeing others. He does all these without financial support from his office.

For two years the station has failed to renew its contract with him and thus he is currently working as a volunteer, which he admits to being the reason why journalists can’t turn down a ‘gift.’

“It’s not easy to refuse money when you are starved and uncertain of when you will be compensated for the hard work you put in,” he adds. “It is for this reason that I have not witnessed a single journalist in this city who refuses a ‘gift’ to support himself and his family. Journalists are beings with personal needs and must do something to provide for their loved ones.”

Politicians giving fat cheques to journalists

He says that one group of people is best known for giving fat cheques to journalists upon coverage: politicians. Determined to win the hearts of the electorate, politicians have discovered a convenient way to push their agenda and keep their names shiny.

Political invitations are the most coveted by journalists who earn little from their media houses.

“The election campaign period,” says Bilson Vedastus, “is a time of ‘harvest’ for many journalists as politicians are willing to spend a lot of money on financially disadvantaged journalists to cleanse their stained images when seeking re-election or to create popularity for neophytes.”

Not only politicians benefit from the poor economic conditions that journalists face. Corporate influence is another beast that bites the media hard.

Although brown envelope journalism violates press freedom and independence as the duties of journalists to the public are compromised and manipulated to serve the interests of others.

In Tanzania, brown envelope journalism appears in multiple reports where, in some cases, some journalists have stories woven for them by public relations practitioners.

Stella Chose, a journalist with four years of experience garnered from working with two radio stations says the problem, now deep-rooted, has welcomed sensationalism and misinformation in most reportage which acts in favour of those who pay for coverage of their stories.

“Where I previously worked, we often aired stories that were prepared by institutions that invited us to their events and we often used them because they paid us,” she says. “Doing what they wanted meant assurance to be considered for the next ‘deal.’”

Nyemo FM is one of many local stations in the country that operates with limited resources. It doesn’t get sponsored commercials, something the head of the station, Hezron Mwandambo, explains to be a result of the lack of a desirable coverage.

“It has been difficult securing business with big advertisers,” Mwandambo says. “They decline any business with us, saying we are ridiculously small for them. They mostly work with Dar-based stations and those with nationwide coverage. They’re right; we cannot stand a chance in this battle.”

The difficulty of securing big commercials that attract big bucks makes the station dependent on small, almost unpaid ads ― which are also just a handful. But, with any luck, finding larger advertisers whose bids are made through their agencies is yet another hurdle to cross.

“You can approach an advertising agent who agrees to offer business but demands a huge chunk of the profits you make from the ad,” he adds. “If you encounter a greedier one, he may demand that you give him 50 or more per cent of the revenue.”

Mwandambo says the situation obstructs the ability to pay their staff due to piles of payments the station has to clear: utility bills, rent, and technical maintenance costs of studio equipment to enable the station to stay afloat plus various taxes levied by government authorities whose failure to pay means risking a penalty or revocation of their operating license.

“It’s due to financial constraints that we fail to enter contracts with journalists as we don’t wish to get caught up in the hands of the law upon failure to pay them,” he says.

Limited financial inflows

Various radio managers interviewed in the MCT report pointed out that the decline in funds from commercials had resulted in limited financial inflows into the stations, affecting their ability to expand or improve their information collection capacity and work performance.

Mwandambo sees the media industry as dwindling as journalists can no longer decide to produce impactful stories but focus more on the kinds that provide them with instant income despite being aware that they violate the principles, guidelines and laws of the profession.

He admits that most reporting is now event-based. According to him, digging into the problems plaguing society does not matter anymore. He says: “Some journalists come to me requesting possession of an employee or volunteer IDs so that they can pose as Nyemo FM staff and attend events that will offer them money.”

Temigunga Mahondo is a media trainer with an international non-profit organization dedicated to assisting stations to achieve financial sustainability through training, mentoring and forums aimed at promoting the use of resources available in local areas.

He says that most radio stations rely completely on journalists willing to work on a non-contractual basis, most of whom end up surviving on brown envelopes and scant allowances.

According to Mahondo, there are many more stories of similar predicaments. He sees this trend to be killing independent journalism and tarnishing professionalism.

He says: “I train eight local radio stations in four regions, including Dodoma, the capital. I have witnessed the rate at which independent journalism diminishes. Wherever you go it’s the same cry ― unpaid or underpaid staff.”

Having charted the same waters, Mahondo, who once managed a radio station, says most journalists he knows have willingly accepted to become expendables for politicians and corporate bodies.

“It is a normal occurrence to see journalists in newsrooms scuffling over an opportunity to attend political and corporate events where brown envelopes are expected in the end,” he explains.

Government responses

In 2019, TCRA issued a four-month ultimatum to radio stations in the Lake Region to rectify various existing shortcomings including staff being “employed” without employment contracts.

Later in 2020, then Chief Government Spokesperson, Dr Hassan Abbas spoke of the importance of workers in the media having work contracts in order to create an environment of safety and fairness in the workplace.

Dr Abbas made the statement after being briefed by members of the Union of Tanzania Press Clubs (UTPC) General Assembly on the state of affairs of some media outlets.

The remarks have been echoed by other government officials including then Minister of Information, Innocent Bashungwa, who said in 2021 during a meeting with media professionals that he would work with the Ministry of Labour to ensure journalists get contracts.

Part of a bigger problem

The issue of meagre wages in Tanzania exists in many sectors but is becoming more mature in journalism.

During the celebration of World Labour Day 2021, TUCTA, a national umbrella organisation of 13 trade unions, said it had researched and determined a monthly wage rate that would be enough for workers to make a living given the current cost of living is Sh970,000 ($418).

A 2014 TUCTA study found that Sh720,000 ($ 310) at that time would enable the employee to manage life. Despite not reaching that level so far, the cost of living has continued rising and hurting people of all sectors and making workers and families live below the poverty line.

The Tanzania Constitution clearly states that every citizen has the right to a fair wage. Article 23 (1) of the Constitution states that “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”

Hamis Mpinga is an Arusha-based journalist who thinks that for journalism to thrive in Tanzania, the media fraternity must ensure that media personnel are properly remunerated.

He urges authorities to do more to enforce their licensing requirements rather than giving lip service to the issue, worried that allowing this to continue shows a willingness to do even more harm to the industry.

“The dignity of journalists must be a priority if we consider journalism a crucial pillar in any democratic country,” he says. “Free and independent journalism contributes to the development of a country.”

Source: The Chanzo Initiative
 

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