January 19, 2007

Yellow Journalism: African Style

You know when you have really made it when you get trashed in our local equivalent of the National Enquirer. I got two full pages in last week's edition. I just found out today because no one I know really reads that paper (or admits to reading it). Someone finally called one of my colleagues to tell him.

I haven't seen it myself but my name in block letters was in the headline. The story goes into detail about how I swindled my business partner and how he sued me in various places and won. Of course, I have never had a business partner and the person mentioned as my business partner was in fact an employee who did indeed win a labor case under dubious circumstances as described in an earlier post: Do me a favor: Don't do me any favors.

I am torn as to how to react to the article. My business side laughs it off and won’t waste time worrying about it. My human side is distraught not necessarily that I am a victim of this latest attack, but that this is what has become of our struggle for freedom of the press.

Years ago, as a student, I was very active in the struggle for democracy and human rights for Africa. I organized and attended many demonstrations, led letter writing campaigns, and other activities to effect change. For this?

Our newspapers have been filled with sensational stories dragging everyone from business people to political authorities, from singers and to sports stars. There is a common expression in the Country today: “He is a Top 50.” This means that the person is gay. The expression originated from an article in one of our tabloids that listed the Top 50 homosexuals from the Country based on their own personal “analysis.”

This trend is not just bad journalism meant to sell newspapers; it is much more insidious than that. Most of the newspapers that engage in the “decimation” business don’t sell any advertising. It is clear that the revenue from the sales of the paper does not cover the cost of printing, so why would journalists risk jail time (defamation is a criminal offense here) to print stories that completely invented? MONEY, of course.

In my case, the newspaper published a teaser a couple days before they printed the whole article. “Coming Soon.. the underside of [me].” This was meant to attract me to the publisher so that I could offer him a larger sum than what had been offered by the person who brought him the article. Unfortunately for them, I did not bite.

This goes the other way too. A few years ago while I was visiting the country, I made the cover of two newspapers the same day with pictures and information culled from various sources. They were extremely kind to me. One article focused on my personal wealth and stated that I was the richest woman from that Country. I remember one sentence that read that “She does not talk to you unless it is in Billions.” I thought it was very funny at the time (I am very far from being the wealthiest anything). When I got back to the US, a bill for $2,000 was waiting for me from one of the publishers. I also remember my father’s comment when he saw a cover article on me in a US Magazine. “It must have been very expensive!”

You pay for negative stories against your competitors or opponents, pay for positive stories about you or your business, pay to keep your name from being dragged through the mud.

We end up reading the government official newspaper to get information. How sad. Is this what we fought for so hard? What will happen when the next journalist gets arrested for what is really a violation of his rights? Who will stand and fight for him?


Looks like China's journalists are also in the "cash business." This article is in today's Washington Post: Blackmailing By Journalists In China Seen As 'Frequent'. It is all the more serious in China because of the real struggle of real journalists.


  1. I wonder what would happen to journalists there if they DID write truthfully about something hard-hitting, say government corruption and selective enforcement of the laws.

    B, maybe the business to start there is a newspaper. I started one here some years back with a partner, and there's really not much to it. Knowing you, you'd be really good at it. I think you'd also enjoy life a bit more. You probably wouldn't make as much, but it certainly would give the other "news"papers a run for their payoffs.

    There's always a market for plain-spoken truth. Just look at the popularity of Ron Paul's presidential bid in the U.S. despite the media outlets doing everything they can to marginalize and ignore him.

  2. i can see similar patterns in the 'udaku' or yellow press here in Tanzania. A fascinating blog. I work for an international NGO (famous for its work on world poverty). Ten percent kickbacks from suppliers to staff are par for the course, unfortunately.


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