It is perfectly normal in media work for journalists and other practitioners to move from one “house” to another, a phenomenon obtaining across the globe.
During my brief stint at The Guardian, I personally came to know IPP Executive Chairman Reginald Mengi for his dogged stance against corruption. In fact, I still have memories of the several occasions when he would call to congratulate me on opinion pieces I had found time to write in the paper on corruption in official circles
I clearly remember when, as Media Association of Tanzania (MOAT) Chairman, he lashed out at journalists he said were fond of reporting on allegedly corrupt people without being as bold but level-headed as they were fair and objective as demanded by codes of media conduct and practice.
Dr Mengi said he was opposed to the habit by some journalists of generalising and sugar-coating issues when reporting on corruption in society in general and in officialdom in particular, saying they should neither mince their words nor venture into exaggeration or distortion.
In other words, he wanted them to call a spade a spade but without meaning to victimise anyone while heaping unwarranted praise on anyone else. That was sometime in early March 2014.
I did not have any qualms with that, chiefly considering Dr Mengi’s untiring fight against corruption, itself a pursuit of exceptional dimensions among business tycoons in Tanzania and indeed in many other countries.
British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill is on record as having once said: “Censure is often useful, praise is often deceitful.” Put a little differently, this is to suggest that anything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself and asks nothing beyond itself.
Surely, praise seldom makes anything better – even less, worse. That may have to do with the ways with politicians. And that is precisely why I stand convinced that Dr Mengi knew for a fact that he would have been unfair to journalists had he praised them instead of telling them the bitter truth.
However, I had a few observations with respect to the MOAT chairman’s piece of “advice” to the media fraternity. In essence, what he was advocating was for journalists to religiously adhere to the rules of their own game even as they took part in a war on an enemy as vicious as systemic corruption truly is.
It is undeniable that those benefiting from corruption and other vices always engineer ways to ensure that they build supposedly impenetrable steel walls around themselves to protect their evil activities from eagle-eyed and ever nose-poking journalists.
If officials elect to stand tight-lipped or turn war-like to reporters even where what is in question is public interest information on innocuous issues, who would expect them to be even an inch more accommodating on corruption?
Or let me put it this way: if journalists find even merely exposing corrupt tendencies or practices a perilous job, what would happen if it came to the level of naming and shaming supposed culprits – even complete with water-tight evidence?
Journalists ‘stalking’ some huge scandal would be lucky indeed if they made it to the fringes, and if they did they would emerge with record-making front-page scoops.
Yet, at what cost, as many such ‘scoops’ would be without the names of the perpetrators of the vices in question even though these could be well known to the journalists?
The ‘daredevil’ journalists and their respective media houses would fear being hurled to courts of law for defamation – and court action is what many media owners would be all so happy avoiding. Dr Mengi was, without doubt, no exception – particularly, I would dare say, given his position as chairman of the national association of media owners.
In the early 1990s I was working as writer-cum-editorial assistant with the Family Mirror, a fortnightly English-language ‘hothead’ broadsheet that rarely remained unsold on newsstands for more than a couple of hours after landing. The owner of the paper used to tell us (editorial staff) that he would not entertain any court cases and that everyone would have to carry his or her own cross.
And, talking about mentioning names of corrupt elements in society, it is relevant here to mention that Dr Mengi is widely known to have actually walked the talk. He provided an excellent example of the courage he summoned to do so, as he later told journalists.
Many still remember his famous “mafisadi papa” (literally, ‘corrupt sharks’) news conference many years ago where he mentioned some big names of people he said were engaged in grand corruption, notwithstanding the consequences that would mean to him. In fact, he publicly “invited” anyone feeling wronged to seek legal redress.
Many also still remember what happened soon after the news conference. Many of us thought that, if anything, those named as “mafisadi papa” would heed Dr Mengi’s call by going to court the very next day to demand billions from him in damages.
Strangely, things did not go that way – at least, not as soon as widely expected, given the news conference “bombshell”.
The Tanzanian citizenry had been reduced to the level of being so helpless as to sway to the whims of the few elements in society who had been blinded by their immense, mainly ill-gotten, wealth.
Dr Mengi’s revelations raised hell, including suggestions from some quarters that they might jeopardise peace and harmony – and that he was now using his own print and electronic media outlets to spur public resentment.
Just for the record: it was just about that time that the idea of so amending the country’s laws as to prevent proprietors of media houses from owning more than one type of media outlet was mooted.
But, of course, it was clear that those behind corruption posed much greater danger to peace and harmony in the country than those making anti-corruption “noises”.
Luckily for Tanzania and Tanzanians, the preamble to the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Act of 2007 states clearly in the very opening paragraph: “Whereas corruption is an obstacle to principles of democracy, good governance and human rights, and poses a threat to peace, tranquility, and security…”
It is thus quite obvious that Tanzanians have a lot more to gain by mercilessly fighting corruption both “grand” and “petty” on all fronts than allowing the centuries-old vice to deny the nation the peace, harmony and stability it so badly needs to develop meaningfully socially, politically, culturally and economically.
It is again on record that the whistle-blowing on corruption saw Dr Mengi ordered to explain why he had dared make the utterances he had made at the news conference. As happened, though, things ended without further incident.
The truth was that he had breached no law, which is primarily why he had made it quite clear from the very outset that whoever would be aggrieved by his statements had the liberty to seek legal redress.
Sometime after the watershed news conference, at least one of those feeling aggrieved did as much. The events and incidents that followed remain an eye-opening and instructive part of Tanzania’s media and legal history to which Dr Mengi spent decades contributing so patriotically. Little wonder, then, that standing in Tanzanian society remains so well and highly regarded.