During my work in one of the local newspapers, I agreed with some fellow journalists that they would tell me about the gifts they receive while covering events in different institutions and ministries.
The aim was to find out which institutions paid journalists, directly or indirectly, and see what kind of press coverage they got. I will use the word “institutions” when talking about ministries and the various authorities.
The cooperation of the fellow journalists was good, as not a day passed without one of them entering my office carrying a cheque, a watch, a pen or some other valuable gift from one of the institutions he had gone to for covering its activities.
Institutions sent invitations asking us to send particular journalists to cover their events and accompany their delegations abroad to report on their work. Such messages never stopped, and nor did the flow of gifts. This bribe-driven journalism burnished the image of these institutions while ignoring their mistakes, transgressions and dereliction of duty.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki recently published a book titled the Black Book, which names journalists, magazines, television channels, newspapers and intellectuals who were receiving money from former president Zine Al Abideen Ben Ali to polish his image and cover up his scandals and crimes in Tunisia and abroad.
The book was not welcomed by Arabic media outlets as some of them were tainted by Ben Ali’s money -- Western newspapers that praise freedom, London-based activists who publicise the Palestinian issue and the corruption of its leadership, correspondents of international and Arabic satellite channels, revolutionaries, orators, preachers, and satellite channels that claim to support the opposition.
Apart from channels such as the one subordinated by the Speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri, and journalists who work in Gulf newspapers, no one wants to talk about them because gifts have become a part of their profession, and all of them take gifts in exchange for their services.
I advise fellow journalists, editors-in-chief and officials of satellite channel to read the book just to know whether their institutions have been infiltrated. They will lose nothing; at least they will get to know what they did not know before. They should also know that Ben Ali is gone, but people of his ilk still exist.
Back when I was the editor-in-chief of Al Sharq newspaper, in the late 90s, a journalist brought me a statement from the Tunisian embassy in Qatar asking me to publish it. The statement reported that Ben Ali had visited an orphanage, spoken to the orphans, patted them on their heads, and that he was the official sponsor of the poor orphans, and would go to heaven because of what he had done. A set of Ben Ali’s pictures with the orphans, smiling a faint smile just for publication, was attached to the statement.
I refused to publish the item as it did not mean anything to the reader, as every official likes to tell his people that he has a merciful heart, regardless of their prisons that are filled with miserable and oppressed people.
After a while, the same journalist came to me and said, “The Tunisian ambassador would like to meet you.” He added that not publishing the statement might be the reason.
The Tunisian ambassador came to my office, and after the usual courtesies, he asked if I was prejudiced against Ben Ali, and I said, “No.” But I lied when I said that. He then asked me: “So why did you not publish the press release?”
“Why would I flatter Ben Ali? Do you think my newspaper is a wall magazine that every time I get a press release from an embassy I will stick it on it,” I replied.
We talked for long about journalism, and I have to admit that the man understood my situation, and I could also understand his position, because working with an atrocious regime like Ben Ali’s can sometimes make an ambassador forget diplomatic etiquette. Before he left he said to me: “I will keep sending you the press releases, and if you do not like them, throw them into the trash bin.”
Governments would love if journalism became a part of their administrations so that they could control it, but they cannot say this as that would reveal their dictatorial tendencies. Therefore, these governments try to buy journalists and tempt them with gifts.
Our media has rained pearls on journalists and our newspapers have become like earth that produces nothing but reports of festivals, achievements and official statements, or it is a platform for revenge and attacking people immorally, in many cases.
I wish for a law that bans institutions from giving gifts to journalists in order to preserve journalism, as no media organisation can monitor or ban the amount of gifts that corrupt our newspapers.
As for the greater Arab world, it is almost impossible to ban gifts and bribes, as people with no conscience, morals or ethics will stop at nothing.