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INSIDE AFRICA: The Heavily Indebted Poor Correspondents (HIPC)

Africa, as I always say, is the most exciting terrain for journalists to practise but the worst place for them to retire!

Correspondents in the forgotten corners of the continent are the most financially endangered media species. I know of correspondents who are not Alsunna Muslims but the yawning gaps between their trousers and their shoes remind us of Bruce Lee and Michael Jackson. I call them the Heavily Indebted Poor Correspondents (HIPC).

Media practitioners in general are vulnerable preys with too many natural predators in the social ecosystem. This is largely due to the sticky impression many have about them as ghouls who enjoy only unpleasant situations. And because they generally earn too little, they are generally treated as nothing but a speck of dust under the fingernails of those who earn much and will always have the golden goose at their disposal.

Their silent scream
I have said it before, and perhaps I have to say it again here, that journalists mostly die a lot earlier and suffer from ulcer, diabetes, heart diseases and foggy brain because they involuntarily sit for too long hours under pressure to process gathered raw facts into wholesome information for the public to digest. And because they do so every day, they get deformed too soon out of a passion to get their audiences informed… and transformed.

Many press men and women, in their everyday race to serve the people, fail thoroughly to prepare their own families for the future. Some fight their own households just to be at peace with the public. And sadly, the public they think they owe the responsibility to inform at all costs hardly stands by them when, at retirement, after the years spent with heartburns behind the trunk of the microphone or the computer, they return on ‘life support’ to the same families they denied quality attention throughout their career.

A number of them have abandoned their own health. They live just for the people. They live just for the work. They eat very late in the day to attract ulcer and at night to catch the attention of cancer. Some have become devoted heavy consumers of processed sugar because there is no space throughout the week for ideal meals.

Some die in the line of duty because there is always a deadline to one headline or another. And very few get befitting pomp and fanfare at their funerals. As to how well they could afford to enjoy life whilst alive, by the quality of their coffins you shall know them. Some ‘lucky ones’ end up symbiotically tied as mouthpieces to the aprons of the same state ministries and agencies they ought to critique, like the shark and the remora fish, just so they do not walk barefoot on the retirement-long, mammoth bed of burning coals. Loving the people and ending up this way is the hard price they hardly get away with.

Treatment based on locations, not qualifications.
Journalists based in the rural areas of Africa are less well received by civil and public servants than their counterparts working in the national capitals.

There are journalists who will never misconduct themselves despite the frustrating conditions under which they work. But mainly because of the perceived trio of the poverty, the little exposure and the limitations associated with working in rural regions, states or provinces, lots of departments and agencies tend to look down on media practitioners based in those areas.

There are heads of civil service who blatantly harass journalists and frustrate attempts to reach them on the telephone for news interviews not just because they have got something to hide but simply because they misjudge journalists by their locations, and not even by qualifications.

This is a continent where many self-important authorities will strongly decline to grant telephone news interviews to rural correspondents and will demand that the newsmen rather go through the pain to come to their offices to conduct the interviews no matter how brief they are meant to be. But when a call is placed on their phones from a media practitioner from a national capital, they jump spontaneously to their feet in reverent response like a herdsman invaded in the underpants by angry termites.

Some of the pompous heads of departments and agencies feed their ego on the failure or inability of media house owners to resource their hardworking rural correspondents to live and work with dignity. An average correspondent resident outside a national capital is not on salary. Even their paltry allowances or wages hardly come in due time. They cannot whisper their monthly allowances to their spouses to avoid a sudden, deafening slap of gross disappointment in the face. The future is gloomy and scary because their names are not in the ‘retirement book of life’ which is the social security register.

Very few among them can step boldly into megastores to purchase the least expensive items when festive occasions frankly demand they do so for themselves or loved ones. Some cannot even afford the basic gadgets they need for their work. Most of the HIPCs live in sorrow because they must borrow. Some hide for lunch in the corners of roadside canteens because the quality of the meatless, fishless or eggless food in the bowls in front of them would expose the gaping holes in their pockets.

In a society where success is largely defined by what you have and not what you love to do, the HIPCs have surrendered to the crushing weight of peer pressure, and so deep is the inspired guilt they feel in front of their accomplished-looking former classmates and juniors for having chosen the wrong path that they have hopelessly lost contact with the last iota of self-esteem.

They miss many breaking news and cannot trigger their own exclusive stories within the far corners of their jurisdictions because they can only own any reliable means of transport in their dreams. It is difficult to cover even a relatively small territory because the remote areas they find themselves have extremely harsh weather conditions and without the essential commuter vehicles to ease their newsgathering movement. Whilst they can only dolefully watch and do the little they can, international or external rivals who are more resourced swoop into the far ends of the same territory and hurriedly scoop away long-buried stories which would only be nicely packaged but wrongly told dozens of times.

For some managements or headquarters of many media outlets, receiving of gifts or cash from individuals or organisations by their correspondents for events covered is as offensive and as punishable as money laundering.

But about every correspondent would even ask and fight for such gifts or cash not because of greed but because of need. Their employers have not provided them with any concrete monthly insulation package to help resist external offers that could compromise credibility of reportage. They have a number of mouths to feed, ever-swelling amounts of water and electricity tariffs to pay, rents to defray, school fees to pay with worn-out clothes and shoes to change. Many among them have no financial answer to the deadly condition of their ailing parents and children.

In fact, some so depend on such cash to survive that when denied them, it is like a life support suddenly has been removed from their system. When some correspondents are told at the end of an event that their transport fare has not been budgeted for by the organisers of the event, they are stunned on the spot like a stray gypsy who has just run into a Medusa! For some, to tell them there is nothing for them at the end of the day whilst others have been given, it is like a successful conspiracy to cold-bloodedly drop them alone from a migrants’ boat in the middle of the sea. They could capsize the whole venue from a blind rage. And it would take a clinical psychologist to stabilise them from that joke of a shock. That is the syndrome of Heavily Indebted Poor Correspondents (HIPC).

How do we expect quality from them?
Only less than a quarter of what happens in Africa from sunrise to sunset is reported by Africa to Africa. The field is ripe for harvest. The labourers are many. But those that are resourced to bring the needed quality to the table are terribly few.

Journalists in Africa are at the mercy of the same politicians they ought to check for means of transport to get to the hard-to-reach areas to bring only skewed reports, adulterated news, to the waiting public. And, believe me for once, if donkeys could speak, they would openly reject even some of the vehicles governments in Africa allocate to the press to accompany their convoys for state functions. Some of the press-tagged vehicles are nothing but bouncing caskets on wobbly wheels!

How does the continent expect excellence or quality when the overwhelming majority of its supposed whistleblowers can only stay alive on embedded journalism? How does the continent win the war against the widespread injustice, bribery and corruption when its watchmen are tied tight to the bamboo wheelchair of dismal dependence and despair?

How are they to bite without compromise on a complex and vast continent where the hand that is soiled with excreta is the same that feeds the mouth? How do we expect the best of delivery when, like a poor roadside porridge seller who has riskily added the sale of kerosene to her calling, rural correspondents in a move inspired by years of neglect are compelled to decamp the media tents to explore other avenues that are unconnected to their calling just to continue to exist?

How can we imagine that the HIPCs would do as expected in a crippling environment rather than an enabling hemisphere?

Support the HIPCs or forget it
If ever there was one institution capable of liberating Africa from the pit of self-inflicted misery, it is its own media.

But sadly, the media we have is still not what we want. Quality journalism, one that the continent really needs for the moment to effectively tell its own story as it is, is threatened by disunity and discordance of purpose within the media. We do not expect the same forces who do not want us alive to cry louder than us about the things that bother us. How is the commitment of governments in the African countries where media development funds have been proposed or established in pursuit of the quality we should crave?

I am yet to see one continental body of media representatives from African countries invented to launch this continent to a never-seen-before height that will cause those messing up the future of the continent to tremble and dive into eternal oblivion. All I see are disjointed bodies that only sound like Malnourished Journalists Association (MJA), Poor Journalists Association (PJA), Gambling Journalists Association (GJA), Starving Journalists Association (SJA) and Needy Journalists Association (NJA) among others.

Whilst we mourn the killing and jailing of some journalists in Egypt and Ethiopia and fret over the missing media practitioners in the Gambia and Eritrea, it is also proper to unanimously commend the HIPCs who for the love they have for the job still serve and protect the same public who easily forgets them.

Three journalists are being held in government custody in Cameroon. They will face trial in military court in February, this year, because they have refused to disclose their sources. Two editors of Ugandan newspapers were arrested and held for 24 hours in January, this year, for refusing to reveal a source who gave them a photograph showing the body of a man identified as the chief security officer of a presidential candidate in Uganda.

An Ethiopian journalist ended up spending 1,500 days behind solitary bars until the last July because they wanted her to say she was wrong. And journalists in Uganda are being attacked and prevented from freely covering Parliament and campaign activities ahead of February elections in Uganda. These are just a few of the countless silent hurdles planted by those voted into power against those who gave them the power to rule.

It is time to support the HIPCs to deliver. Failure to resource them will only see quality and independent journalism kept at bay. And that is not what we want.

By Edward Adeti | Email: Twitter: @edwardadeti1

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