My attention was drawn to a story in the Sunday Monitor of April 2nd titled “Prison Life Humbled Me – Teddy Ssezi Cheeye” whose pictures I have attached here. I’ll return to my thoughts on the story later, but reading it, it reinforced my conviction that there is something either amiss with or destructively good about our society, of which the media is a damning reflection.
Released from Prison on March 3rd, Teddi Ssezi Cheeye, the former head of Economic Monitoring in the Office of the President who was in 2009 convicted of embezzling Shs.120 million of Global Fund money, has become an instant celebrity. He has been hosted on all the top Television & radio talk shows in town, and granted double page interviews in print media, all the while denying his criminality and getting away with it. Cheeye is not the first. Before him, renown conmen, self-styled socialites, controversial businessmen( a euphemism for thugs), have waltzed us with their illicit pomp & pageantry, gracing top pages of our media, with the press, like an impressionable teenager, playing along in awe, unconsciously turning them into overnight celebrities & projecting them as enviable symbols of success to emulate.
The two page spread in the Sunday Monitor was the height of this malady in the case of Cheeye. It was an unquestioning, embarrassingly apologetic, naively whitewashing Public Relations scoop for the former criminal, that subtly courted the reader’s remorse about the wasting away of a ‘good man’s’ 6 years in Prison.And therein lies the problem. For all our pretensions about our disdain for corruption, our social ethos betray a sympathetic, if not reverential attitude towards the vice. We prostrate before the corrupt, give them front seats in our places of worship, invite them as chief guests at our functions, go to them for favors, after which we wax lyrical about their generosity.
That can only encourage corruption, not discourage it. It explains the continued proliferation of the vice, despite the continued trial & conviction of the corrupt in the courts of law.The moral of this is that treating corruption as a legal problem alone will not uproot the vice. We must start accompanying our statute provisions against graft with social sanctions against the corrupt. We cannot clamor for the prosecution of the corrupt while celebrating them in our social circles.
Let’s isolate them. Let’s ostracize them. Let’s make them know that generosity from stolen money is no generosity. It is thuggery. Let our social practices reflect a disdain for corruption & the corrupt. Let’s stop revering public servants gloating with ill-gotten wealth & setting them up as the symbols of success for our children, and Instead celebrate hard work, industry & enterprise as the most honorable manifestations of human genius.
To generate this social consciousness however will require the active participation of the Media. As the main window through which millions of people gain access to and participates in public affairs, the media is uniquely positioned, – with unrivalled power not only to inform but also to influence public perception, opinion, and resultantly mindset. As such, it is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the multiple interpretations it’s open to.
They must be deliberate and purposeful in their reporting, and always conscious of their individual responsibilities to building a free, accountable and just societies for all, through their work. This will require them to constantly step back and reflect on the purpose of their stories, beyond the simple fact that they meet the technical requirements of news values.
Returned former criminals like Cheeye for example should only be covered when they have to, and when they are, they should not be allowed to get away with denial or revisionism of basic facts regarding their criminal record. Allowing them to do so only perpetuates a culture of impunity, and emboldens future criminals to go about the vice aware that they can, regardless of the facts, return to cleanse themselves before an unsuspecting public, whose only avenue for weighing and verifying moral questions is the radio/television talk show or newspaper interview.
For if like literary heroine Jess. C. Scott argued, “People are sheep and the Media is the shepherd”, we must start demanding more from the shepherd if we are to claim a chance against graft that has until now eluded us.
The writer is a journalist and Communications Manager for the LeO Africa Institute