13 Dec 2010

Are we right to give editorial control to councils? Council reporting on the CDCF in Njombe

Daraja's Kwanza Jamii Njombe local newspaper includes a section that has caused a lot of debate among our staff, partners and supporters - the council pages. The reason for the debate is that we're essentially handing editorial control of these two pages, one each for Njombe Town Council and Njombe District Council, over to the councils themselves.

We provide editorial and design support, but the councils themselves decide what content to produce and share on their page. The only restriction we put is that they should not sell advertising space on their page, but otherwise the choice of content (and the responsibility to prepare that content) is theirs. Each council has appointed an official to be responsible for preparing and submitting content and both councils have taken this opportunity with both hands.

You could argue, as several staff and others have done, that this is generous to the point of fault, that we should perhaps jointly decide on and develop content for those pages together with council staff, so that we retain editorial control (and journalistic integrity) over those pages. So far, we haven't done that.

Why not? Well, partly because giving control to the councils helps build good relationships with them. But more importantly, we feel that the lack of any clear channel for councils to communicate to local residents was a real obstacle to effective and responsive local governance. By giving them space, and control over that space, that obstacle has been removed.

But how have the councils used this opportunity? We're only a few issues into this experiment, but there have already been some interesting (and perhaps unexpected) uses for this space. In the November issue, for example, Njombe Town Council used the space to publish their Financial Statements and Auditor's Opinion for 2008/2009. That they chose to publish this in English was disappointing, but we have suggested that in a future issue they might want to publish the same content again in Swahili.

Also in November, the District Council chose to publish an article reporting on how the Constituency Development Catalyst Fund (CDCF) for 2009/10 was used in the Njombe West constituency. In the next issue, for December, the same council published an article on how the CDCF was used in Njombe North. Since our new Kwanza Jamii Njombe website is not yet up and running, we've uploaded these two articles onto the website that remains from before Daraja took over the Kwanza Jamii brand: Njombe West and Njombe North.

Both articles make interesting reading. Local residents interested in how public funds are used in their area will get something from them. And policy analysts interested in how the controversial CDCF (see here, here, here, here and particularly here) is working in practice, get an interesting glimpse at what projects are being implemented, how councils are presenting it to the public, etc.

Finally, returning to the original debate about handing over editorial control, these examples of council-produced articles give the question fresh importance. It's no longer just a intriguiging conceptual question but now has the urgency of reality. Should councils be given free space to promote the CDCF without the checks and balances of the editing room? Nowhere do the articles mention the controversy around the CDCF, for example, nor are they fact-checked by our editorial team. But each council page in the paper is clearly marked as being produced by the councils themselves, so readers are aware that they're reading a different kind of article. And the paper will do its own independent reporting on the use of CDCF money.

But is that enough?