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City of Banjul
Monday, October 19, 2020

Get out of the kitchen if you cannot stand the heat

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Public officials are public property. The moment you run for office and win, or you accept a public appointment, you cannot run away from public scrutiny.

You cannot be onion-skinned and talk back, sue or attempt to sue anyone who will criticize you, whether above or below the belt, for defaming your character. Citizens, anywhere, have reserved that right when you take our monies to pay for your salaries.

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That isthe brutal truth. One can just look at how brutal are the criticisms by ordinary voters of their elected officials in countries like the United States of America (USA) or the United Kingdom(UK) to realize that threats to file libel and slander cases are not a refuge for public offlcials in mature democracies.

Their leaders have been viciously attacked in the campaign trails and in social media. But they do not file cases and ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) to hunt down citizens, ordinary or what have you, who post the truth and/or lies against them.

This is because despite the chaos and flaws of America politics, and despite the idiocy of their current president, US politicians are mature enough to know their place in
democratic politics. They are aware that as elected officials, they are for a fair game
because they have the duty to serve even if that means being the object of harsh
criticisms.

Actually, that has always been the ethos of public service even in the
history of our untainted Republic. And if there is one person who should be honoured
for shaming onion-skinned politicians and teaching them lessons in tolerance, it would
be the late Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara (may his soul Rest in the Most Perfect
Peace), who served as a dust-bin for all his detractors, only to win them over in truth
and tolerance.

The laws on libel recognize the bar imposed on public service. While the burden to
prove absence of malice rests on the accused in ordinary libel cases, the burden of
proving there is malice shifts to the accuser when the libel is filed by a public official.

Thus, the logic of the law rests on the presumption of innocence of any private citizen and the absence of malice behind every defamatory or slanderous remark uttered against a public official.

The root of this is simple. In any representative government, it is always assumed that public officials are accountable and can be taken to task by people in any way they can. Ordinary citizens when performing the right to hold accountable those who are paid from their taxes to protect and manage their interests, may be prone to emotional outbursts, use harsh words, and even deploy factual inaccuracies. But the law presumes that
these are all in good faith. And it is theburden of the onion-skinned politician to prove that such were committed withmalice.

Any constitution binds and limits the power of government and its instrumentalities.
While it grants public officials some privileges, such cannot be abused. Public official is a public trust. And one who serves the people cannot have a dual personality of being bound by the constitution only during offlce hours, and then become private citizen after 4 p.m. and during weekends and holidays.

This is the fallacy that we often hear — that elected offlcials are private citizens. They arenot. Ordinary private citizens do not have the privilege of maligning people’s reputation and cannot be held accountable for it in any court. And yet this is a privilege that members of the National Assembly enjoy when they are in session, where they can
freely slander people in their privilege speeches, or during parliamentary hearings.

People invited as resource persons, and therefore should be accorded respect, are badgered, insulted, shamed and pilloried like these are on bargain sale. And the poor guests cannot do anything but take it from these officials who are all paid from
taxpayers’ money.

It is therefore patently offensive for anyone of them to descend into pettiness and cause state agents, again using taxpayers’ money, to hunt down, summon and investigate ordinary citizens, who they feel have maligned them. A mature public official will not go into this childish stunt, and will just ignore these as part of the hazards and burdens of being an elected offlcial.

Unfortunately, there are elected and appointed public officials who simply cannot take the heat and the smoke, and end
up talking back, filing cases not only against the media, but even against citizens. These
are public figures who are probably not used to public life and are unfamiliar with the
feeling of being held publicly accountable.

They may be unseasoned politicians lacking the necessary experience of being subjected
to intense public scrutiny. Fortunately, these public officials are so well known that, ordinary citizens can continue calling them out, holding them accountable, and can even use harsh, slanderous words without naming them. And the effect will still be the same, except that they can no longer file cyber libel. James Scott called this strategy of using not-so-blind items as creative forms of ordinary resistance. And you anticipate them to deploy this misogynist slur to man up and name them.

It may help to remind these onion-skinned politico-civil servants who happen to be
men that National Assembly Members ignored all the unflattering attacks posted
on social media. Some of our opposition leaders and certain ministers have not been
affected by the slanderous remarks posted against them by diehard no-where citizens
who maligned their sense of decency. Whatever their politics may be, and whether
you love them or hate them, they certainly are matured enough to know their place in
the kitchen called politics and public service.

These people have managed to endure the heat. But most of the mediocre politico-civil servants apparently have notand can’t.

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