By Suruwa B Wawa Jaiteh
Virtually every country in the world endorses the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. This is true of Western liberal capitalist countries, communist countries, and developing countries alike. Whatever the ideological or political differences among nations, there appears to be almost universal agreement on the principles of freedom of expression. Freedom of the press is guaranteed in almost every constitution of the world.
Obviously, however, there are some striking differences in practice. For example, most honest and principled residents in the country, Gambians and non-Gambians alike, would say that the Gambian press is absolutely free, politically and economically. However, an insignificant percentage of the population, people owing allegiance to tyranny, and so forth, would say that the Gambian press is not free, both politically and economically; notwithstanding their use of the various freedoms as never before in this country.
In short, the concept of freedom of the press is defined differently and practiced differently in different countries and even within the same country by different people. The first conclusion to be drawn from this rather straightforward observation is that the term “freedom of the press” is so highly generalised that it has little informational content; therefore, because it has so little specific meaning, it can achieve universal endorsement.
A second conclusion is that each country provides its own operational definition of freedom of the press. In more practical terms, every nation decides how much autonomy to grant to the communication media. In terms of policy, every government controls its media, in one way or another, according to its needs and resources. The question is not whether to control the press or not; the real question is how to control the media. Countries with liberal democratic political cultures tend to employ a system of professional control; that is, a system of independent self-regulation based on professional standards of practice. But journalism is not just or not completely a profession; it is also a craft and an art. Hence it is difficult to define and enforce standards of practice.
Furthermore, the press is also a business; that is, an economic enterprise in the pursuit of profit, and therefore subject to economic control. Under this system of control, freedom of the press is limited by the publisher’s interest in maintaining sufficient sales and advertising revenues to ensure his property rights of ownership.
In all countries, freedom of the press is also limited by a system of legal controls. There are laws on libel, privacy, censorship, national security, and copyrights, to name but a few, all of which place restrictions on the freedom of the press. Legal and judicial controls also govern conflicts between freedom of the press and other freedoms, for example, the right to a fair trial. Lastly, the press is also subject to social control. Cultural norms, social criticism, patronage and support from a constituency of readers all provide a diffuse boundary around the concept of freedom of the press. Hence, there are many ways in which a society may control its media: professional controls, economic controls, legal controls, and social controls. Typically, most countries have a mixture of these various types of controls, and the mixture changes as historical experiences change. The exact pattern of control at any given time is determined by public policy. In other words, the pattern of controls is primarily determined by political consideration.
The concept of freedom of the press generally refers to a practical pattern of control in which legal and governmental constraints are at a minimum. Historically, it is a relatively recent development. The first mass media which came into being in Western Europe around the beginning of the eighteenth century were introduced under strict authoritarian control. The privilege of publication was extended by permit or degree only to those who were politically “safe” and would practice “decency” in their operations. They enjoyed the privilege only as long as they refrain from criticising, “without evidence”, the regime in power and society at large. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that these early mass media were clearly expected to preserve the regime in power. This pattern of control, more arbitrary than legal, was protested by the bourgeoisie and urban intelligentsia, and some reforms were achieved. Anyone who had the means to post a bond could apply for a licence to publish. In this manner economic controls on the media were introduced. The classic, liberal democratic concept of freedom of the press did not come into being until the revolution of the eighteen and nineteen centuries. This was vividly expressed in the French declaration of the Rights of Man, written in August 1789, precisely one month after the fall of the Bastille: “The unrestrained communication of opinion being the most precious right of man, every citizen may speak, write and publish freely” (Article 11). Based on the philosophy of the Enlightenment and a belief in the natural rights of man, it held that any “rational” man, given the facts, could distinguish right from wrong, truth from falsity. As opposed to the earlier “authoritarian” view of the media, this became known as the “libertarian” view.
Given this ideological environment, the mass media flourished. Within a very short period of time, the relationship between the government and the press was almost precisely reversed. Instead of existing by sufferance, as long as it supported and advanced government policy, the press now became independent of government. Its new role was to “represent” and “guard” the “public interest”. In time, the libertarian pattern of control offended the Victorian sensibilities of the post-revolutionary order. Obviously, a reaction set in. It was in response to this late-nineteen-century threat of government censorship that professional associations of journalists were first organised. Their task was to restrain their ranks in order to preserve their acquired autonomy. Towards this end, codes of ethics, statements of purpose, courses of instruction, and schools of journalism began to appear. It was only in the twentieth century that professional norms have come to predominate over other forms of media control, primarily in Western liberal capitalist democracies. However, the pattern of control continues to evolve in response to changing circumstances. For example, the pattern of control over the electronic media – radio and television – tends to be more authoritarian than the print media.
The purpose of this brief historical review is to show that the concept and practice of freedom of the press and freedom of expression have been evolving continuously in response to changing social circumstances. The noble phrase “freedom of the press” should not obscure the fact that all societies control their media in one way or another, and the pattern of control changes as social circumstances change.
For the UDP-led coalition government, the basic issue of public policy is how to establish a pattern of control of the mass media that provides both freedom of the press, which is by now an almost universally stated objective, and responsibility of the press, in which the press has the ability to respond to what its government sees as its national objective. As we are undergoing rapid social changes couple with the government’s commitment to major social reforms, then the problem of balancing the freedom of the press with the responsibility of the press becomes especially difficult. These difficulties are clearly evident in the country today. Some decent journalists and writers consulted, were highly critical of the “unbridled freedom of expression” of some contributing authors. Many complained about the tendencies of some contributors towards divisive and irresponsible use of abusive language, exposes, scandalising and hyper-expressiveness.
For more than one-and-a-half years after the epoch of tyranny, the Gambian press remained largely unencumbered by government constraint.
According to some observers, it is one of the freest press in the Ecowas sub-region. As one observer put it, “The Gambian journalist, unlike his colleagues in some neighbouring countries, could go about his profession without fear of arrest or harassment from the authorities. Columnist and editorial writers are remarkably outspoken and government is remarkably tolerant of the steady stream of criticism it received. Indeed, in the first eighteen months of the UDP-led coalition government, freedom of the press has become a major part of Gambians’ claim to democratic government”.
National unity and popular participation in the nation-building effort would be better served by a very decent, spontaneous diversity of opinion, rather than the calculated type of indecencies, outright insult and bigotry. The existence of a decent diversity of opinion would provide a forum for discussion, explanation, and debate of public policy. It would permit a means to assess popular response to government policy and to mobilise popular support for national unity. Without this opportunity for decent diversity, our new participatory democracy becomes meaningless.
The recent turn of events does provide emphatic evidence that even a tolerant government in transition, like the current UDP-led coalition government needs reliable public information for its own policies and an effective system of mass communication for more public support. Mass communication is a two-way process; it involves both message and reply, information and feedback. Communication, literally, is the process of making a community. This is perhaps the best defence of freedom of the press and freedom of expression: it is the best way to build a national community.
The author, a native of Bakau served as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and also as an international civil servant.