Seen widely as an ancillary for information shutdown, gloominess and rumor mongering in any given society, the media in its different manifestations continue to proof itself as the most potent tool for establishing, strengthening and sustaining democracy and good governance throughout the world. Its franchise to facilitate human freedom by allowing people and nations to express and manifest their inner feelings and make their voices heard, have made the media, as Adlai Stevenson puts it “the mother of all our liberties and of our progress under liberty”. This does not in any way portray the media as a non-lethal weapon, which this paper will also highlight.
However if used responsibly, the media can serve as an esteem platform where the Gambia’s fledgling democracy can be nurtured while at the same time promote good governance, the rule of law and the freedom of citizens, in the dawn of a new era.
As a young intellectual, it behooves me to disclose the honor and proclivity I have today, having been selected to deliver a paper at this high-rated forum, marking two epoch making events in the annals of this great nation:
(i) First, being the dawn of a New Era.
(ii) Secondly, the 52nd Independence of this Great Nation.
These two events set to be commemorated, have a profound implication on the lives of every Gambian, and present a platform for deep reflections and decisive thoughts – on the kind of Gambia each and every one of us wishes to bequeath to the upcoming generation. For 52 core years now, a lot of water has passed under the bridge, and every succeeding group continues to draw a line in the sand – spelling out beautiful blueprints that do not deliver the goods as expected. Perhaps now is the time that we the young people, having discovered our collective strength for the first time, to henceforth take charge of our destiny. And to all of this country’s young people from the island settlements of the North Bank to the remotest valley down the Upper River Region, know that our time to shine is now!!.
There is no shortage of attempts by technocrats and other specialists, including our very own interlocutors, to delineate how the fundamental application of specialized skills could, in conglomeration, strengthen democracy and good governance in this country. However, the growth and empowerment of the media, despite its importance, has never been a priority for most governments, especially in Africa and Asia, on the basis that it empowers the citizens to take charge of their government. Others perceive it as “the state enemy” bent on pitting the people against their governments. That is why governments that use their terms in office as an opportunity to personalize people’s wealth, end up resorting to draconian and martial laws against the media and its people, as a way to obfuscate their inequities.
Many people perceive the media’s role to be limited to divulging news and information to the public, educating them as well as entertainment. Still, others see it as a mere platform where everything and anything can be exhibited for the consumption of the public. However, for those behind the media, it is also a source of influencing public opinion, a source of power, a source of influence and a source of wealth and affluence. It is these strategic possessions that made it imperative for regulations and codes of ethics to be developed for the media, to ensure ethical and professional delivery of media services for the good of society.
It is these frameworks of responsibility that makes the conventional media unique and distinguished from other media platforms. They allow for the media to perform its oversight functions, provide accurate and relevant news to the populace, while at the same time maintaining the ethics that guide news collection and protection of source.
That is why when inaccurate information is broadcast, or something wrong published about someone, the media is taken to task for false news or libel. Nonetheless, the birth of another platform known as the new media, was a wild game changer, serving all types of news for all types of journalists. But because the new media cannot be controlled by anyone, it came to represent a force for both good and evil, having far reaching implications for the ordinary man, in expressing feelings and raising dissatisfactions.
One may ask therefore, what roles can the media play in strengthening our hard-earned democracy in New Gambia?
Arguably, the most important role the media can play in strengthening democracy and good governance in New Gambia is asserting the will and choices of the people. As the country formally enters democracy, it is imperative that the media is assertive in ensuring that the government delivers on its promises and does not renege on its obligations. It is gratifying to see that this process has already begun, with criticisms and challenges often targeted towards our new government, on key decisions bearing on policy issues.
For instance, as recently as last week, people were all over the airwaves demanding to know why we still have not appointed Vice President, while others still insist on knowing whether Khalifa Sallah’s spokesman position is at all relevant. Even though these questions still remain unanswered, the media was able to permeate these issues through the governance structure and has awakened the sense of responsibility of our new government, that they are under the microscope and their actions will not go unnoticed.
Again, during the country’s recent political impasse, which tested the resolve of Gambians to its extreme limits, the media proved a viable tool for asserting public opinion and establishing the people’s will. Regardless of the unfettered flexing of political and financial muscles by the former dictator to nullify the elections results of December 2nd, the media became the most potent instrument for drumming in international support against the reigning government and asserting the undiluted will of the Gambian people.
The battle was tough and terrible, but ultimately, the will of the Gambian people was respected. The same applies to the Arab Spring, where more than 4 Arab dictators were uprooted, and their dictatorship clutches broken, thanks to the media.
On the economy, the media as the fourth estate has the mandate to hold this government to account, by enabling tax payers understand where every butut, generated either through their taxes or foreign aid, is spend. This process of scrutinizing the government and reporting its dealings, in great ways, makes the government responsive to the people and wary of public opinion before spending public resources.
This was a no brainer during the former regime, due to the brutality unleashed on journalist by the dictatorship, because it personalized public resources without recourse to society’s interest. Had the media popularized those injustices and excesses of the government, perhaps what took so long to do, would have been done earlier.
On Politics, the media can create platforms where candidates running for public offices would be scrutinized exhaustively, to enable the masses make informed political choices and guide people’s decision making processes in selecting the most competent individuals, based on their track record, competency amongst others. Such practice in matured democracies, are done through televised debates, and political contenders would compete based on their manifestos and visions.
Furthermore, through investigative journalism, the media can help minimize the rate of crime in our societies by reporting crime stories and stating their repercussions. Such journalistic practices have proven to dissuade intending criminals to recalculate their options become engaging on crime.
On Human Rights, the media has an indispensable role to play not only in popularizing human rights instruments but advocating for its protection by ways of clarifying its correlations to the rule of law. For far too long, this country has carved a niche for itself as the chief violator of human rights, despite being the birthplace of the region’s main human rights charter, referred to as The Banjul Charter. The recent visit to Mile 2 by the Interior minister reported on GRTS for the first time, led to a public outcry on the atrocities meted on the Gambians, compromising our humanity for far too long.
Where the media is allowed to perform its roles as stated above, the people become the sovereign authority and the repository of power. This is what our previous regime knew, and went all out to violate Section 207 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right of the media to hold government to account. Unfortunately and especially during the recent political impasse, the public media betrayed its mandate and the constitution, and yielded to the whims of the dictatorship against the democratic will of the Gambian people. That was why, a very few of us with conscience, stood against the system, denounce our media houses and the government, for violating people’s right, regardless to the risks involved.
It is appropriate to state, that the Media in the Gambia saw its darkest days under the 22 throbbing years of the second republic. The government then abused the media not only by stifling information, but uses it to consolidate its grip and grinder on the state and its people. Media institutions that choose to be professionals, and journalist upholding professional values, faced the grimmest of persecution, torture, forced disappearance and in some cases death.
These actions have affected the manner in which media ought to strategically contribute towards strengthening democracy and good governance in the country. Now that Jammeh is gone, what is important is for the media to use creativities, to heal our smiling coast which was tittering on the brink of civil and tribal war. Nothing was more refreshing, when after many years, our brothers and sisters who were in exiled gathered together for a press cocktail, thanks to the new government.
It will be imperative and most befitting for the new government to repeal all laws that were instituted to stifle information and condemn dissent, for the interest of the general public. This may be a tedious undertaking with government having too much to focus on, however it is the only way of making the media vibrant and independent to fulfill its mandate.
According to Bagdikian, “the safest way to ensure diversity of opinion is diverse ownership”. This implies that new government should diversify the media especially television stations by issuing to qualified Gambians license to operate.
The new government should be open to criticism and allow dissenting views to float within the media. Studies have shown that this to be difficult to implement in new democracies, however when done, it allows for self-regulation in such a way that those found wanting will risk losing their credibility to the public.
Lastly, there must be a free and level playing environment for the media to undertake critical media practices like investigative journalism amongst others. This could be threatening to some governments and could intimate a derivative action. However approach can contribute greatly to unravelling some of the often-unexplained government actions as well as create leads anti-graft mechanisms.
I thank you all.
Abubakar Darbo is a Human Resources Specialist, An Associate of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), a HR Consultant and a Seasoned Broadcast Journalist He earned his BSc. in Political Science and International Studies from the University of the Gambia and MA (Merit) in Human Resource Management from the prestigious Coventry University in the UK.
He currently serves as Administrative Manager at the Gambia Radio and Television Services. He is a motivational speaker and has won much recognition including the national MRG award. Mr. Darbo could be reached on [email protected]