Shaping Gambia’s democratic future through quality journalism and effective communication

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By Saikou Jammeh

2022 Graduation of students of Media Academy for Journalism and Communication

…Democracy dies in darkness…

That is the new slogan adopted five years ago – in 2017 – by The Washington Post of the U.S.

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The phase, of course, is made popular by legendary investigative journalist, Bob Woodward, of The Post, thanks to his book, The Last of the President’s Men, a follow up to the groundbreaking work, All of the President’s Men, better known as the Watergate Scandal, a journalistic exposé which led to the resignation of President Nixon.

You wonder why I travel all the way to the U.S to draw inspiration for this Keynote Address. It is because my colleague, and partner, Mustapha K Darboe, had something interesting to say about it in one of his many social media outbursts:

“Democracy does not die in darkness. There is just no democracy in darkness. And please, do damn well ask what your government can and must do for you.

Many years ago, while doing a rapporteur work for the GPU, under, well, now safe to say, a dictatorship, I watched and listened as indefatigable human rights defender Madi Jobarteh waxed lyrical to security personnel about democracy, about development as a right, and how each of these are inextricably linked to press freedom.

And he asked this a rather thought-provoking question:

could you imagine what will happen if there were no newspapers, if there were no radio stations, if there were no television, if there were no internet platforms…

Now, some of us might have read somewhere from someone called Thomas Jefferson, who said:

“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

I wonder why Jefferson, a man who has made the strongest defense for press freedom, would make such utterances. Perhaps, he was left frustrated with bad press he suffered.

A century after Jefferson, Nelson Mandela of South Africa could not have addressed such frustrations in any more eloquent fashion when he said:

None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should allow us to suggest even faintly that independence of the press could be compromised or coerced. A bad, free press is preferable to a technically good, subservient press.”

Madi Jobarteh, in raising that question – what will happen if there were no journalists, whether by design or not, did not attach any adjectives to journalism. For example, he did not say, what will happen, if there were no quality journalism.

Why, then, are we today making a theme out quality journalism as a prerequisite for democracy? What really is democracy? What, in our view is quality journalism? What yardstick do we use to measure quality journalism?

I do not have answers to this set of handsome, simple-looking questions that are more complex in nature than nature itself. As I said in one my essays, years ago, I am a mere join-the-list who has grown a little wise enough to join the list of honourable men and women, who in my mentor, Swaebou Conateh’s words:

Can make reasoned and sombre assessment of questions of national and international concern and policy for the enlightenment and guidance of the reading public.

Now, after years of reflection on the thought-provoking question which Madi left unanswered, at least on that day, if there is one thing that I am convinced about, it is that I would rather listen to a man who comes to me to suggest that god doesn’t exist, than to a man who would suggest, even faintly, that democracy is possible without quality journalism

I know that is blasphemous enough to now digress a little bit. I will come back to this topic latter:

Shaping democracy through quality journalism…

Today’s event is auspicious. I pay my tribute to all the hard-working, smart looking men and women who have undergone the rigors, if not challenges of life as a student at MaJAC of all tough places. Congrats on the feather in the cap you will wear today!

We must not forget, of course, what makes this event even more special is that we have a GPU president, who is among those graduating. His lovely wife, Aisha, I am told, is also graduating. What a family! What a day for you.

It augurs well for journalism and democracy to see that so many of you, young and brilliant, have submitted yourselves of years of training and formal education in the body of knowledge governing journalism to become true professionals; one who know the nuances and fine points of the journalism practice.

For me personally, I am filled with joy to witness today’s event. And I am honoured to be considered for the role of Keynote Speaker, in the place of my brother and example, Sheriff Bojang, a giant in every sense of the word – intellectually astute and grounded in the practice. This is perhaps in recognisation of my modest contribution to the institution, not the least because I am considered to be quality journalist.

I remember telling Bai Emil Touray in my early days at the GPU that the school is the most important project ever initiated by the GPU. I am sure Sang will spare sometime to talk about the pioneers like Alota, Gibairu, Ndey Tapha, Emil etc. and others like Sanna, Haddija, Musa who have played such pioneering role at the school.

Unfortunately, it was in a state of coma, few months away from being de-registered when we started settling in in office. And Sang and I, under the leadership of Bai Emil Touray, and later Sheriff Bojang Jnr., led the team to revive the school. We raised funds, pumped millions of Dalasi, hired new staff, introduced new curriculum, forged new partnerships, expanded the annual intake from 20 to 60 at the time, granted it the much-needed autonomy with its own premises and board.

That was the beginning of even greater things, none of which would been possible without the steady hands and steadfastness of Sang Mendy, who in fact, was offered a certain of the aspect of my job, more prestigious maybe, but he declined and decided to remain with the school. This is not just about passion for him. He told me many times that he had to give back to the institution that he believes gave him so much. What loyal, honest man!

I am delighted that the new leadership at the GPU has taken the issue of the school with no less seriousness and enthusiasm. In fact, you have, Mr President and your team, been doing tremendously well.

The change of leadership at the GPU has injected renewed energy and passion and I am aware of the strides and strives that you’re making to maintaining the gains while registering new successes…

….from the awards, to the building project, to the welfare programmes, to the safety programmes, to the legal reforms programmes….

Back to the topic – Shaping democracy through quality journalism…

The Gambia’s democracy is on a train, moving, well, slow or fast, it is moving anyways. What is indisputable is that the train has left the rail station and entered through the ‘Door of No Return’, thus leaving the question as to which way to take – democracy or alternatives to it – relevant only for junk academic debate.

For, this land and its people, badly battered and bruised by systems of governance that offered far less than deserved, have decided on a sustainable democratic path as the surest and safest way to launch us onto prosperity and sustainable peace.

The press and the people must hold firm the wheels of the train and not leave it in hands of the president or politicians. While we recognise the government, as we say as a matter of courtesy, for creating an enabling environment, we must not for once assume or give in to the idea that the freedoms being enjoyed are because of the altruism of the government. It is, in my view, as result of the collective determination of people, informed by our history and aspirations, to insist on having these freedoms. If we slumber, even for a minute, it will be taken away, and you can guess by who, and where to find it, if that happens.

In 1994, a few months before the coup, there was a play done at Bottrop Senior Secondary School, called “Let the Daily Observer Not Be Aware.”

This is about an older man – sugar daddy, if you may – who spends all his earnings on a young girl. When discovered and his wife threatened to expose him, he went down on his knees, ‘please, do not let Observer know.

Kenneth Best, the founder of the Daily Observer, would reflect on the play as follows:

“To those of us connected with the Daily Observer, the Bottrop play maybe considered an embarrassing piece of fiction. But with a little indulgence allowed, one cannot fail to see in the play what the playwright perceives a newspaper to be, a watchdog, peering into the public and private lives of individuals in society.

The fact that this was a threat of a cheated wife to expose in the press the moonlighting escapades of her wayward husband should not erase the fact that the eyes and nose of the press are directed also, often far consciously, at governments and institutions serving society.”

What makes Jawara’s government a democracy, as it is widely characterised and Jammeh’s government, well, a dictocracy of elected sort?

Or, even Barrow a democrat and Jammeh, a dictator?

To answer this question, you have to look into the eyes of the journalists. You will see that there is curiosity and confidence where there was fear.

Where people plan each day to catch the next flight or bus to leave the country, now they have a sense of security in serving the public.

The difference between Jawara and Jammeh in terms of democracy is that under Jawara, in the words of historian Hassoum Ceesay, the vibrancy of the Gambian press, with all its imperfections, was the envy of the sub-region.

Under Jammeh, we witnessed how the press became the first casualty as the military turned their back on their promise for greater freedoms, transparency, and accountability.

The 2004 killing of Deyda Hydara, you will agree with me, marks the most significant turning point in our lonely, destructive march away from democracy as quality journalism slowly – and almost entirely – followed Deyda to his graves.

Journalists were tortured, exiled, assaulted, attacked with fire, as the dictatorship kicked against a type of journalism that would hold it to account and moderate public debate. Our democracy died in the ensuing darkness.

What is quality journalism

What then is quality journalism?

In my research, I came across an interesting piece by Johanna Vehko, writing a Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper at the University of Oxford, on the topic:

Quality journalism and how it can be saved.

And she said that when she set out to carry out her research, she was often asked:

“So, what’s the subject of your research at Oxford?” She’ll reply:

“Ehm… the future of quality journalism.” The questioner continues:

“Oh. That’s… a big subject. What is quality journalism?” She’ll come in:

“Do you want the short or the long answer?”

Well, the conversation often stops there, abruptly, but Johanna went on to say this:

I am still working on the short answer, but I think it will be something like this: “Quality journalism is something a democracy cannot do without.”

Ladies and Gentlemen

I still have not told you – or maybe I do not know – what quality journalism is, but I, in no uncertain terms, made it clear to you that it is the lifeblood of democracy.

And I do not know what I will eat for dinner or even remember what I had for breakfast, but I am quite clear in my conviction that a democracy, as they say, is only as good as its press. The quality of the decisions that we make depends on the quality of the information that we have. And, the quality of the information that we have depends of the quality of journalism that we have.

If you’re still not satisfied, it’d be wise to buy my peace, and just adopt the colloquial expression and put it this way:

o          I do not know how to define quality journalism. But I know it when I see it.

o          By this, I am not in any way suggesting that quality in journalism is a matter of taste – based on who is reading, listening, or watching, but frankly, is quality journalism not in fact, a subjective matter

Perhaps, I should ask you the audience:

o          How do you judge between investigative outfit Malagen that claims to be extremely thorough and WhatsonGambia, who are unapologetically sensational, but perhaps more effective than Malagen in exposing public sector corruption and have mastered the art of getting into the bedroom of public officials?

o          Or, how do you judge, on the basis of quality, between West Coast Radio and Home Digital FM?

o          Or, how do you even judge, on the basis of quality, between Today Newspaper, carefully edited with amazing outlook and a human interest niche vs Foroyaa, who do not bother much about looks or story format, but highly informative

Put this to vote outside of this hall, and the results, rest assured, will be quite interesting.

Is journalism quality enough to shape democracy if the content contains highly informative facts but it is not packaged in a way it’d attract wider audience?

Is journalism quality enough to shape democracy if the product or service is packaged in a quintessential British English that is not accessible to majority of the citizens?

While we continue this debate, we can at least have a common ground. That is, in the final analysis, quality journalism must perform two basic functions to shape democracy:

1. Hold power to account

2. Provide a public forum for discussion

Quality journalism goes hand in hand with democracy. In fact, as Johanna puts it, journalism does not need democracy to survive but democracy cannot survive without journalism.

What defines a quality journalist is one who is: free and independent

courageous

loyal to the governed, not the governors reliable and accessible

accountable

But our relationship with democracy is no longer to be taken for granted. In the Cherno Jallow Charter of Ethics of Journalists, I wrote on the introductory page:

Journalistic practice is changing in a manner that challenges the foundations of media ethics. Technology has blurred the lines. The worlds of TV, print, radio, and internet are overlapping. Journalists are no longer a clearly defined group. Citizens are engaged in journalism. With more enlightenment, socio- cultural and political narratives have changed.

SIXTEEN years before that, in 2006, Jay Rosen, a journalism teacher wrote on HuffPost, a manifesto, not of a community or feminist type, but of what he called “The people formerly known as the audience.”

He declared:

The people formerly known as the audience wish to inform media people of our existence, and of a shift in power that goes with the platform shift you’ve all heard about.

Think of passengers on your ship who got a boat of their own. The writing readers. The viewers who picked up a camera. The formerly atomized listeners who with modest effort can connect with each other and gain the means to speak— to the world, as it were.

If you are a journalist, you should be alarmed by this: writing readers, the viewing camera people, the listening podcaster. But there is nothing to be terrified about it. We will keep our jobs. Journalism will remain the sauce of democracy. Writing readers are a mere spice that in fact frees us up from excess burden and offers us an opportunity to refocus our lenses and zoom in on the substance.

Journalism under dictatorship vs democracy

Some of us started our journalism under the difficult climate of the previous regime. We thought that our problems would be all over after that dispensation was defeated. But it is not.

Comrades of yesterday have become enemies of today. A rather rude awakening for me in particular, is the realization that it is harder to nurture and sustain the democratic systems and human rights norms that we fought so hard to create than to defeat dictatorship.

This is because Democracy must deliver tangibles, such that we must begin to see:

i.          Improvements in service delivery and narrowing of the gap between the poor and the rich – so that 70 children do not have to die from consuming medical products

ii.         Improvements in living conditions, so that, maybe, just maybe, Covid-19 is not the cause of increase in poverty, rather how Covid-19 is handled – or mishandled

iii.        Improvements in accountability and justice, so that those that are responsible for the deaths of the children or the mismanagement of Covid-19 funds, would be held to account.

This is where quality journalism comes in – to keep the government on their toes, arm the citizens with information to take informed, consequential decisions and actions.

Conclusion

The 2017 change of government has put The Gambia back on world’s democratic queue. Africa’s newest democracy, as the international press prefers to call us.

But we would be mistaken to assume that that single event, however significant, is all we needed before we are wrapped in a blanket and put to bed as the baby democracy we take ourselves to be.

We know, perhaps more than many, that democracy is a process, and a journey, unending one. Democracy is like a tree, you give it food, water and sunshine to grow.

And, we hold the truth – a simple and intrinsic one – to be that on this journey towards more mature democracy, The Gambia cannot do without, to read after Mandela, ‘a critical, independent and investigative press’ – in order words, quality journalism.

Our history tells us that our fight for independence from colonialism, unlike in many other places in Africa, was less about guns and blood. It was a battle fought out in the pages of the newspapers more than any other battle front.

The fight to defeat the dictatorship of the former regime was unquestionably championed by the press however weak we were. It is therefore no rocket science to understand and accept that the struggle to entrench democracy ought to see no less of the press.

To those of you graduating today, the democracy that those before you fought with their blood to create is now placed in your trained hands.

Now, your watch begins!