Last week we were in the business of press freedom. The Gambia Press Union joined the world to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on Saturday. The Union brought the theme for the 2014 commemoration ‘Free Media for a Better Future’ to a national context by looking at how a free media can fortify the post 2015 development agenda.
That forum engaged Government and other stakeholders in a frank discussion on the necessity of a free and vibrant media for the promotion of good and accountable governance, the promotion of human rights and sustainable development in The Gambia.
It paved the way once again for an analytical overview of the media situation in The Gambia and its ramifications on national development and the political and economic space for a free and vibrant independent media in the country. The forum also raised the question as to how the Government as the primary duty bearer can create the necessary enabling environment to reflect the fact that freedom of expression is a catalyst to sustainable socio-economic development.
On Wednesday, I was invited by the University of The Gambia Social Sciences and Humanities Students’ Association to deliver a paper at a symposium they organised on the Role of the Media in Promoting Good Governance. I considered the symposium, keeping in mind the topic given to me, as an extension of the debate that arose from the press freedom day symposium.
The deliberation that emanated from these two symposiums propelled me to ink this article with a view to bring the debate to a national platform cognizant that not many people attended the symposium and we have reached a critical stage in our quest for national development that debate of such can only be meaningful in the public sphere.
In this essay therefore, I will take a look at three fundamental areas brought forth by those debates for critical evaluation. First I will deal with the elements of good governance. Then try to elaborate the right to information as a key to good governance in The Gambia and finally examine briefly the precondition for media freedom. I will conclude with thoughts on the way forward on the subject matter.
I assume what the term media connotes is common knowledge. I will though provide here a skeletal overview for the aid of those who might have a narrow understanding. Media (as the term implies) are the storage and transmission channel or tool used to store and deliver information or data. Media are (mostly) non state actors who define themselves apart from the state and from all other societal actors (what Edmund Burke described as a “fourth estate”, distinct from government, church and electorate). While this notion of free and independent media acting on behalf of the citizen against both state and other interests is a widespread ideal, the reality of most media worldwide is complex, rapidly changing and extraordinarily diverse.
For a general understanding, we can say that media can consist of everything from national newspapers to student magazines, global broadcasters to community radio, websites and blogs to social networks and virtual communities, citizen journalists to government mouthpieces. How do this media contribute to good governance? This is the question I will interrogate.
Media and good governance
“One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it, another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects” – Mahatma Gandhi.
The foregoing statement by Gandhi explains the importance of media in upholding freedom, and in expanding education and social reforms and change. Media can inform people giving them the voice to be heard and heeded to. Democracy requires that people should have the right to know the activities of the government, especially the decision of the government that affects their life, liberty and property.
Information is important for people to make choices regarding their participation in the state, the market and the civil society. Sufficient information helps people to decide rationally and take the right course of action beneficial to them. Media – both print and electronic – thus helps people to know what is happening around them and the world, socialise them with the values of pluralism and equip them with the elements of modernity. By publicising information the media also make public services more responsive to the people.
The media equally help in socialisation of people into citizenship, democratisation of the state and political society, institutionalisation of civic culture through unfettered flow of information, and rationalised use of power in social relations. In a nascent democracy like The Gambia, media also help voters with the contents of civic and political education and strengthen the culture of democracy. This is the reason political scientist Karl Deutsch has called that the system of communication proves a “nerve of the polity,” and any breakdown of the nerve may cause dysfunctional impact in the performance of the polity causing governance decay.
Realizing this, Section 207 (3) of the Constitution of The Gambia 1997 says: The press and other information media shall at all times, be free to uphold the principles, provisions and objectives of this Constitution, and the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people of The Gambia “. This implies that our constitutions recognizes the fundamental role of the media in governance and demanded that the media uphold its duties and responsibilities without restrictions, except when the restrictions are reasonably justified in a democracy. However, for the media to fulfil this role, I argue that free access to information on matters of public importance must become a core of the governing process. In fact, the key element of good governance postulates three essential features: legitimacy; accountability and transparency-the last element being the core basis of media culture.
Right to information as a key to good governance in The Gambia
Governance is conceived as the capacity of the state, the market and the civil society, media included, to sustain itself under the constitutional setting in order to move towards avowed goals, reduce the inherent cleavages among social, cultural, ecological and political systems and communities, concert sound policies, mobilize resources and maintain the sufficient level of legitimacy, transparency, credibility and accountability before the public.
A governance that steers in normative order to achieve its goals-law and order, human and national security, voice and participation and the promotion of public goods is called good governance. The World Bank defines: “Good governance is epitomized by predictable and enlightened policy making; a bureaucracy imbued with a professional ethos; an executive arm of government accountable for its actions; a strong civil society participating in public affairs; and all behaving under the rule of law”.
Transparency guarantees, including the right to disclosure, can thus be an important category of instrumental freedom limiting the powers of the state by providing the citizens the fundamental freedoms and human rights.
Freedom of expression it can therefore be argued must be the barometer to measure the degree of good governance in The Gambia. This freedom of expression must been sustained by access to information on all matter of public concern. Why? I will explain.
The starting point to note is that the human being cannot be fully defined if he or she is not at liberty to talk about what he or she feels thinks and see. Those thoughts and feelings can only be only be of significant value when the person expressing has already received adequate views and opinions from others which he or she marry with his or her understanding of his or her natural environment to formulate his or her own thoughts, feeling and as well direct his or her actions. In fact, it is this free interaction and exchange of opinions and views among the people of a given society which produce development.
I need not mention the fact that freedom of information is also a fundamental human right established under international law to make the global community have more access to information held by government officials and institutions. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights (UDHR) guarantees freedom of expression. And this encompasses the right to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.
Within the country, either between private parties or between government and the people; nothing magnifies the loyalty effect like the trust engendered by open, honest and direct exchange of information and ideas. According to the Declaration of principles on freedom of expression in Africa “Public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodian of the public good and everyone has a right to access this information, subject only to clearly defined rules established by law” (Article Iv(1) of the Declaration of Principles of freedom of Expression in Africa).
However, the right to information also takes into cognizance the fact that some information still need to be kept secret and therefore imposes some limitations. These types of information are: information about the private lives of people, sensitive commercial information, and national security information etc.
Access to information and freedom of expression therefore can engender and sustain good governance in The Gambia by first and foremost ensuring that decision-making at all levels is preceded by discussion and consideration of a representative range of views. It cannot be argued otherwise that a decision made after adequate consultation is likely to be a better one which less imperfectly mirrors the opinions, interests and needs of all concerned, than a decision taken with little or no consultation. After all, a government which does not know what the people feel and think is in a dangerous position. The government that muzzles free speech runs a risk of destroying the creative instincts of its people.
Secondly, it cannot be argued otherwise that when criticisms of the government are freely voiced, the government has the opportunity to respond and answer unfair comments and criticisms about its actions. On the other hand, when freedom of speech and expression are restricted, rumours, unfair criticism, comments and downright falsehoods are circulated by word of mouth.
These have a habit of spreading across the length and breadth of the country through conversation and surreptitiously circulated writings. The government is in no position to answer these views, because they are not publicly stated. It is in the government’s interest to have criticisms in the public arena where it can answer its critics and correct its mistakes. The government generally has access to electronic and print media far in excess of individuals and groups. It is able to present its view only if the opposing views are in the open and known.
Ii is therefore essential for the government of The Gambia to put in place a legal and policy framework to provide for access to information. The state can formulate laws and acts to constitutionalise the behaviour of citizens and help them in conforming to the ideals of constitutional patriotism implying a kind of balance between public order and individual freedom. Besides, the constitution guarantees the freedom of the press and other information media so as to make the functioning of governance as transparent as possible. This is the way to bring the institutions of governance closer to the people and allowing them to make choices on public and political matters.
Preconditions for media freedom
In The Gambia there is still dearth of empirical research to clarify whether: a) media have promoted freedom in the country; b) media have promoted education; c) media have curbed corruption; d) media are owned by independent persons; e) there is a real competition among media for content improvement and quality and; f) media have broadened their reach to capture the diversity and complexity of Gambian life.
There are however, seminar proceedings and secondary source data that suggest that the magnitude of media access and content coverage have grown in size and dimensions. But, what does it mean for the majority of the rural poor? Has their income increased to have access to media? This brings me to a pause.
In The Gambia, the formulation of laws also does not mean much unless there are material resources, human development and awareness to enable the people to participate in and support it. This means right to information is connected to political power, authority, resources and institutions, especially those institutions like courts which protect citizen’s fundamental rights. The politicization of the Gambian media suggests that the “code of ethics” must be brought out so that media does not indulge in the “manufacturing of consent” as Noam Chomsky said and become an instrument of assimilation, power, domination and indoctrination.
But, it should help in democratic will-formation, public opinion and enlarge the sphere of the public to rationally debate, argue and reach conclusion for social change. Associated with the “‘code of ethics” is that media persons should be given proper training on democratic principles so that they do not violate the laws of the land and the life-world of the nation. Only a media culture rooted in the public life of the nation can adequately articulate the right to information, which is also the essence of good governance.
Freedom of citizens, a free and responsible press, an independent judiciary and government’s data information are the system which can be perceived to be the key to the enhancement of right to information and make the institutions of governance transparent and accountable. The right to information, guaranteed rights and press and publication right are three vital means for establishing “open society” visualised by the Gambian constitution.
An access information Act should be brought out as soon as possible both to help in the way of freedom of information, enforce the accountability of information as well as to endow substance and quality in democratic debates so that citizens can monitor the day to day functioning of public institutions and actors.
The right to information is closely tied to the accountability mechanism, for monitoring every action of government which leads to good governance, places the dominant actors of governance-the state, the market and civil society in balance, and monitors their performance as per the boundaries for action defined for them. Media thus perform vital tasks of informing, socialising, communicating and articulating the power of the public and preparing them for social transformation and good governance.
By Gibairu Janneh]]>