Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Commonwealth Official Talks On Media, Good Governance And Transparency

“The single most important obstacle to a healthy media and government relationship in Africa and elsewhere is the failure to recognize the crucial role played by the media in the creation of conditions that promote transparency and good governance,” so staed  Ambassador  Ayo Oke, Head of  Africa  Section,  Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat in   London.
He was speaking at the recently concluded Commonwealth  Forum in Banjul  under theme “ Media  and  Economic Development.” 

According to the official, this lack of recognition is reflected in the presence of active censorship or restrictive regulation of media, lack of rights of access to official information, a legal framework which inhibits the ability of journalists to inquire freely, and the state control of administration of essential media services, including broadcasting, promoting facilities and distribution systems.
He told his audience that Freedom Of Information (FOI) legislation comprises laws that guarantee access to data held by the state.   He informed them these laws establish a “right to know” legal process by which requests may be made for government held information, to be received freely or at  minimal cost, barring standard exceptions.  
While saying a recent study suggested that over 85 countries around the world  have implemented some form of such legislation, Oke  pointedly  said  the African record “is a far distance from the ideal”.
He then cited countries that have enacted FOI in their statute books, saying that only South Africa (2000), Zimbabwe (2002), Uganda (2005), Liberia (2010) and Nigeria (2011) have some form of legislation on FOI. He informed his audience that legislation  is pending in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique and Sierra Leone.  
But  Ambassador Oke charged them that much work needs to be done by governments, media and civil society in advocating for legislation and implementation of  FOI laws.
According to him, the overriding consideration here is to assess the political and economic space in which the government and media interact in promoting transparency and good governance in public institutions. 
He buttressed on the first speaker’s points saying that a difficult relationship between media and  the exercise of political power is itself a hallmark of democratic society and the tendency to manipulate information or to attempt to shape the agenda of public debate exists in all societies.  
However, in countries where the democratic culture is not well-established and where respect for democratic pluralism and human rights is not firmly entrenched, restrictions on media tend to be explicit and are acutely damaging to the project of public engagement in good governance.
This, he challenged, is the crux of the matter that they should thoroughly interrogate at the forum in order to make concrete proposals the way for a healthy public space for the media and government interaction.
This, he reasoned, is so that both parties could maximize their potential in advancing the principles and practice of good governance in all facets of public life.
“Our task (Commonwealth) will be to proffer ideas on how we can assist governments and the media to dissolve the noticeable miasma of distrust that exists between them as a pre-condition for creating more co-operative relationships based on a genuine appreciation of each other’s rights, roles and responsibilities  to the society,” he added.
On the African context, Ambassador Oke said evidence points the need for governments to make the necessary adjustments in the management information systems in ways that would empower the media and guarantee greater openness towards journalists by governments.  
At that juncture, he quoted James Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank, who has argued: ‘A free press is not a luxury but is at the absolute core of equitable development.’  
Similarly, journalists in Africa have two essential and not always compatible duties.
Making his points, he said first, journalists must awaken their fellow citizens; hold their governments to account and provide basic information and analyses that promote quality decisions by public and private actors.  
The second point he hammered on was that journalists must be professional as to be able to interpret international forces, placing their own home turf into the context of the wider world especially with regards to issues of good governance, transparency and development.
The media, Head of Africa  Section enjoined, must therefore re-assert itself to play the role of watch-dog and citizen advocate in the political and economic fields notwithstanding the configuration of the political space or environment.  
But he admitted that this is easier said than done, but “we are definitely short of alternatives”.
He stressed the need for them to underscore the point that supporting media as an institution would require understanding of the core requirements of the sector.
 Thoughts along this line are articulated in the following suggestions:promoting investment, equity and other mechanisms to capitalise the media industry;developing a robust media management capacity;fosteringthe development of a fully-grown information culture, which embraces regular dialogue between government and media;overcoming government domination of information and information management systems; and raising the level of journalistic professionalism.
He charged that time has come for media in  Africa to re-focus on the key issues of democracy and development,governance and growth.
The Commonwealth, he told the audience, is ready to engage the media on these themes because their work in their 54 member states is structured around them.  
He noted that their great strength is that they are a membership organisation dedicated to genuine partnership between all our member countries.
“Our effectiveness is built upon  the country ‘ownership’ of  and trust in the Commonwealth and the recognised absence in our world of any national bias or political agenda.”
The starting point, he clearly stated, would be to entrench the elements of transparency, accountability and good governance at the centre of their collective engagements with “our leaders and public institutions at all levels”.  
The capacity of African governments to effectively confront the myriad challenges facing African peoples - poverty, hunger,ignorance,high employment, poor health services - will depend on the extent to which we are able to build and sustain these critical factors in the running of our public institutions, Ambassador Oke remarked at the Commonwealth’s Gambia forum.  

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