Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gambia Gov't, Media Relations Should Improve

Minister Tangara

The recent Commonwealth Media and Development Forum hosted in the Gambia, and the presence of some government Ministers is a welcome development, and move in the right direction. 
Listening to the various speakers, including Gambia Government Officials, one would note that the role of the media in nation building is undisputed and indispensable.
As the country’s Foreign Minister Dr. Mamadou Tangara aptly put it, ‘a deep democracy functions in no small part through an informed and engaged citizenry’.

He went further  to  add  that, “Therefore, the media should also provide a realm for debate and a lubricant to the effective functioning of democratic processes. It should present itself as the voice of the people, accommodating all constructive and substantiated views and ensuring that marginal voices and ideas are also heard.”
He also rightly put it when he said the media is expected to inform, investigate, educate and entertain. But we also know that the media sometimes distort and misled.” Valid points! and we concur with him.
But we observe that one of the major problems between the government of President Jammeh and journalists in the private media is the mistrust that has developed over the years, hence the two perceive each other negatively. Albeit, there are reasons for this. The media can only play its role effectively when the government makes the environment very conducive for journalists to operate. The government should be more tolerant to divergence of opinions and dissenting views. The media too has to be responsible in its work.
We heard the Honourable Minister acknowledging that the media is an inevitable partner in development. This, according to him, is why the Gambia government is trying to put in place the basic prerequisite, including the “enabling environment for the Gambian media practitioners to function in a responsive, responsible and professional manner bearing in mind that it is also the duty of all Gambians irrespective of their status to protect the interest and integrity as well as promote the positive image of The Gambia”. We do not think any reasonable media-mind is opposed to that. But that has to be given a real effect; and should not be mere rhetoric.
It is our strong view that the Media practitioners and government officials should be able to sit and discuss issues pertinent to the development of the country, if what both claim they are, are to be taken seriously. After all, this is our only country in the world.
Journalists are bound to make mistakes sometimes, just like Presidents, Ministers, judges and Imams and Priests sometimes make mistakes, in their respective responsibilities. They say to ‘err is human’, and journalists too are human beings. We believe the authorities should be able to use the Gambia Press Union as the umbrella body of Journalists in this country, to address some of the issues or problems, amicably. 
We don’t think it is always good to resort to prosecuting journalists, as this added acrimony to the already bad relations, which we believe, is not helping the positive image of this country. 
Dr. Tangara is also right in saying the media should not be used as a platform to destabilize existing institutions but rather to create conducive environment for cooperation between media and government for national development. We hope both the government and the media would, henceforth seriously work towards creating a conducive environment for cooperation between the two.
They should work to build and maintain a relation aimed at promoting, safeguarding and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance. This could also be done through regular consultation and meetings with the GPU. There is no doubt in our minds that this would pay dividend. As the Head of Africa Section, Political Affairs Division Commonwealth Secretariat in London, Ambassador Ayo Oke, has extensively elaborated in his paper at the training in The Gambia, a vibrant media is indispensable for promoting good governance considering that journalists play a critical role in the decision-making process by drawing attention to policy debates, disseminating valuable information, and holding governments accountable.
But as Mr.Oke noted, this is not always the case, as media practitioners sometimes miss or misinterpret events.
Tangara has a similar view when he said, “But we also know that the media sometimes distort and mislead.
These two points cannot be brushed aside for they are factual about the media, and it’s a challenge for the media.
We would like to acknowledge that, in the exercise of the freedom of expression, all media practitioners have a duty towards the society at large to respect the rights and freedoms of others with the aim to protecting, safeguarding and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance. 
And this, we believe, involves a high ethical responsibility towards other fellow being, who also have the related right to have that information passed on to them accurately, constructively, honestly and objectively.
But what Gambian government officials fall short of admitting, is the faults of authorities when media issues are being discussed. Hence, both sides will be defensive. 
The primary role of governments is to ensure the economic and social well being of its citizens. And as the Commonwealth man pinpointed, this implies that governments are prime movers of development, and institution-creation in social, economic and political spheres and often anticipate some degree of collaboration and partnership with the media who are, for this purpose, regarded as constituents of the ‘Fourth Estate of the Realm’. We call on the government of the Gambia and the private media, which have for long been viewing each other with suspicion, to bridge that gap that continues to unfold between them, and engage in  serious dialogue. 
The reasons for the bad blood between two are many and  varied. The frequent arrests detentions of journalists in the past, and prosecution of journalists, as well as Government’s closure of some media outlets are among the reasons for the bad relations.
Also some official comments made against Gambian journalists are not helping the relations, and not to talk about the draconian media laws that continue to give rise to fear and self-censorship. The media laws should be decriminalize so that instead of criminal indictments being filed against journalists, civil suits will be applied, as the last resort, when retractions, rejoinders and apologies wouldn’t do.
The Government on the other hand would accuse private media journalists of negative reporting about the administration. They also argue that most journalists are not qualified to practice; while branding some as “oppositions” or sympathizers of the opposition, or even “agents of the West”.
We agree that some media practitioners are not living up to expectations, just as some presidents and ministers, bankers etc are not living up to the expectations. That’s human life.
But that should not warrant enmity between the two, or the vilification of the entire independent press.
The Government must see journalists, as sons and daughters of this nation {albeit not all are Gambians}. We are equally interested in the development and security of this country just like any other good citizen. We have our grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers, fathers, sisters, you name it, in this country. We wonder what interest would any patriotic journalist have in creating trouble in this country. One can run way but cannot go with the entire family chain. Journalists by virtue of their job must expose corruption, nepotism, etc. in government if they are to be called watchdogs. Equally, journalists must commend the government when it does good and pickholes in it where it goes wrong. That is how the press should operate; journalists are not, and must not be “griots”, or “public relations officers” for anybody. Their profession has ethics that they must go by, in order to do their work professionally.
Alternative sources of information, including independent media, to which citizens have politically unfettered access, are very vital for any true democracy.  One shortcoming that is rampant in most governments in Africa is intolerance to divergent views. It will be suicidal for any country to want to have a people who will always say yes to the government even when it is very obvious that it is on the wrong path. Any leader must not encourage that culture of “yes sir” to everything he or she does. Because the tendency is that the leader will assume too much power and as we are told that ‘Power corrupts, absolute power, corrupts absolutely’.
As the Commonwealth Secretariat official aptly put it, Good governance is a fundamental requirement for a nation’s progress and general well-being; and “A free, independent and professional media is a critical pillar of any governance system based on democratic accountability and it is at the centre of the struggle to attain good governance and transparency in public institutions.”
Our hope is that leaders, especially African ones, will be reminded by his recollection of the Commonwealth  Heads of Government pledge in the 2003 Aso Rock Commonwealth Declaration on Development and Democracy where they reaffirmed their commitment to making democracy work better for pro-poor development and also reaffirmed citizens’ right to information.
There is no gainsaying the fact that media cannot be left behind in any development. It is the media, and journalists for that matter, who will spread the messages to the wider audience. So they must be respected, and the in turn must respect others, especially the constituted authorities. We also hope this had reminded the journalists remind the media of its responsibility. We are of the strong view that responsibility should be the hallmark of press/government relations.
It is important the Commonwealth official raised the issue of freedom of Information Act, as this is one thing lacking in the Gambia.
He said 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.  
 We hope this will encourage the Gambia government to quickly pass such a vital law, as in our view, this will go a long way in clearing rumour and enhance accurate reporting and professionalism. The passing of FOI law should not be seen as a weakness for any government, but rather a strength, as it will enhance the free flow of information for public consumption; and by extension create an informed masses to participate fully in the development of their country.
Despite their limitations, the Gambian journalists are doing their best. We have seen and heard how media in some developed countries intrude into the privacy of government officials, scandalizing them in various ways. The Gambian media is not doing that, because our culture, traditions, and other social considerations guide it.
The peace and stability of our country must be of paramount importance to every Gambian, and non-Gambians alike living here. For without stability, investment, democracy and development, governance and growth could not be possible.
We call on the Gambia government and the Private press to embrace serious dialogue and regular consultation on issues affecting the relationship, so that a good working relations will be established between the duo.
Our citizenry deserves it.  And we hope from now on there will be opened a new chapter in the relations between the Fourth Estate and the Government, for the sake of our nation.

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