By Baba Galleh Jallow
UNESCO’S theme for World Press Freedom Day this year is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and the Rule of Law.” The theme for this 25th celebration of World Press Freedom Day explores the nexus between state power, the media, justice and the rule of law. It explores issues of press freedom, the independence of the judiciary and its safeguarding of press freedom, transparency in the political process, and the challenges facing contemporary online media. In exploring these issues, we cannot lose sight of the question of media professionalism and responsibility as well.
It is a well-known fact that the media is no darling of power, the custodian of justice and the rule of law. Yet, the media is also a custodian of justice and the rule of law. Both power and the media lay claim to being custodians of justice and the rule of law. Yet there always seems to be an irreconcilable conflict between power and the media over what constitutes justice and the rule of law. In many countries, the media pays heavily for daring to advocate justice and the rule of law. Media outlets are banned. Newspaper offices are burnt. And journalists are brutally murdered and subjected to all kinds of cruel and unusual punishment in the name of dispensing justice and enforcing the rule of law.
The media insists on justice and the rule of law not for any sinister or subversive motives as often claimed by power. The media insists on justice and the rule of law simply because it is the right thing to do. Without justice and the rule of law, society cannot progress in the right way. Justice and the rule of law help maintain right relations in society. Right relations between state and society, between society and society, between individual and individual, and between the individual and their own cultural and moral universe. The greater the degree of right relations in society, the more healthy that society in most of the areas that matter. A society may not be materially wealthy, but it may be wealthy in ways that money cannot buy. That the media promotes these right relations is one good reason why power must embrace the media as partners in development.
In Africa in particular, the conflict between power and the media is often confined to the nation-state space, a space both power and the media claim to love equally. For this reason, power and the media should not be fighting at all since they both want the best for the country. But sometimes the best for the country is conflated with the best for the government which, in turn, is conflated with the best for the president. In many situations where power is particularly hostile to the media, little distinction is allowed between country, government and president. In an effort to prove itself right, power wears a blindfold and lashes indiscriminately out at the media and at the society the media is trying to protect. The unfortunate result is that important developmental imperatives remain neglected. Challenges and obstacles to sustainable development are allowed to pile up and gather dust on office shelves, on street corners, in villages, in communities and most unfortunately, in the minds of the people where they represent an increasingly crippling burden.
In such unhealthy situations the president often proclaims the one and only development agenda in the country and cracks the whip at all who dare to suggest otherwise. Sustainable development goals are personalized and must proceed the way power says they must, regardless of their chances for success. As power slaps down all warning voices, especially the media’s, it slaps down all chances for the attainment of any development goals at all, sustainable or otherwise. These press freedom predators loudly claim to possess infallible visions that must become reality by the year 2030, when they must still be in power. Since the media cannot help but wonder at the sanity of the whole developmental charade, it remains at the receiving end of cruel and unusual punishment. The media is often left with one of only two choices: Self-censorship or death. Meanwhile, the challenges and obstacles to sustainable development keep piling up and a traumatized society remains prostrate at the bottom of the world development index.
It is obvious that no sustainable development goal is attainable without freedom of expression and of the press. Poverty, both material and mental, cannot be alleviated if the media is not free to expose, report on and criticize the causes of growing inequality and bad governance and to suggest remedies for their mitigation, including eradicating corruption in high places. Hunger cannot be eradicated if the media is not free to point out policy flaws and again, suggest ways of correcting them. An effective media not only criticizes bad social and political policies and practices, it suggests alternative ways of doing things. Independent newspaper editorials are a rich source of good advice for power but often run counter to the parochial interests of power. Meanwhile, most public owned media carry editorials either attacking their fellow media or proclaiming the infallibility of power. These media are protected by raw power, and have little regard for justice and the rule of law. Few sustainable development goals may be achieved through their agency, which is to serve as a mouthpiece and public address system for power.
Sustainable development can only happen in an environment where the media is free to promote peace, justice and equality without fear or favor, and where a robust and independent judiciary protects the media and upholds the rights of the citizen and the dignity of the human person. If the media is not free, the judiciary cannot possibly be independent. If laws are passed to censor public opinion, parliament cannot possibly be serious about representing the voice and interests of the nation. If journalists are arrested or murdered and media houses are burnt down and no one is arrested, everyone knows that the executive is responsible. The police will of course launch so-called investigations that look everywhere but state house. Often, it is the media that offers clues as to which direction the wind blows, which is why power gets so angry at them.
The media must be allowed free access to information and its right to freely share that information in a responsible manner must be guaranteed by the judiciary. Censorship is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the body politic, which is to say the health and wellbeing of the citizens of a country. When free expression is blocked, society loses its creative energy and grows lethargic. Ideas are the building blocks of progress. When ideas are not freely shared and implemented, there is hardly any chance of quality education and protection for children, gender equality, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities, decent work or economic growth, among other sustainable development goals.
It is also helpful to remember that governments must go beyond respecting freedom of expression and tolerating a free media to actually listening to the media, learning from the media, and taking corrective actions and measures suggested by the media. A government may actually demonstrate remarkable respect for freedom of expression and of the press but still fail to address the problematic issues raised by the media. This is because many governments do not see the media as the learning institutions that they are. This is because the reality of the media as an open school is not embraced by governments. But the media ARE open schools; they ARE learning institutions that serve as both the voice of the voiceless on one hand and the reason of power on the other. It is thus a matter of urgency for governments that proclaim and actually demonstrate respect for freedom of expression and of the press to start seeking some of the solutions to national problems in the airwaves, the TV screens and the newspaper pages. A power-media partnership is one of the surest ways of attaining any of the sustainable development goals.
However, it must also be admitted that while the media plays its vital role of keeping the power of the state in check, it must remember to keep its own power in check through a practice of ethical and responsible journalism. A media that calls for responsible and accountable government must itself be responsible and accountable. Since the media advocates truth, peace, justice and equity in society, it must itself be an uncompromising paragon of truth, justice, and equity in the execution of its watchdog role. Whether journalists are working online, in radio and television stations, or in newspapers, they must cultivate and stick to the high ethical standards of the profession. The media must realize that while they could do a lot of good for society, they could also do a lot of harm to society in general as well as to communities, families and individuals in society. Media must make sure that their stories are well researched and balanced, and that when they report on an issue, they seek all possible sides of the story. They must also beware of plagiarism by making sure that they properly cite documents and papers they quote from. All too often, the media is not adequately sensitive to the people and institutions about whom they report, and this could create resentment and hamper social progress and the attainment of sustainable development goals. So yes, the media must keep the power of the state in check. But yes, the media must also keep its own power in check.