by Alagi Yorro Jallow.
Fatoumatta: I have been asked to write a paper on “the media’s role in elections and democracy.” However, next time, I will refer you to my book; “Delayed Democracy: How Press Freedom Collapsed in the Gambia: A Proposition for Research in the Gambia Journalism History 1965-2013”.
I intend to do so by putting the sacrifices and vision of the radical and progressive journalists and press freedom and nationalist journalists under colonial rule and media heroes, and martyrs, intellectuals, in the context under the First and Second republic. We must reflect on the role of the media in past elections and under democratic rule in the Gambia. However, what we should not forget on occasions like this is to look back and celebrate the contributions of those who worked in and through the media to ensure that we have self-rule and a democratic rule in the Gambia.
The founding intellectual traditions of the Gambia press from the second half of the 19th century, which the likes of Edward Francis Small and others have carried into the 21st century, should be one of the critical pivots for the analysis of the contemporary role of the media in elections and democracy in the Gambia.
However, for many years after independence, the tradition of the intellectual leadership of public life by media intellectual waned as ethno-regional politics, military rule, and all sorts of sectarianism sucked the energy out of the intellectual wing of Gambian journalism. However, this tradition was revived as the Second Republic collapsed.
Fatoumatta: The media’s influence in a democracy and on elections has become conventional wisdom. Media experts have argued that the mass media “are the connective tissues of democracy. They are the principal means through which citizens and their elected representatives communicate in their reciprocal efforts to inform and influence. In democratic societies, it is assumed that through the information they convey to mass audiences, the media “serve as key guarantors of elite accountability and popular control of the government.” In light of this, a democratic media system has two important characteristics. One is that, because the media enjoy constitutional guarantees, citizens are assured of free access to political information all of the shades. This ensures that citizens can challenge their government and vote the government out of power if it fails to serve the people’s interest. Two is that the media are protected from arbitrary power and that media pluralism is institutionalized. As experts have argued, this ensures that “Democracy is strengthened and its integrity ensured by the free flow of information and competition among public and commercial media articulating … a variety of political viewpoints to educate the public and allow it to make informed choices, particularly at election time.”
In any liberal democratic state, the media are expected to perform certain functions within the political system. These include; surveillance of developments, both positive and negative, which may affect citizens’ welfare; agenda-setting, that is, identifying critical issues in the polities; offering accessible platforms for intelligible, illuminating advocacy by politicians and interest groups; serving as a bridge for dialogue across a wide range of views by power-holders, aspirants to political offices, and the citizenry; holding public officials accountable for their use and misuse of power; educating and motivating citizenry about politics including electoral politics – and participation in civic life; maintaining independence and integrity.
Fatoumatta: The press remains the fourth estate of the realm, the watchdog and the conscience of every nation. It is the organ that informs the public about the activities of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. The canine metaphor of the media as a watchdog indicates its watchful role in any government. Interestingly, the media does not only serve as a watchdog that only barks but one which guides the government towards change. Information is the basis of effecting change and tackling the consequence of change. This vibrant organ, the independent media, provides the information needed in running a government. The information-carrying and dissemination role of this “estate” is a veritable tool for change. Throughout the history of humankind, the press has always occupied the forefront of socio-political and economic changes. From the preceding, one can safely contend that the media’s role in running government affairs cannot be delegated or ignored.
Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States of America, while emphasizing the importance of the media, once said that if he were made to choose between a government without a press or a press without government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter. Thus, in the Gambia, the government, in recognition of the sacred role of the media enshrined in Section 25 of the 1997 Constitution, provides as follows: “Every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression,” which shall include freedom of the press and other media; so for in-depth analysis, the press, radio, television, and other agencies of the press shall be free to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people. Furthermore, the various International instruments that recognize freedom of expression as a general right, and media freedom as an aspect thereof, include the International Covenant on Civil and Political, Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Within the African continent, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (1981) also espouses the right of individuals to receive information, to express and disseminate opinions.
Freedom of the press is essential to a democratic society. Freedom of expression and the press distinguishes democratic from non-democratic countries. Self-government requires that citizens have accurate, adequate, and current information about issues facing their community. When ideas can be heard, examined, and questioned, society can develop culturally, economically, and scientifically. The freedom of the press and free expression also allow people to vent their anger or frustration with the government and other problems. It, therefore, decreases the likelihood that people will turn to violent means to express themselves. Freedom of expression remains one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. A general analysis of the Constitution reveals that Chapter 4 on media and human rights are broad and general. The 1997 Constitution does not articulate media human rights principles in a manner that places pre-eminence on these fundamental rights or does justice to international standards and ideals for promoting and protecting Human Rights. This may be because the 1997 Constitution concentrates its focus on the transition from military to civilian rule and, in the process, has conferred retroactive legitimacy to the actions of the Military Government. As such, the 1997 Constitution makes an equivocal commitment to freedom of expression and media rights.
Fatoumatta: The situation aptly captured by the above position is traceable to the period when the military was dominant in the leadership in Africa. No thanks to the “Tangal Cheeb politicians,” whose squandermania and power abusing tendencies gave the soldiers the excuse to seize power. The attendant problems of the military’s incursion into politics and undue interference in or outright rigging of the electoral process to either transform to a civilian president or install their favored candidate into office were prevalent in the continent. Unfortunately, this undemocratic and anti-people act was often perpetrated with the connivance of a section of the media.
Democracy that was enthroned in the Gambia some five years ago is a function of the activist role played by the independent media. In this regard, the press has succeeded in fulfilling one of the fundamental requirements of acceptance in the new world order- Democracy.
Many scholars of repute have written extensively on this popular media theory which crowns a subject matter by harping on it and delivering it. This role of the media gives it a kingmaker status. Whatever the media says it is, that is what it is. Paul Baran sums up this theory when he posited that the” media might not tell us what to think. Still, media certainly tell us what to think about.” The consistency and repetition of programs by television medium signal the viewers the imperatives of the issue or event. The media’s roles have been playing/ought to be playing/should be playing in the political communication sustenance is the context in which the research is anchored. In 1922 Francis Edward Small founded a newspaper, the Gambia Outlook and Senegambian Reporter. It has become imperative to discuss the history of the Gambian media in the same breath with Media and Politics as the Gambian media were birthed for nationalistic struggles. Although newspapers like “the “Gambia Outlook” and others of its ilk predate the “Senegambian Reporter” by Edward Francis Small in his work and “Press and Politics in the Gambia on the history of the Gambian Media published by Alagi Yorro Jallow” Delayed Democracy: How Press Freedom Collapsed in the Gambia” gives credence to the fact that the newspapers were established to fight colonialism and dominance by the British. The Gambia’s foremost nationalists Edward Francis Small and Dixon Colley, to mention a few, used their newspapers as veritable tools to fight against and dethrone colonialism and establish independent democracy in the Gambia.
The history of the Gambian Press cannot be complete without the mention of electronic media. The period in 1962 witnessed the establishment of the state-owned Radio Gambia station and the growth of the print media. Before independence, Radio Gambia was under the administration of the British government. The Government, no doubt, inherited the Radio Gambia and all ministries of information as legacies of the colonial government. In December 1995, the Gambia government commissioned the first-ever GRTS on stream, known as The Gambia Radio and Television Service (GRTS), began transmission under the Gambia TelecommubicationsComapny ( GAMTEL) by the Military government. It also became the first national television to go on air in the Gambia.
Today, from the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS)) to state-owned broadcast media, there has been a proliferation of broadcast media ever than before. This is not to mention the various privately-owned radio and TV stations across the country. All these media organizations join the newspapers, magazines, news agencies, and social media in keeping the public abreast of electoral activities before, during, and after elections.
Fatoumatta: The history of the Gambian press reveals that the press played an essential role in the struggle for the country’s independence. Thus, the media functions as thus: Gambian Newspapers have played an active role in the society, relaying news of politics and political strife and stimulating discussions on a variety of matters of public interest (AYJallow,2013).
However, from the Gambian press’s historical perspective, the whole business of the media arose from the need to awaken the dormant consciousness of the people towards good governance through a credible, accessible, and fair electoral system. There are no better means to arouse the Gambian people than the power of the pen and tongue. The Gambian Press has lived up to expectations in spreading useful and developmental information to its society. This accounts for the news stories, editorials, commentaries, interviews, and other information-giving activities of the media in both print and electronic media. The media has helped the Gambian people keep abreast of the developments in the country’s political space. The “Gambia Decides” program on GRTS and the “Mandate Studio” on Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) during elections, as well as many special programs created by private television and radio stations on the elections, typify the information giving role of the media in making the electorate to get a “blow by blow” account of the electioneering and the profiles of their potential leaders.
Fatoumatta: Many people in our urban areas will find it difficult to imagine life without the media. Just think how it would feel to wake up one morning, turn on your radio set and receive nothing but static noises. Many of us would not want to experience such deprivation more than once in a lifetime. The Gambian press has always been helpful as a medium for structuring the country’s political landscape, an avenue for agitation and proper political leadership. One of the social responsibility theory tenets is enlightening the public and making them capable of self-governance. This tenet, therefore, puts on the shoulders of the media the responsibility to ensure good leadership in the society in which it operates.
One of the instruments of African (Gambian ) Nationalism was frequency or longevity; each Nationalist newspaper was a vehicle for the formation of public opinion. The press was a medium for agitation and political leadership.
During the colonial period, the press referred to the newspapers like the Senegambian Reporter, The Gambia Echo, Nations, etc. These were instruments for fighting colonialism or bad policies in different capacities. The aim was to arouse empathy and political awareness in demand for independence. The media not only agitate or draw attention to the government’s destructive policies but also drum support for the positive initiatives of the government. The efforts of the press in lending to credible government policy are seen in the instances of organizing press conferences and interviews, undertaking public campaigns on critical national issues, and a host of other government programs.
The private and public media is described as a watchdog is in recognition of its watchful and criticizing role against the destructive practices of the government. As Ralph Milliband describes Journalist (media) as a “corps of intrepid reporters who were always caught in the web several steps ahead of the goons.” Simultaneously, the political leaders and their cronies try to find ways to tailor the Constitution to suit their selfish needs and aspirations. Ralph’s position on the power of the media to avert such activities when he maintains that: According to Ralph, he argued that the role of media is to shape how we think about the world that we live in. This can suggest that media can brainwash its audience, and people will conform to the ideas projected by the media about ethnic minorities, in this case, the black community.
Fatoumatta: Former president Yahya Jammeh was seeking a fifth-term agenda that would have succeeded. Still, for the vibrant media and a grand coalition Gambian who were adequately informed to resist, they continue to reject Yahya Jammeh’s self-perpetuating power after 22 years at the helm of the Gambia.
Yahya Jammeh’s pursuit of a fifth term in office, an attempt to remain in power for long, motivated the law-making organ of the government to attempt to circumvent the Constitution. However, in performing its watchdog role, the media drummed publicity to this ignoble act and his ambition to perpetuate himself in office longer than necessary. The vibrancy of the media truncated his determination to turn the Gambia into an Islamic republic.
The mass media is instrumental in the electoral process of any nation. In its agenda-setting role, the media help the electorate have an insight into the personalities of the political office seekers and their party manifestoes. During the transition from the military/ dictatorship to democratic rule between 1994 and 2016, the media lived up to its expectation by keeping the public abreast of happenings in the political space of the Gambia.
The role of the mass media is essential to the political and electoral process in any country. It is worthy of note that the media in the Gambia has played a positive role in the process. During the last elections in the Gambia, the media was alive to its duty of creating awareness, sensitizing, and mobilizing the electorate to participate in the election. This is evident in the various media coverage, interviews of politicians, giving insights into their profiles, and making their manifestoes heard. The publicity no doubt helped Gambians to make their choice on whom to vote for.
Fatoumatta: The press did not only go to town with reports of election malpractices but are also part of the changing process. The media has played a role in the electoral reforms by carrying out civil campaigns on problems of the electoral reforms and are doing an excellent job of it.
The Gambian media professionals have, in furtherance of the electoral reform process, attended a training organized by the International Republican Institute (an international body that ensures the growth of democracy in countries of the world) to train journalists to effectively report the significant issues at stake during the electoral reform process. The training enabled them to educate the citizenry on the process and improve the technical competence of participants.
Fatoumatta: This role of the media in Gambia’s emerging democracy from informational, leadership, watchdog, electoral reforms, and a plethora of other functions affirm that the media is indispensable in any polity where democracy is practiced and where a credible electoral system is germane. Even in an autocracy, the press is needed for it to function. Armed with the knowledge of the indispensability of the media, we wish to recommend that government should provide a conducive environment for the press to flourish. One way to ensure a free and fair electoral system in The Gambia is to carry the media and partners in progress. Through the press, elections are not only regarded as being credible by are seen by all as being so. Also, the press needs not to be cowered or shouted down.
Fatoumatta: Besides, the ownership of the media should not be made to have an overriding influence on its offerings to the detriment of the public. As difficult as it may sound, regulations can be put in place. Still, the press should not allow the muzzled with the ownership or control apparatus.