Journalism is what we need to make democracy work

Abdulai Mansaray: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 27 November 2019:

While some will see journalism as “organised gossip”, the majority will agree that it’s a force for progressive social change that maintains democracy. The role of journalism in any given society is so central that, it is often fondly described as the 4th Estate.

Many see its role as the barometer of society and thermometer of opinion. It occupies the vacuum of alternative opinion to governments and seen as voice of the voiceless and downtrodden people.

Although we cannot overemphasise the role of journalism in our society, it is equally nauseating that where an issue of public interest is concerned; there is the temptation of trial by media; even before due process of the law. Guilty as charged.

In other cases, it is the pursuance of truth and truth to power, without fear or favours that separate the patriot from the jingoist or nationalist. It is the sacred duty of journalists to inform, educate and entertain.

As a call of duty, one of its roles is to protect the people from its governments. When a government fears its people, it is liberty. But when a people fear its government, it is tyranny. But in spite of its sanctity, we cannot hide away from the fact in some cases, while pursuing the truth, truth becomes the first casualty. We see how truth has become the enemy of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The right to free speech and freedom of expression are the palm oil with which journalism can be eaten. Unfortunately, and in spite of all the benefits of the digital age, our present day journalism has been fraught with the very vices it is supposed to fight against: corruption.

Most media houses are owned by media moguls, who have successfully weaponised the noble art to psychologically re-engineer minds en masse. Religion used to be the opium of the masses, but journalism is claiming a monopoly on that now.

Journalism used to be about the public’s right to know, but slowly becoming what you need to know. Who decides what I need to know? With “alternative truths” reaching the height of perfection, the average man on the street is the biggest loser here; as the acceptance of disinformation slowly crawls its way into our psyche. It is the osmotic acceptance of the views of the few by the many, which has left this world wealthy in knowledge but poorer in wisdom.

Unfortunately, the world of journalism is now running on the axis of political persuasions. The unavoidably symbiotic relationship between politics and journalism has only created a poverty of thought; where the diet of information is gastronomically prepared to suit the palates of the paymasters. Information is power, but like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. Journalism has unfortunately become a weapon of mass destruction; to stop us from thinking for ourselves.

Most media houses have unashamedly now become the echo chambers of their political paymasters. In America today, we see how Donald Trump takes his political lessons from the Fox media group. This is also the case with the Democrats drinking from the fountain of CNN and others.

The case in America is the universal blueprint today. In Sierra Leone, even where genuine national issues need addressing are synthesised along political lines. But unlike America, the temptation and propensity to be a corrupt or coerced journalist is becoming too obvious.

But before you rush to send your comments in, let us make it clear that this is no way a summary condemnation of the great job, some of our journalists are doing. But we cannot hide from the fact that this noble profession the world over has attracted some rogue elements.

In my country Sierra Leone and in many others today, the lack of opportunities, laced with the unenviable level of poverty has not been forgiving.

We all know that advertisements, sponsorships and many other cash generating schemes are the life blood of media outlets. Sales from newsprint is not enough to keep the pulse newspaper houses ticking.

Take for example the price of an average 8 page newspaper is Le 2000.00 (two thousand Leones). That does not even cover the production cost.

In this harsh economic climate, it goes without saying that the survival of most newspapers will be dependent on the advertising market.

Sierra Leone has a lot of businesses that depend on advertising to keep them going. But even among those businesses, a lot of them depend on the “word of mouth” as their most effective sales pitch. So who or what is the biggest advertiser in our country?

You guessed right – the Government of Sierra Leone. And which political party is running the government? Don’t answer that. But before you start accusing me of bias, this has always been the case; be it APC, SLPP, NPRC or AFRC.

The government of the day has always been the biggest advertiser in our country. So with the government of the day at any given time in our political history, how would a media house go about attracting and securing regular adverts from the biggest advertiser in the land; when your very existence depends on it? Don’t answer that either. Sometimes, the corruption of the best gives rise to the worst.

Now you are beginning to understand why a lot of our media houses are political party friendly, right? You wouldn’t expect a ruling government to flood a media house that is critical of them with adverts, would you? Yes, some will say that there are other sources and businesses that can generate advertisements for those that don’t toe the government line. That is true, but what is the percentage?

But lest you forget, every business, organisation, NGO etc. needs a very good listening ear from the government of the day. With that in mind, how would such entities advertise with media houses that run contraflow to the government of the day? Because the friend of an “enemy” (I use it loosely here please) is my enemy. Even some business would be scared to associate themselves with such newspapers.

But let’s also look at the impact the digital age has had on our media landscape. No News is old news, but we have known news as the most perishable commodity known to man. The digital age has made it even worse. Most of our newspapers used to be on daily production. Nowadays, many would be lucky to have a once a week edition.

In a situation where one copy of newspaper is read by a whole “area”, how many copies would a newspaper house need to sell to break even? In an environment where everyone has become a journalist, thanks to a smart phone, data and the click of a button, the newspaper is becoming increasingly asphyxiated. By the time the newspaper gets to print, the news would have expired; and the only thing that would keep it going would be the environmentally friendly recycled versions. Even those versions would depend on the political palate of the teller. As if that is not enough, they have to compete with “kehkeh” and “Poda Poda talk”.

This is just a window into the tough world of the journalists in our country. With this in mind, is it time to outsource subsidy for our ailing media houses? If we are to generate an atmosphere of free speech and freedom of expression as the blood circulation for democracy, should the 4th estate be subsided?

Cue the Independent Media Commission (IMC)

The IMC, under the Ministry of Information is custodian of the rules and regulations governing the establishment and operations of the print and electronic media in Sierra Leone. All media houses sign up to adhere to its rules and regulations.

With the IMC grounded in the independence of our media houses, and with some media houses struggling to keep their head above water, is it time for the IMC to subsidise them; in the interest of maintaining their independence, if not already? Just a utopian thought, I know.

Lest we forget, the symbiotic relationship between some media outlets and any sitting government is neither new, nor a monopoly of Sierra Leone. It is universal. We still have a lot of good journalists; and they are in the majority. I am not a journalist. I just think aloud.

Do The Right Thing: It will gratify some people and astonish the Rest. Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.

1 Comment

  1. It is ‘Responsible’ journalism that is needed to make democracy work. But today in Sierra Leone, in particular, and across the world in general, we see so-called journalists behaving like mouthpieces of politicians in return for bribes. More so, professional education and training standards for journalists have fallen to the point where everyone that can buy or own a newspaper can declare themselves as journalists, when they do not possess the education and the training to qualify them as journalists.

    With the proliferation of social media platforms, the line that separates NEWS from OIPNION is a thin one. No doubt, the role of journalism in the modern nation-state is as relevant and critical to the survival and growth of liberal democracies across the world, as is the public’s role to hold journalists accountable for their work.

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