"The role of journalists in a free society and holding government accountable"
By McAnthony Dagyenga
In very early days of May 2003, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Panel of International Journalists, Louise Frechette remarked that a free and independent press is the lifeblood of strong, functioning societies and a lifeline to progress itself; he further stated that unless ideas and information could travel freely, both within frontiers and across them, peace would remain elusive and where censorship was imposed, both democracy and development were the losers.
Frechettes assertion suggests that a society without a free press or journalists cannot be described as free and as such cannot hold its government accountable. Meanwhile, a democracy without accountability is like concrete without cement, the reason the role of journalists in a free society cannot be understated.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence for America that I took an oath to God that my mission in life is to strive to attain a free society, this is because he believed Government's only role is to secure every individual's rights.
A free society can be said to be a society where people have the right to exercise unlimited freedom in their own lives, freedom to live in whatever manner they choose and freedom to pursue their own goals, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal rights of others to do the same.
Paul in the Bible admonished the Galatians to "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free emphasising the essence of a free society. Just as one Patrick Henry opined that "I know not what course others may take, but as for me; give me liberty, or give me death!"
It is impossible to maximize political stability, economic growth, and democracy without the free flow of information. Someone wrote; a free society cannot flourish on a culture committed to irrationalism. This is where journalists in a free society come in to play their expected role.
Journalists are there to correct culture of irrationalism which include corruption, irresponsibility, by undertaking the following four essential roles: holding governments accountable to the people through reporting is a truly important function, publicising issues that need attention, educating citizens so they can make informed decisions, and connecting people with each other in civil society.
Holding government accountable
The watchdog function is often the hardest to perform well. Government agencies and officials are not always willing to be transparent, especially if there is no tradition of public scrutiny.
"Freedom of speech and exchange of information are not just luxuries, they are the currency on which global commerce, politics, and culture increasingly depend," observed David Hoffman, the founder of Internews, an international nongovernmental agency that helps train and develop independent media in 50 countries.
In Ghana, the Right to Information (RTI) bill is still locked up in Parliament suffocating under political gimmicks with both major political parties pretending to be concerned about it being passed but actually mean the opposite. It is simply an indication that governments fear to be held accountable to their citizens and so to pass the RTI will mean granting the media the full power and right to hold the government of the day accountable.
However, no matter the situation, the media have the onerous role to ever hold the government accountable to its people without fear.
It is an undoubted fact that without a free and independent press sector, the full responsibility for public information and safety resides only in the government. This lack of public engagement can seriously undermine a country's security and economic growth.
In 2003 for instance, the Chinese government suppressed the media in that country to be mute on the SARS epidemic that engulfed China; thus denying the public accurate knowledge or awareness about the epidemic. In such a matter, it took the independent foreign media to hold the Chinese government accountable on behalf of the people when the local media were restricted to do so.
But it is the role of the media to ensure that they follow the jounalism principle of publicising issues that are of importance to the citizenry.
For instance, if journalists in Ghana played their role so well, the disaster at Kintampo which killed about 20 and injured over 30 people, all beloved to be students of the Wenchi Senior High School, could have been prevented. Were the media proactive to get authorities alerted on maintaining the tourist site, necessary renovations could have been done to avert such a disaster.
Once the media are free to play their role in a free society, newspapers, radio and television stations can be important building blocks of democracy and in addition to serving as a watchdog on local institutions as well as alerting the public to safety issues, they can help citizens to understand and access their seeming distant government.
It is the role of the media to educate the citizens about government policies and the general laws of the land to guide them to live and effectively and efficiently play their civic responsibilities as citizens.
The more the news media offer balanced news and community discussions, the more the public values them. A civic information is the fuel of democracy. People become better educated and take more responsibility for their own wellbeing.
The media's role to construct reality must be at play here because the public is always ready to accept whatever the media say as the 'gospel truth' and abide by them. Thus if the media provides negative or untruth information, the public take those negative and untruth information as "factual" and when that happens, the nation will be plunged in danger.
Being the voice of the people
The media can act as a safety valve by offering a forum for diverse voices to be heard.
In a World Bank report, Consultations with the Poor studied 20,000 poor people in 23 countries and found that what most "differentiates poor people from rich people is a lack of voice; The inability to be represented; The inability to convey to the people in authority what it is that they think; The inability to have a searchlight put on the conditions of inequality. These people interviewed do not have Ph.D.s but they have the knowledge of poverty, and the first thing they talked about is not money. It is lack of voice; it is lack of the ability to express themselves."
A vibrant media with competing independent newspapers, radio, Internet Websites, and television, allows those poor and the vulnerable voices to be heard. These media can spotlight problems, encourage fellow citizens and government officials to address them, and empower even the destitute with real information. Everyone gains if the poor or the vulnerable have a chance to improve their lot, taking part in the opportunities afforded by free speech, free press, and the right to assembly in free societies.
One Ellen Hume, a media expert, equated Information with Power, saying that, “Information is power.” So if the people are fed with accurate and fair information, they gain power to be innovative and also live responsibly.
And if a nation is to enjoy the political and economic advantages enabled by the rule of law, powerful institutions must be open to scrutiny by the people and or through the media. If technology and science are to advance, ideas must be openly shared. Similarly, if government is to be valued because it is accountable to the people, then the media are essential to that process.
Thomas Jefferson opined that, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” The media's role cannot and should never be underestimated.