Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Press: Vehicle of Knowledge; Sacred Instrument for Control of Government Action.

By Asonganyi Tazoacha

Recently the National Communication Council of Cameroon closed down certain media outlets and punished some journalists for alleged “disrespect of ethics and professionalism.”

Humanity has progressed from the discovery of printing and the telegraph to computers that power and subtly govern the information age, and picture-taking communication satellites that send digitized pictures and sounds to the computers for sophisticated editing. We are in the age of internet and wireless technologies, live-from-everywhere news coverage, and free information and knowledge circulation through the news media and other gadgets. Such knowledge and information influence how the people view and think about their society, and eventually, what they do. They also force people who have anything to do with society or public life to take the concerns of the community seriously and to be responsible for their own actions.This has left those who exercise unfettered power jittery since the usual control of the circulation of such information and knowledge is slowly slipping out of their grip.

Because it is the sovereign people that control their government and not the reverse, different peoples around the world have hemmed in their governments, so that what the people read, hear and see does not depend on the whims and caprices of their governments.

Three examples will suffice here: the USA, Nigeria and Ghana, with due acknowledgement of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French Revolution that provided freedom of speech. In the USA, freedom and independence of the media is regulated by the powerful “First Amendment” which is like the charter of the right to information of the citizen. There is also the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that receives complaints about extreme, incorrect, or improper political, economic or social statements broadcast by the audiovisual networks. However, the FCC is barred by law from trying to prevent the broadcast of any point of view, from censoring broadcast material, and from making any regulation that would interfere with freedom of speech, since it is considered that “the public interest is best served by permitting free expression of views.” Thus, the FCC ensures that the most diverse and opposing opinions are expressed, even if some are highly offensive.
In neigbouring Nigeria, the constitution provides for freedom and independence of the media. Further, there is a Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), which has established an Ombudsman to improve the quality of news reporting by observing accuracy, fairness and balance, and providing the public with an independent forum for resolving complaints about the press, while maintaining high standards of Nigerian journalism and journalistic ethics. The Ombudsman defends freedom of the press, and freedom of the public to be informed. A complaint to the Ombudsman waives the right to go to court, except where criminal liability is established. More importantly, since 2011, there is a Nigerian Freedom of Information Act which makes public records and information more freely available to the public.

In Ghana, Chapter Twelve of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana regulates freedom and independence of media. The important article opens as follows “Freedom and independence of the media is hereby guaranteed; subject to this constitution and any other law not inconsistent with this constitution, there shall be no censorship in Ghana; there shall be no impediment to the establishment of private press or media, and in particular, there shall be no law requiring any person to obtain a license as a prerequisite to the establishment or operation of a newspaper, journal or other media for mass communication or information; editors and publishers of newspapers and other institutions of the mass media shall not be subject to control or interference by Government nor shall they be penalized or harassed for their editorial opinions and views, or the contents of their publications…” And it goes on like that for three and a half pages of the constitution! That is the Jerry Rawlings revolution, and an important part of what is propelling Ghana forward in leaps and bounds.

In Cameroon the issue of freedom of the press is mentioned in a phrase in the preamble of the 1996 constitution as follows: “the freedom of communication, of expression, of the press…shall be guaranteed under the conditions fixed by law”. That is all about it! This has left the government the free hand to censor the press as and when it likes. In the ‘90s, the minister of territorial administration banned newspapers, or cut out large chunks of information from newspapers at his whim. That period was followed by law no. 90/052 of December 19, 1990 which proclaimed “Freedom of Mass Communication.” However, the law, like the other “freedom” laws had many provisos that rendered it redundant. These included clauses like “in case of conflict with the principles of public policy, the seizure of a press organ may be ordered by the administrative authority…The banning of a press organ may be ordered by the Minister of Territorial Administration…”

The most recent censorship tool of the government is an outfit called the National Communication Council (NCC). The NCC has acquired an audiovisual media monitoring system which has the “capacity to continuously monitor 10 TV channels and 20 radio channels” so they can be censored when their broadcasts go against “the principles of public policy.” And so we are back to square one in Cameroon; the recent banning orders and other sanctions are a result of this! Journalists and media professionals may have their different scales of values, outlook, and experience, but those journalists that indulge in the narration of such acts, sometimes with glee, rather than analytic reporting should not forget the following premonitory statement of Daniel Schorr - “What the government can do to one journalist, it can do to all. When you hear the whip crack, send not to know for whom this backlash cracks. It cracks for you.”

The cherished rights of mind and spirit – the freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, association, and petition for redress of grievances – are sources of strength for society. Information has become the world dominant resource. Information and imagination are not supposed to be regulated based on simplistic assumptions about human nature, human behavior, and morality. Conflicts over news content and advertising are issues related to the rule of law; they are supposed to be resolved amicably by a “neutral” conflict resolution structure, or legally by a court of law. In the 21st century, outfits like the NCC wielding the power they have only belong to societies governed by the rule of cloak-and-dagger, not the rule of law!

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