Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Mocking the rule of law by lynching figuratively and in essence

                            By Tazoacha Asonganyi in Yaounde.
    Let me be frank, I had long decided that I should leave the “journalists” to slug it out themselves; to do whatever they like with their profession. But as the punches rain from each ‘side’, how much they resemble the subtle blows and jabs – and sometimes fatal punches - in every nook and corner of our society; in every other profession we turn to!
   When one of my friends spent a considerable length of time in a newspaper column every week educating us on the ills of our society, he finally gave up with the sigh of “The past tense of shit.” It was the expression of the feeling that everything that was supposed to be said had been said – and they did not seem to be listening - so what else? So he hung up his pen, so to say.

    Yes, once in a while, there is that strong feeling that all that can be said has been said, so one should leave society to fry in its own juice of filth. But what type of society would that be? It will be soulless, lifeless, without a critical spirit urging it to move forward! Those like me whose own profession is to spend time in the classroom teaching students are always reminded of the many of the students who sit through the lectures but still flunk, in spite of the best efforts at teaching. That is symbolic of society. Some say many people do not read; that many of those who read either do not understand, or forget too soon…So, it is good to continuously point out what has been said before – to go down memory lane often, and often enough as a form of revision.

   The rule of law abhors interferences like the ‘fifteen-days-renewable’ of administrators, suspension of journalists and news outlets by the National Communication Council, and many other niches carved out by government for appointed officials to wield discretionary power – a subversion of judicial authority by executive power! Indeed, such government appointees virtually always work actively or passively to diminish the rule of law.
    In society, there is always a constant flux of opinion based on the choices of individual members. The judgment reached by each individual on different issues is not neutral, but it represents a stance; it concerns only a part, not the totality of an experience. In a way, public opinion is a plural perspective that brings together diverse aspects of life's experience in a way that casts new light on apparently separate parts that form a whole.
   The news media are the outlets through which individual opinion is known in the court of public opinion. In a way, society is in a state of permanent flux of individual opinion – a warlike posture - in which truth is usually a casualty, although only temporarily, because of rejoinders, counter opinions and different points of view that reach the pool from which public opinion emerges. Therefore opinion is constantly changing as it gets fed with information, different points of view, different images, and different sound bites.

    This is why it was interesting to read the following in what can be called a “rejoinder” or better still, a rebuttal by a journalist:

“…It is not everybody who has the time and option to resort to [rejoinders and legal redress]. The rejoinder has its limits because it is not everybody who reads the first article that necessitated the reaction that will read the rejoinder. Secondly our law courts have been variously criticized of being corrupt, slow and easily manipulated….[A] section of the press always intervenes in such matters with well conceived write-ups to intimidate, blackmail and influence the course of justice…”

This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, public opinion is not based on the fact that all those who read an opinion necessarily all read a rejoinder or rebuttal; to argue in a rebuttal that a rejoinder is not a good leveller because readership evolves is “to saddle the press with an impossible burden,” to use the words of a learned judge.

    Secondly, the history of the judiciary and the rule of law convince us that where justice appears not to be as “neutral” or as efficient as it should, it nearly always turns around and reasserts its authority over the rough edges of power. Such rebounds have always been under the prompting of society that constantly engaged the judiciary in shadow boxing through test cases in which litigants exploited all legal openings to make their point and expand the realms of freedom.

   Indeed, US President Eisenhower is said to have described his appointment of Earl Warren and William Brennan as the two biggest mistakes of his presidency because the two Supreme Court justices, against the wishes of the president, led a liberal revolution in the USA during their tenure. About the press and individual sensibilities, one of the justices, William J. Brennan Jr. wrote the following opinion:

“The guarantees for speech and press are not the preserve of political expression or comment upon public affairs, essential as these are to healthy government. One need only pick up any newspaper or magazine to comprehend the vast range of published matter which exposes persons to public view, both private citizens and public officials. Exposure of the self to others in varying degrees is a concomitant of life in a civilised community.    The risk of this exposure is an essential incident of life in a society which places a primary value on freedom of speech and of press... We create a grave risk of serious impairment of the indispensable service of a free press in a free society if we saddle the press with the impossible burden of verifying to a certainty the facts associated in news articles with a person’s name, picture, or portrait...”

    Of course, the courts sometimes leave the impression that the law belongs to the rich and the powerful, but this is no excuse for preferring lynching to the rule of law. It is wrong to be a partisan of lynching robbers in essence, as happens so often in our society, or a partisan of lynching figuratively, like some journalists are doing with their peers and some news outlets.

    In this period of celebration of the life of Mandela, many of us are so fond of quoting him, or referring to his example. Mandela is revered because he held much power in his hands and knew how to use it. Most of us who quote him often turn out to be very bad copies of him once they hold just a little power.

   Those with thin skins should not leave the impression in the public mind that the press in Cameroon fought a gallant fight against censorship in the 1990s and censorship ended up having the last laugh.

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