Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Urgency of Media Law Reforms

Journalists should abandon their old adversarial method and fashion modern advocacy/lobby strategies for media policy reforms.
    That journalists in Cameroon enjoy a considerable dose of freedom of expression is difficult to totally gainsay.  The Preamble of the Constitution states that freedom of communication, of expression and of the press – derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms (Article 19) - shall be guaranteed under conditions fixed by law.  
 This provision was materialised by Law No. 90/052 of 19th December 1990 – modified in 1996 - that allows Cameroonians to practise journalism and mass communication. News outlets sprout up exponentially in Cameroon with comparative ease as evidenced by the myriad of print and audio-visual media outlets operating in the country. It is unlike anything Cameroonians have ever seen before since independence. Article 47 of the 1990 law however requires that journalists perform their duties objectively and responsibly - without inflicting any criminal damage on the society.
Naturally, people’s earthly freedoms or rights are rather qualified (limited) than absolute (unlimited).   This is what especially the quacks or journalistic refugees do not - and can never - understand. The Holy Bible tells us in the Book of Genesis that after creating the Garden of Eden, the Lord God placed Adam and Eve to cultivate and enjoy it. God had made all kinds of beautiful trees to grow in the Garden and bear fruits.  In the middle of the Garden stood the forbidden tree whose fruit God restrained Adam and Eve from eating. When Adam and Eve violated this instruction, God instantly punished and banished them from the Garden. However, before doing so He gave them a chance to defend themselves, asking “why did you eat the forbidden fruit?”  This suggests that normally a person should not be punished by law without being allowed to put forward his/her defence for the offence imputed against him/her.
 In the same light, the Government, which is said to be a representative authority of God on Earth, allows her citizens to set up media outfits, broadcast and publish information about the society EXCEPT information likely to infringe on people’s privacy, promote attitudes that offend good moral standards or provoke a breach of public peace and national security.  In other words, journalists MUST write and say things with due respect for the ethics of the profession and the country’s relevant laws in force. If they do not, the Government, through competent agencies, will punish and banish them from the profession as God did to Adam and Eve.  What is however important for the referees or arbitrators to do before passing any such judgment is for the defaulters to be given the chance to justify their acts.
In the exercise of his/her rights, everybody (including journalists or publishers) shall be subject to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 29(2)). 
 This explains why the freedoms guaranteed by the country’s Constitution are punctuated, conspicuously, by such phrases as “in accordance with the law, subject to the respect for the rights of others, in the higher interest of the State, subject to the statutory provisions concerning public order/security, subject to the respect for public policy...” - to warn the public (including journalists) against writing and saying things uncontrollably. According to Montesquieu (1748), the human being, including the journalist or publisher, if left unchecked, could easily pursue his/her selfish interests to the disadvantage of the society. On her part, US Journalism Professor Shirley Biagi holds that if the press fails to meet its responsibility, the Social Responsibility Theory demands that Government urge them to comply. Moreover, there is no country in the world, even in long established democracies, where press freedom obtains without reasonable limitations.  The framers of the American Constitution opposed censorship.  However, in 1931 the US Supreme Court established the circumstances under which prior restraint could be justified.  In Near v. Minnesota the Court condemned prior restraint but acknowledged that the Government could limit information about troop movement during war and could control obscenity.  The Court also said that “the security of community life may be protected against incitements to acts of violence and the overthrow of an orderly government.” Therefore, if a journalist uncontrollably diffuses such information he/she could be frowningly viewed as being unpatriotic or uncouth, however objectively his/her story might have been presented. 
.       Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse. The Law is No Respecter of Personality.  No Person is Above the Law. These legal maxims constitute a sobering reflection for journalists to master the laws and regulations governing their noble profession.  Naturally, to err is human but when mistake is pleaded as a defence, the mistake must be one of fact, not of law.  Many journalists have persistently castigated the 1990 Mass Communication Law as “obnoxious”, hence not worthy of consistent respect or adherence.  
     But, no matter how bad a law is it remains enforceable until such a time that it is repealed.  Thanks to the AFRICAphonie NGO, two draft laws – one on the modification of the 1990/1996 Freedom of Communication Laws and the other on Access to Public Information and Records in Cameroon - have been produced and circulated to  the competent administrative, diplomatic and parliamentary offices in Cameroon for legislation.  
 Both documents were launched as part of the activities marking the 2014 World Press Freedom Day in Buea, South West Region, jointly organised (for the first time ever) by the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association-Cameroon, Cameroon Union of Journalists, Cameroon Association of English Speaking Journalists and Cameroon Anglophone Newspaper Publishers’ Association.   
   During the launch, AFRICAphonie’s Executive Director, George Ngwane, fired enthusiasm into the journalists to rise like one person and explore all advocacy channels for the legislation of the proposed laws. It is therefore highest time the numerous media associations in Cameroon fused together under one solid union (like the lawyers in the Bar or medical doctors in their National Order), to more harmoniously harness their efforts towards positive media policy change and the fight against journalistic irresponsibility and charlatanism. 
*Jesse KONANG is a journalist  with MINCOM,Buea

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