Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: A few decades ago, during my elementary school days when I was in 6th grade, a top politician (name withheld) visited my alma mater Pakalinding primary school in Lower River Region, when our class teacher and headmaster, Honorable. Dembo Jatta (former Education Minister and parliamentarian in the PPP government) asked whether he would like to lead the discussion on the word “Tragedy” with the pupils. Without hesitation, he agreed and asked any of the pupils in the class to give him an example of what the word meant to them. A little Bamba stood up and said, “If my best friend was walking to school, and one of the Commissioner’s car ran over him, and killed him, that would be a tragedy.”
“No,” said the politician, “that would not be a tragedy: that would be an accident.”
A self-confident little girl, Bakoto raised her hand: “If some rebels were to invade this school and killed one of our teachers, that would be a tragedy.”
“I’m afraid not,” said the politician; “That is what we would call a great loss.”
For a long while, the class went silent. Then, finally, the politician’s eyes searched the room. “Can no one here give me an example of a tragedy?” he asked.
At the back of the room, a little hand went up, and a quiet voice said, “If the private jet carrying you was hit by a bomb, killing you instantly, that would be a tragedy.”
“God forbid!” exclaimed the politician, “But you are correct. Now, can you tell me how you come to know that would be a tragedy?”
“Well,” said the quiet voice rather innocently, “It has to be a tragedy because, given the circumstance, it wouldn’t be an accident and your death certainly would not be a great loss to anybody.”
Fatoumatta: I have written several articles and a book about the heartrending decline of critical, watchdog journalism in the Gambia and the rise of pecuniary journalism, as I choose to call public relations and advertising deceptively disguised as journalism, but what is happening now is a new low for our profession. It is understandable, even if indefensible, that traditional, oligopolistic media have, for the most part, abandoned investigative journalism because of the pressures of advertising and the threats of governmental clampdowns. However, nothing can justify journalists being enlisted to assault the professional integrity of ethical, high-quality investigative reporting with noxious falsehoods. The core attribute of journalism in both democracy and autocracy is to be the eyes, ears, and mouths of the people; to put the feet of the people in power to the fire; to hold the powerful accountable because even the best of people become baleful beasts of power when they get into elective and appointive positions.
That is why George Orwell is credited with saying,
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” William Randolph Hearst, the 20th-century American newspaper publisher who started the concept of the newspaper chain, has a slightly different version of this sentiment. “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising,” he is often quoted to have said.
Of course, journalism encompasses way more than exposing the misdeeds and missteps of the powerful, but when newspapers go from not doing this to being paid to manufacturing consent.
Fatoumatta: What is the role of journalism in nation-building, in which case the two key concepts we would be dealing with are journalism and nation-building within the context of the challenges we face today in The Gambia?
In his book, “Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions, and Issues,” Thomas Magstadt, who argued that the proliferation of post-war conflicts in Africa and Asia is an indication of how difficult it is to mold societies together as an integrated whole, defines nation-building as “the process by which all the inhabitants of a given territory, regardless of individual ethnic, tribal, religious or linguistic differences, come to identify with the symbols and institutions of the state and share a common sense of destiny.”
Going by that simple definition, which may be too broad or too narrow depending on how we look at it, the basic idea behind nation-building is to mobilize human and material resources to advance a given society. The implication of that, however, is that we can easily conclude that the Gambia has a long way to go in the process of nation-building. Still, to the extent that it is a process and not an event and a task is never done, our nation is not a lost cause.
Students of journalism are taught that their role is basically to inform, educate and entertain the people. However, Larry Dailey, a Professor in Media Technology, has expanded that role to include that practitioners must also be prepared to frustrate, sadden, and scare some aspects of society. His prescriptions, I would wager, is more apt for our environment.
In every country, it is the responsibility of the leadership to protect the political, social, and economic interests of the citizens in the process of nation-building. At the same time, journalism helps to remind those in authority of their obligations to the people. Such commitments include:
Finding solutions to complex problems.
Stabilizing the polity.
Guiding society to peace and prosperity.
However, because regime protection is deemed to be the same as national security by a large number of political office holders in the Gambia who lack the vision, the passion, and the character to deal with the challenges confronting us effectively, it is no surprise that there is a constant tension between them and the media. That has inevitably led to the erroneous conclusion that journalism in the Gambia is adversarial and does not serve the end of nation-building.
Fatoumatta: In our country today, most of those in positions of authority at practically all levels believe that the interaction moderated by the media is skewed against them and that Gambian journalists do not always promote mutual understanding between the government and the people. To them, our media serve only the interest of the opposition. I have heard it said in several quarters that Gambian journalists are unpatriotic. However, most of our political office holders forget that it is the responsibility of journalists to shape the national conversation by providing insights on critical issues as they affect their various audiences. The essence of this value-added role is to help overcome the tendency for ordinary citizens to focus on issues that do not advance their cause but help politicians divide and conquer.
For instance, the challenge of corruption and insecurity today manifests on several fronts: From armed robbers and banditry to the perennial youth unemployment. To compound the situation, we now have the banditry industry that has killed people and now threatens the corporate existence of our country. Given such a state of affairs, journalists must report the facts while putting their analyses within the broader context of the efforts to resolve those contradictions and point out if and when there are none. However, to the extent that journalists have to constantly remind and challenge those in positions of authority of their onerous responsibilities to the people, many of our politicians do not always take kindly to that.
A one-time “tangal cheeb politician” once lamented on the strategies for winning elections to the thesis on the efficacy of propaganda. As a result, I learned a lot about the disposition of Gambian politicians to journalists and journalism in our country.
Fatoumatta: The most revealing of the politician, who blamed the private media for what he described as the negative perception of the government and the ruling party in the Gambia. To quote him and said: “While the media will sensationalise or falsify achievements of our governments in order to sell their newspapers, the members of the party will automatically disseminate the achievements of the government to the entire country without any emmision or unnecessary punctuation marks. Moreover, while the media will only report government events to the elite of our country that is not up to ten percent of the population, it is our own members who will ensure that the remaining 90 percent of the population are adequately informed of our government activities.”
As an emeritus journalist, I challenged his thesis by asking for the platform to reach the so-called 90 percent of the population. I also reminded the audience of what Colleen Lewis said in her essay titled, “The Declining Reputation of Politicians: Is it Deserved?” where she wrote: “Politicians largely blame the media for their poor reputation and the public for expecting and demanding more than they are capable of delivering. The media blames the politicians – after all, they only report what politicians do. The community blames politicians because they do not deliver on their promises, ‘feather their own nests’ and put party interests before the interests of those they are elected to represent. These vantage-point explanations largely seek to displace blame. However, there is an element of truth in all of them.”
While I believe that the accusation from that politician is subjected to biased journalism is unfounded, I am also aware that nation-building in the Gambia can benefit more from the old traditional role of journalism. By investigating and reporting critical governance issues, pressure, however fleeting, anxiety is often brought to bear on those in positions of authority to raise their game. The challenge, however, is that at this most critical period in the history of our nation, when we are contending against a dangerous insurgency, there is also a need for some form of collaboration between the media and the government.
Fatoumatta: As we move towards the 2021 presidential election, there is a growing apprehension, in several quarters, of an impending national crisis. For instance, there is currently an intense contestation for power between and among the significant geo-ethnic groups in the country, with religion being gradually added into the mix. Tensions arising from the projection of such interests by the media could be distracting, so practitioners need to moderate the discourse to promote the security of our country. In that context, the nation-building role of journalism would entail not yielding our platforms to hate-mongers whose polarizing rhetoric could only push our plural society towards its delicate fault-lines.
The 2021 presidential election is crucial because the Gambia is going through a period in which we must ask questions of those leading us and those seeking to replace them. As I said earlier, it is our responsibility as journalists to help moderate the conversation. We cannot continue to elect our leaders based on ethnic or religious sentiments. We must know how they intend to revive the economy, reposition critical social sectors like education and health. At the same time, the character of such people is also essential.
Furthermore, when we talk about leadership, we have to look at it from all levels because the man we send to the state house of assembly or the government house in our state is as important to our collective welfare as the man we send to number one Marina Parade.
Unfortunately, today people are not asking questions. We, as journalists, are not either, so we are practically going to the election blindfolded. However, we must demand the people who seek our votes to participate in debates so that we can know what they stand for beyond providing some “stomach infrastructure.” On this score, I think the Gambia Press Union will be doing Gambian a big favor by leading the efforts to have the candidates of the leading political parties debate on critical issues of the day.
Against the background that democracy is a process of inquiry by which consensus is formed, debate among those who seek the people’s votes is essential. Therefore, the journalists must make it happen. Moreover, by enlightening the citizenry on the real issues and how they intend to govern, such engagements can only help institutionalize the democratic process. The more diverse the information available to the public, the more accurate social valuations they can get. However, the other side to it is that if the people do not ask those who aspire to public offices, they would not feel challenged to assess society’s problems accurately or make any efforts to prescribe solutions.
However, the debate that I suggest is between and among presidential candidates; it is essential that those who seek to be National Assembly members also participate in such a process.
Therefore, those who seek to be lawmakers next year must tell the people what their programs are and how they intend to finance them beyond relying on the ever-dwindling Godfathers from the monthly brown envelope allocation meetings.
Fatoumatta: The preceding are some of the issues that should dominate discourse as we move towards the 2021presidential election. It is our responsibility as journalists to bring these issues to the fore. We must begin to ask serious questions of political office seekers. Whatever happens next year and regardless of the antics of our politicians, it is how we play our role as journalists (in the selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, and in keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premise), that will shape the direction of our country for good or for ill.
Fatoumatta: Like all politicians, the politician in question invited in my alma mater, in Pakalinding primary school, is to be taken in by his self-importance. However, since God in His infinite wisdom has also ordained strength in the mouths of babes and suckling, the pupil had to remind him that he was not as important as he considered himself. The role played by that pupil is vital in every society because some people would have to summon the courage, even at significant personal risk, to speak the truth to power.