By Ebou Gaye
As media practitioners and their sympathizers observe International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, I would like to comment on the subject with a view to defending the rights of journalists and advancing the cause of press freedom.
Journalists suffer miserably in many parts of the world, Africa in particular. They are subjected to persecution in the form of banishment, harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention, incarceration, torture and murder by tyrannical, oppressive regimes and bigoted, unscrupulous individuals with the complicity of opportunists who behave like zombies and always manipulate the law or endorse proposed draconian laws obstructing media practitioners, or carry out irrational instructions to victimize, brutalize or liquidate members of the press. What a pity! It is either the case that those who wage war against journalists are oblivious to the importance of the fourth estate, or that they are fully cognizant of its importance in society but have chosen to hamper journalists or violate their rights for egocentric or selfish motives. The latter case is more likely, given the fact that those who persecute or kill journalists want their good deeds to be publicized and, at the same time, want to see the bad deeds of their opponents exposed. The point is buttressed by the fact that dictatorial regimes befriend and sponsor praise-singing or pro-government media houses and journalists by giving them privileges, while discriminating against independent journalists whom they brand detractors, saboteurs and unpatriotic citizens who deserve severe punishment or death. This is exemplified by the behaviour of the Gambian leader, Yahya Jammeh, towards the press. Two journalists have been murdered under his watch, many tortured severely and one abducted without trace for too long a time, with all the cases remaining unresolved as though the victims have no right to protection and justice. That Jammeh always gets angry and fumes when such horrendous, atrocious crimes are mentioned lends credence to the widely held belief that he has hands in them. Besides, Jammeh has monopolized the state media, the Gambia Radio & Television Services (GRTS) and the pro-government newspaper, the Daily Observer, which he patronizes and uses as his mouthpieces and propaganda machines. Jammeh is on record for having publicly called journalists illegitimate sons of Africa and threatening to take drastic measures against journalists who offend him. Private media houses have been set on fire, with the culprits going scot-free in all cases. That a sizeable number of Gambian journalists currently live in exile further demonstrates Jammeh’s hostile attitude towards journalists and his abhorrence of the concept of press freedom.
The importance of the press cannot be over-emphasized. It informs, educates, enlightens and entertains besides serving as a watchdog. I would not hesitate to state that the press is indispensable with regard to the promotion of justice, democracy and respect for human rights, in the absence of which there cannot be meaningful, veritable and durable peace and development. It is a well known fact that those who bear malice against journalists and combat them do at times need their services and turn to them. Hence, the press should be viewed as a development partner, not an enemy. Suppressing press freedom means keeping people in the dark, which gives rise to rumour mongering whose accompaniments are undesirable and could be enormously detrimental.
It is worthy to note that any attempt made to muzzle the press arouses suspicion and attracts negative interpretations. Hatred or fear of journalists and the desire to silence, harm or eliminate them can be interpreted as fear of being exposed and an attempt to conceal or cover one’s misdeeds. If one is sure of having a clean record or having no skeleton in his cupboard, as journalists would put, there is no need for him to try to gag the press. As the saying goes, it is he who has hidden something up that has a problem with people looking up and thus tries to prevent them from doing so. In other words, one would not care whether people look up or not if he has not hidden anything up which he wants to keep out of sight. Likewise, one would not mind journalists reporting his deeds or acts if he has not done anything wrong whose exposure can discredit him or cause embarrassment for him. People in positions of responsibility should bear in mind that their comportment and acts are of public interest and thus attract the attention of the press. They better dismount their posts or pack up and leave if they cannot behave ethically and rationally or conduct affairs as expected of them and feel that the press should spare or ignore them. My message to the enemies of the press is that attempting to silence journalists is an unattainable goal and that those who try to achieve it are comparable to an elephant struggling to pass through the eye of a needle.
It is utterly illogical and unjustifiable to make attempts to muzzle the press. Media practitioners err sometimes but that should not prompt aggrieved parties to try to gag the press or harm its members. People of other occupations commit blunders without being subjected to persecution or attempts being made to impose a blanket ban on their activities. There is no career or profession in which practitioners are immune from mistakes. It is common knowledge that many people who reprimand or castigate journalists labelling them as criminals for making mistakes are more reproachable or blameworthy than the latter in that they make much more serious mistakes. If mistakes are to be used as the sole excuse for clamping down on the activities of media practitioners, those press-phobic people and press-haters should quit their jobs first on account of their goofs or wrongdoings. Like people of other professions, media practitioners have formed organizations serving to bind them together, and laid down codes of conduct which guide them in their work. Hence, journalists should be allowed to practise their profession unhindered if members of other professions are allowed to execute their duties without obstruction. Journalists have an inalienable right to practise their profession freely by virtue of the fact that they are members of society and have a stake in the running of the affairs of their countries like other citizens. Where journalists are deemed not qualified enough to practise, efforts should be made to help them to develop themselves or ameliorate their skills through training. Governments, institutions and individuals can simply counter the words of journalists with words to set records straight or prove their innocence when they are falsely accused or portrayed in a negative light. Alternatively, they can seek redress at the courts rather than resorting to violent or criminal acts when they feel offended by the press. This is much more rational and civilized than persecution and killing. Those who commit crimes against journalists should not be allowed to go unpunished. They should be tracked down and brought to book like other criminals. Earnest efforts should be made to expose or hold accountable tyrants who sponsor criminals to persecute or kill journalists. They are big cowards. They and their accomplices should bear in mind that their heinous crimes haunt them till doomsday. They will never enjoy peace of mind. No amount of cover-up or camouflage can help to free their minds. They always live in hiding, and their hearts jump to their filthy mouths when their crimes are mentioned.
However, I would like to note in haste that journalists should endeavour to dig out correct information, report with utmost objectivity and criticize constructively when things go wrong, bearing in mind that freedom of expression does not mean freedom of oppression or encroachment. Put in simple terms, they should try as much as possible to abide by their codes of conduct and adhere to the ethics of their profession. This can, to somehow, facilitate their work and minimize the dangers associated with it.