A story is told of Alexander von Humboldt, a German baron renowned as a naturalist, explorer and philosopher and a friend of President Jefferson. On one of his many visits to the White House he was taken into the Cabinet to wait for Jefferson.
“As he sat by the table, among the newspapers that were scattered about, he perceived one that was always filled with the most virulent abuse of Mr. Jefferson, calumnies the most offensive, personal as well as political. “Why are these libels allowed?” asked the Baron taking up the paper, ‘why is not this libelous journal suppressed, or its Editor at least, fined and imprisoned?’ Mr. Jefferson smiled, saying, ‘Put that paper in your pocket Baron, and should you hear the reality of our liberty, the freedom of our press, questioned, show this paper, and tell where you found it.’ “
This action of Jefferson is statesmanship, the true appreciation of the price politicians have to pay, and should pay, for holding public office and public trust. When one becomes a leader, a political leader, a holder of public office or trust, one loses, to a greater extent, that privacy in the political and social domains; one is no longer a ‘private’ citizen.
The leader’s actions and words, political relationships and private life which is linked to his or her public state, acts of omission and commission, come into the public domain, become subject of public discourse, are up for public scrutiny, criticisms, speculations, approval and disapproval. It is a very ‘hefty’ price but that is what a public leader pays for in return for all the privileges, powers, authority, security and perks the public has given up for him.
But much more, it shows the importance of the Press as often the last bastion of liberty, the sentinel that stands guard when all else is crumbling, when all else give way to tyranny, despotism, suppression and corruption. Wasn’t it Jefferson who said if he were to choose between a Government without newspapers and newspapers without Government he would choose the latter. That is how important newspapers or the media.
Thus, the suing of Kerr Fatou media house by the former Minister of Agriculture, Hon. Omar Jallow, for an article he considered libellous, an aspersion on his character and honour, threatens the important role that the media plays and is expected to play in New Gambia. Not that Hon. Jallow does not have the right to sue, to redeem his dignity and name, but that his legal suit, successful or not, would undermine the freedom of the Press.
As a public figure, a political leader and a former Minister of State, Hon. Jallow’s actions and statements will always be subject to public scrutiny and criticism and be of media interest and investigation. That is the price he is to pay for being a holder of public trust. Our interests in the actions and lives of private citizens are often very limited, if not non-existent.
While the name and honour of holders of public trusts, politicians and public figures are very important to protect, the greater interests of society, people’s right to know how they are governed and how and what decisions are made in their name and the overall role of the press or media in the strengthening of democracy and good governance far outweigh theirs.
If democracy, human rights and good governance are to be of value, and we grow in dignity and value as citizens, then the media must have the right or moral duty to scrutinise both the motives and character of governmental acts of commission and omission. To oppose such a role of the media, because one regards an article libellous, would be a threat to media freedom, to our democracy and the greater interest of society.
While the courts remain an avenue for whoever feels aggrieved by the words, written or spoken, of another individual or the press, our holders of public trust and public figures should be reminded of their greater role and responsibility to society and in the maturing of our democracy. They have the public space and other media to debunk the allegation or false information, to chastise, to set the records straight, to open the books, to make all information available to the public and whoever cares to know. People are better governed by truth and reason and for democracy to better succeed all avenues that lead to the discovery of truth must be left open.
As we are journeying to democracy, driven on the wheels of good governance, accountability, transparency and respect for human rights, it is about time we re-examined and re-evaluated our attitude to the Press, our collective phobia to its imagined destructive ability. Our society cannot be frozen or anesthetised to the point where we have to accept as gospel truth whatever our political leaders tell us. Too much change is taking place too quickly in this era, and the press is better able than any other institution to reflect the pressure points, to show where the pain is being felt and explain what must be done to relieve it.
As a courageous and outspoken politician himself, Hon. Jallow should know that democracy strives in soils where press freedom is guaranteed and safeguarded and where people fearlessly, freely and faithfully express their views to further the exchange of opinions and the enlightenment of the public. A free press thus serve as a catalyst for democratic change, the vigilant conscience-keeper of the nation, the unflagging watchdog of the citizenry. With the freedom of the press, all other guarantees of freedom would prove meaningless, toothless, mere paper guarantees.
I hope that Hon. Jallow would reconsider his suit and drop it eventually for both the public good and in the interest of media freedom. As the democrat he is, he should be the fiercest defender of the freedom of the press. As Chon Secka said ‘lu whye de wuyour def kor nuroo’ (one has to be how he is called). ‘Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent’ Pope.
To the members of the press, please note these words of Tatiana Repkova in her book “New Times, Making A Professional Newspaper in an Emerging Democracy”writes: “An independent newspaper (media) is an honest broker for information for its readers without deliberate bias or favouritism. An independent newspaper (media) considers its independence its most valuable commercial, editorial and moral asset. It guards its independence so that it can speak at all times to all members of its audience. It maintains its independence through thoroughly professional behaviour, whose principles it makes known to all its employees (policy) and to any readers or commercial customers who wish to know them. An independent newspaper (media) does not base its professional decisions on the narrow economic or political interests of any single entity, including itself.”