From the Editor’s Keyboard

A free press in an emerging democracy

27 May 2009 at 02:52 | 598 views

By Dr. Hassan B. Sisay(Guest Writer), Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Recent developments have highlighted freedom of the press, its responsibilities, and its crucial role in an emerging democracy such as ours in Sierra Leone. Most of the discussion has centered on whether or not journalists are free to publish the news as they see it. Experts vary on this issue. However most believe that, “freedom of the press does not mean the media are totally unfettered, since freedom can be abused” especially if it is used recklessly to spread rumors and destabilize the nation.

I have followed with interest a plethora of media reports in Sierra Leone. One particular issue recently caught my attention: the controversy surrounding whether or not Dr. Christian Sheku Kargbo, Sierra Leone’s current EU ambassador, obtained his MS and PhD degrees from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (SIUC). For the record I do not know Dr. Kargbo nor have I ever met him. However knowing what I know about American higher education, I found it intriguing that some parts of our media claimed they had verified that Dr. Kargbo had never obtained any degrees from SIUC.

I know that academic records in America cannot be released to third parties without the signed written release of an individual. As a graduate of SIUC I took it upon myself to contact the Vice Chancellor for research and Graduate Dean. The Vice Chancellor informed me that while Dr. Kargbo indeed attended SIUC, the university will not release his educational records without his signed written consent.

This state of affairs has caused me to wonder whether Dr. Kargbo gave his written consent to the media or whether someone in the media is manipulating the situation to cause Dr. Kargbo and President Koroma’s government unnecessary embarrassment for political gain. If the latter is the case, it is rather unfortunate given the efforts we are trying to make to rebuild Sierra Leone and de-emphasize needless ethnic and political provocations. As an avid reader of all Sierra Leone newspapers from various political viewpoints, I believe it is necessary and indeed patriotic for the media to cross check their facts before publication for the sake of our beloved Sierra Leone. There are a myriad of nation building challenges that the media should hold the government and the citizenry accountable for, and sowing seeds of discord should not be one of them. Political posturing should be left for politicians.

In an essay on the role of the media in democracy, Sheila Coronel noted the potential for the destructive nature of the press. The media she said “are sometimes used as proxies in the battle between rival political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust.” When this happens, the media loses one of its most important functions of serving as a “watch dog” to monitor government actions and abuses, and report truthfully such developments to the public.

But there are instances when the pursuit of truth by the media could be problematic. As we all know, “truth” is relative, and can be uncomfortable for some. Even more important, the media in its pursuit of the truth is often put in the difficult position of deciding whether to publish what it regards as the “truth”, even though such publication may lead to national and tribal discord. In response to the above, George A. Krimsky, former head of news for the Associated Press said there may be situations when the press has to conceal the truth for the common good of the public. He observed that “ at times, the truth can do harm,” and cited as an example the following: “ If the truthful report of a small conflict in, say, Africa, leads to more civil unrest, is the public really being served?”

In other words, is reporting the truth about a specific matter, be it national or private, more important than the need to maintain national tranquility? When does the media go overboard in its reporting? What do we do when the public’s desire to “believe what it reads, listens to and sees in the mass media” conflicts with the seemingly more important function of preserving national security? Is the desire for the mass media to be credible more important than keeping the nation safe? These are important questions that require serious debate. Further, Krimsky commented on media objectivity, and questioned whether “such a thing” existed. He opined that while “no human being can be truly objective; journalists should however “keep their personal views out of the news” and employ “multiple sources and opposing views” in their reporting.

Similarly, Marissa Lowden, Editor in Chief of the Guyana Chronicle online, noted that the “press is a powerful tool, and if used for the wrong reasons can do more harm than good.” She stated that “information whether factual, fictional, or fantasy is disseminated through the press and it can pattern the thoughts and opinions of the people. It can change the perceptions of people, for or against someone, and it can build up heroes or create villains.” The above notwithstanding, a free press is indeed crucial in maintaining democracy and promoting national cohesiveness. Thus I strongly endorse Thomas Jefferson’s views on the topic when he said, “If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I know I have raised a ton of uncomfortable issues because in Sierra Leone every political party believes they are the best. I hope however that this piece serves as a catalyst for healthy, civil, and respectful debate for the sake of our beloved county.