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Role of media in promoting good governance and accountability presentation by Madi Jobarteh at the World Press Freedom Day symposium on 3 May 2012 – TANGO Conference Hall

May 23, 2012, 2:51 PM | Article By: Madi Jobarteh

The role of the media has been a subject of discussion many a time among media practitioners to the point that one can assume that this is now basic knowledge. We all know that the media informs, educates and entertains. We are all aware of the value of the media and that no society exists where there is no media. In this regard, I am not going to belabour the point about what the media does or not, rather I am interested in whether the media knows fully what is governance in order to be able to identify and execute their role in governance. For this reason I want to discuss governance so that members of the media would be able to see clearly how significant their role is in the development of society.

Governance is a system of institutions, laws, policies and processes that ensure transparency, accountability, popular participation and the adherence to the rule of law in society at all levels by all. Governance is not the same as government. Governance is the system, and Government is one of the institutions of the governance system. Other governance institutions and organizations include civil society organizations, private sector institutions, political parties, professional bodies, trade unions and faith-based organizations, as well as media organizations such as newspapers, television and radio stations, journalists associations, among other associations.

Governance can be good or bad. Good governance is where there exists a governance system which rests on the respect, protection and fulfillment of human rights of citizens. It is also necessary to understand that human rights are not only about civil and political rights which seem to be prevalent issues for many. Human rights also entail social, economic and cultural rights, which for many others are even more crucial because they deal with the material or physical needs of human beings such as food, water, education, health care, clean environment and employment among others. For this reason, some have argued that economic, social and cultural rights are therefore more important because they deal with livelihoods and quality of life. Those who perceive civil and political rights as more important argue that without voice, participation and security in national life, one cannot possibly acquire economic, social and cultural rights. However human rights thinkers today have come to realize that there is no distinction or hierarchy between these sets of rights. Rather they are all important in ensuring the dignity of human beings and cannot be separated. The core of good governance therefore has come to be situated on human rights for all, and development workers have concluded that it is good governance which is the cornerstone of development and security.

In the past there was a view that national development can be achieved merely by having the government and development organizations solely identify and then provide goods and services such as water, electricity, roads, schools and hospitals that are perceived to be the needs of the people. This has been the dominant view and approach to development by governments, NGOs and international development partners and donors. However after more than 50 years of independence, it has become clear that development is more than just identifying the needs of people and then buying goods and services to satisfy those needs. It is now realized that development is a human right in the first place, guaranteed by national constitutions, international charters, treaties and conventions and other laws, locally and internationally. People have a right to development simply because as citizens, they are the owners of the resources and wealth of their countries. The people pay taxes in so many ways which goes into the hands of Governments, precisely the Executive. Governments take loans and receive grants and other donations on behalf of the people. Private companies or individuals who set up their own business are also required to pay various taxes to Governments in order to run a business where they can earn a living. Given the above therefore, it is clear that the resources and wealth of any country belongs to the people. Thus the primary purpose of Government is to maximally and optimally utilize these resources and wealth so that the people can enjoy better lives and happiness. It is for this reason that therefore development has become a fundamental right of the people. The rights-based approach to development holds that the provision of development goods and services should be based on human rights values, norms and principles so that no one is marginalized, excluded, deprived or denied. This would require the enjoyment of all the rights by all the people, regardless of ethnicity, birth, social status, political affiliation, religion, sex, wealth or any other status. Exclusion from the enjoyment of these rights would be seen as discriminatory, unfair and unconstitutional.

Development is not merely guaranteed by the amount of resources available or invested, or by big government which is able to identify the needs of the people, rather development can only be enhanced, sustainable and effective when it is based on the recognition that it is a human right. It must also be noted that development is a product of the political system in any society, hence depending on the type of that system will also determine the quality and quantity of development in that society. It has now been observed that to obtain effective, quality and sustainable development for all, the best vehicle for that is a governance system that is  based on human right; hence good governance - a set of systems, institutions, laws, policies and processes that are guided by the principles and values of human rights.

Good governance is a democratic system which promotes development in a number of ways. It is essential that journalists and the citizenry understand the value of good governance. For this reason, I will dwell on four major areas just to show how good governance does not only promote development, but also ensures peace and stability as well as promotes efficiency and performance by the institutions of a society.

Good governance, first of all strengthens democratic and State institutions. Because of its location on human rights, good governance encourages popular participation in national affairs which allows for the inclusion of citizens in law and policy making processes. In this way, it creates the space and empowers citizens to hold elected and appointed public officials accountable. Similarly, good governance also enables civil society to become actively involved in policy making which leads to the wider representation of societal interests in decision-making. Because good governance ensures the separation of powers between the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary, it leads to the independence and effective functioning of all these three arms which constitute the Government. In this way, one will realize that good governance has the potential to create the conducive environment for the provision of adequate resources for the courts, parliament, law enforcement, and justice delivery institutions, among other State institutions without which the rule of law will be retarded. When there are no enough resources for public institutions but which are kept impoverished and neglected, there is the high tendency for such institutions to fall short of transparency and accountability standards thus leading to a waste of resources and delivery of poor services. In a nutshell therefore, good governance is the system that ensures the institutionalization of popular participation, strengthens women’s political representation, ensures free media and makes public media accessible to all thus resulting to the creation of a governance system that is responsive to the needs of the population.

When democratic and State institutions are strengthened and are effectively and efficiently functioning according to the rule of law, the end results is that the delivery of basic social services to the people and overall effectiveness of the government are enhanced tremendously. States are responsible for the delivering of a variety of services to their populations, including education, health and social welfare services. The provision of these services is essential to the protection of human rights such as the right to housing, health, education and food. For example, Section 30 of the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia states that everyone has a right to free and compulsory basic education. This means every Gambian child has a right to go to school and no one has the right to deny any child to obtain such education. More importantly it means the government bears the primary responsibility to ensure that schools are built and equipped with adequate teaching and learning materials and teachers are provided to ensure that they deliver quality basic education to our children. This is a non-negotiable right of all children in the Gambia. Furthermore, good governance ensures that there is equitable access to social services through a transparent budget process. This means no Gambian community should be denied any services and goods such as good roads, health facilities, schools or recreational facilities among others. In other words public wealth must be distributed in such a way that all Gambian communities are catered for equally. In meeting that equality standard, good governance allows for a progressive realization of development needs in fulfillment of citizens’ human rights.

Given its human rights character, another benefit of good governance therefore is that it ensures the rule of law. It must be clear to all citizens that the primary protection tool for each and everyone is the respect for the rule of law. Any time the rule of law is bent and never repaired or restored immediately and effectively, rest assured that no one is save in that society. It is therefore essential that the rule of law is upheld in all cases and situations whether it is about the arrest of alleged criminals, provision of services, policy making, and other national issues.  Citizens must understand that the rule of law consists of a set of institutions, laws and practices that are established to prevent the arbitrary exercise of power. For example in the arrest of a suspected criminal, the constitution states very clearly that when a person is arrested he or she must be informed within three hours of the arrest why he or she was arrested and in the language he or she understands. Furthermore, it states that when the person is taken into custody, he or she must be released unconditionally or taken before of a court of law within three days, and under no circumstances should anyone be tortured. This is an absolute human right! Any further incarceration would have to be sanctioned by a competent court of law. It is only when such a rule of law is respected that no one will be at risk of abuse, and that police officers will be seen to be doing their job effectively and efficiently, thereby ensuring the peace and stability of the country. This means all individuals, institutions and organizations in the public and private sectors and the civil society must respect and uphold the rule of law. It is for this reason that there is a need for the Gambia to develop a Bill of Rights to strengthen the protection of human rights which should include the creation of a National Human Rights Commission.

Another area where good governance is extremely essential is the fight against corruption. Corruption may be defined as the abuse of entrusted public power for private benefit. The panacea to corruption in all parts and levels of society is good governance i.e. the exercise of authority through political and institutional processes that are transparent and accountable and encourage public participation. Corrupt governance fails to offer citizens adequate and accurate information about government and its policies, violates the public’s right to be informed about government activities and procedures, and compromises the right to political participation. Corruption weakens the accountability of State officials, reduces transparency in the work of State institutions, deprives citizens of development and allows human rights violations to go unpunished. In a nutshell corruption weakens democratic institutions. According to Transparency International 2011 report on corruption in the world, the Gambia fares quite badly and falls under the category ‘highly corrupt’ society.  It must be noted that the fight against corruption goes beyond political rhetoric; rather there must be visibly demonstrated and strong institutional development and political leadership and commitment. It would also require the empowerment of the public against corruption by publishing administrative procedures and fees, and ensuring transparency in public expenditures through participatory social auditing. To crown it all, there is the urgent need to establish a permanent and an independent anti-corruption commission answerable only to the Gambian Public and the National Assembly.

It is of utmost importance that journalists understand the nature and dynamics of good governance if they are to effectively play their role in national development. Good governance requires standards and principles that guide public policy, decision making and government action. The constitution of the Gambia already has laid out the role of the media in the development of the Gambia. It defines the role of media as to holding the government accountable on behalf of the people. The constitution further demands in Section 208 that, “All state owned newspapers, journals, radio and television shall afford fair opportunities and facilities for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinion.”

Holding government accountable therefore is a constitutional requirement so that as managers of the resources and wealth of the people and protectors of the life, liberty and property of the citizens, the government will be seen to deliver the goods and services for which they have been elected or appointed in the first place. The significance of the media in how well or not the State will execute its functions can best be captured in this argument by Joseph Pulitzer, an American citizen of Hungarian descent who waged courageous and often successful crusades against corrupt practices in government and business in the US. In May 1904, writing in The North American Review in support of his proposal for the founding of a school of journalism, Pulitzer summarized his credo as thus:

“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”

What Pulitzer was essentially saying here is that the media can make or break a society by the way and manner it functions. In the discussion about good governance and what the media plays in this game, it is necessary that we also bring the issue of transparency and accountability. Good governance is a sham when there are no, or when there are ineffective, inadequate, limited or bad laws, institutions and resources put in place to bring about transparency and accountability. In simple terms, accountability is “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” It is a process of taking responsibility for decisions and actions by governments and public service organizations, private sector companies, civil society institutions and organizations and by the individuals working in these institutions, firms and organizations. Accountability also includes how these individuals and institutions are managing public funds, and whether there is fairness and performance in all aspects in accordance with agreed rules, contracts, standards and fair and accurate reporting on performance results vis-à-vis mandated roles and/or plans.

Transparency on the other hand means that decisions taken and their enforcement is done in a manner that follows rules and regulations, and that information is freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions and their enforcement. Given the above, when can we say that there is just and democratic governance in a country? In answer to this question, it could be helpful to view the issue from four perspectives:

1.         Does the State use investments and scarce resources reasonably for the benefit of all citizens, and most especially for the most disadvantaged?

2.         Does the State operate by a clear set of rules, which are considered just and fair by most citizens?

3.         Does the State treat citizens with respect and inform citizens about what it is doing or not doing?

4.         Does the State allow citizens to choose who leads them and have a say about what they need and want from government? 

It has been observed that for governance to be just and democratic, leaders need to use their power responsibly and for the greater good. Systems and procedures need to be in place that impose restraints on power and encourage government officials to act in the public’s best interests. These systems and procedures fall within the realm of what is known as accountability. The reason why it is important to insist on effective accountability is that it keeps government power in check thereby reducing abuse of power by the State. Accountability and transparency are necessary pre-conditions for just democracy which helps to ensure that State power is exercised according to the will of the citizenry, without which democracy is always at risk. It must be clear to citizens that in any society the most powerful institution is the State as it controls the entire of system of violence and power which are legally manifested in policies, laws and institutions such as the justice delivery system, armed and security agencies, decision making and enforcement tools among others.

To better appreciate the necessity of accountability, it is important that journalists know the four fundamental questions about accountability:

1.         Who has an obligation?

2.         What commitments or standards are supposed to be met?

3.         What will show whether the commitments and standards have been met?

4.         What are the consequences for misconduct or poor performance?

If we do not know these questions as citizens and journalists then we will not be able to know who, when, where and how to bring about accountability in society and government. For this reason, we need to also know who and what State institutions are responsible for ensuring accountability in both public and private life in the Gambia. Here are some of them. At the top is the Office of the President because ultimately the President bears the primary responsibility to uphold the Constitution of the Gambia and protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens. This is a direct obligation placed on the Executive, together with the Legislature and the Judiciary in Section 17 of our constitution. In fact in the National Assembly, such parliamentary committees as the Public Accounts and the Public Enterprises committees are major accountability tools that seek to ensure that public institutions and officials and their management of public affairs and resources are done in accordance with the law and perform effectively and efficiently. Other institutions that monitor accountability and transparency are the Ombudsman which looks at fair play and justice in the administrations of public, private and civil society institutions which includes ensuring that workers are not unjustly and unfairly treated. In terms of free and fair elections and equal opportunity given to all parties, the IEC plays the role of a referee to ensure all parties and their candidates and supporters behave according to the rule of law. The IEC also regulate media and security matters as they relate to elections. In terms of ensuring that the public sector is actually managing public money accordingly, there is the National Audit Office whose role is to audit the government. Such institutions as PURA ensure fair competition and protect the interest of consumers in the provision of social services such as utilities and telecommunications among others. There are several other State institutions all of which play major roles in ensuring that transparency and accountability in the functions of institutions and the services that are provided to people. Without these accountability institutions and systems, then the incidence of abuse of power, violations of rights, delivery of poor, expensive and erratic services, corruption and bribery and impunity will be the order of the day. Such a situation poses a direct threat to national security as it gives rise to individuals taking the law into their own hands, cause citizens to lose confidence and trust in the State and all its agencies and consequently a survival of the fittest ensues! This is precisely the kind of situation that led many nations on the African continent disintegrate such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

These institutions do not only ensure that there is accountability in public, private and civil society institutions, but citizens also have a responsibility to hold them accountable as they have a duty to protect human rights of all citizens as stipulated in Section 17(1) of the constitution,

“The fundamental human rights and freedoms enshrined in this Chapter (Chapter 4) shall be respected and upheld by all organs of the Executive and its agencies, the Legislature and, where applicable  to them, by all natural and legal persons in The Gambia, and shall be enforceable by the Courts in accordance with this Constitution.”

Good governance guided by transparency and accountability produce true democracy, durable peace and stability and consequently sustainable development in all its facets. According to Prof. Ali Mazrui, the most fundamental of the goals of democracy are probably four in number.

1.         Firstly, to make the RULERS accountable and answerable for their actions and policies.

2.         Secondly, to make the CITIZENS effective participants in choosing those rulers and in regulating their actions.

3.         Thirdly, to make the SOCIETY as open and the ECONOMY as transparent as possible; and

4.         Fourthly to make the SOCIAL ORDER fundamentally just and equitable to the greatest number possible.


In spite of the above, it must also be realized that accountability could face major challenges in an environment where there exists strong conservative socio-cultural beliefs and practices. Some of these beliefs hold that leadership is by birth or divine thus limiting the ability of citizens to hold their leaders accountable. There is also the view that every leader has his or her time and only Allah decides the right time for descend or ascend to power. The end result of these misconceptions is allowance and acceptance of abuse of power and poor performance. These beliefs therefore have also served to underpin the culture of patronage and silence hence the empowerment of the leaders and public officials over and above the people who they should serve and are accountable to. It is these kinds of beliefs that have contributed immensely to poor governance in Africa as it leads to the gross weakening of the State and its institutions as well as the civil society as a whole. It is clear that the general poor service delivery, corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations festering Africa is directly attributable to our socio-cultural beliefs and religious misconceptions.

For this reason, the media has a singular role to play in overcoming these negative tendencies in order to strengthen democracy and good governance. According to the Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation Gunilla Carlsson,

“The role of media in a modern society is not only limited to reporting and analyzing specific events. Journalists are also opinion builders in their own right. By tracing and critically analyzing new trends and tendencies in society, a free media provides decision makers with invaluable information, thereby ensuring, and such matters as the quality of legislation.”

The question then arises as to how much do Gambian media engage in matters of public policy and legislation? Do our journalists take a proactive reporting style in which they pursue issues through investigation and seeking the views and opinions of common citizens as well as experts and opinion shapers in order to influence law making processes or tracking the enforcement of laws and policies? The press or media is a tool to amplify the voices of the people. A free press is a determinant of the extent of freedom of speech in society. Where there is a free press, there is also a free and open society. Conversely, a muzzled press is a reflection of an oppressive society which is usually characterized by fear and discontentment. It was Nelson Mandela who noted that, “a critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced”.

Already the constitution of the Gambia provides full guarantees for the freedom of the media. These freedoms have been further strengthened by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and the ECOWAS Treaty. This means the legal and policy basis is there for journalists to do their job. It is noteworthy therefore to bring the views of the Late Deyda Hydara on this issue of the role and responsibility of the journalist vis-à-vis good governance. Deyda speaks,

“Journalism is a profession with its rules and one cannot be a journalist and flout its basic principles. What’s more, the fundamental law of this land guarantees that we make sure that government is accountable to the people for things it does in their name. Here again we didn’t draft the Constitution, which got inspiration from the covenants and other international laid down rules about freedom of expression. Meaning that even if the Constitution failed to empower us to do so we could rely on these instruments that The Gambia as a nation ratified.”

In view of the foregoing, it will be unfair not to also highlight the incredibly draconian laws that exist in the Gambia which are a direct affront to free speech and free media in this country. While the constitution has provided guarantees, it is a fact that media offences are criminalized in the Gambia thereby limiting the ability of the media to do their work effectively. Many a media house and journalist engage in self censorship  or outright disregard of pertinent national issues simply because of fear of these laws; a situation which has been further aggravated by the unresolved series of fatal acts of violence that has been meted out to journalists over the years.

That notwithstanding, we may now ask then what should the journalists of the Gambia do? Here are some suggestions which are necessary. First, follow the money! To contribute to the building of good governance and sustainable development on the foundations of transparency and accountability our journalists need to find out who determines our budget and how is it spent? How much revenue does the State collect from payment of taxes, fines, rates, and royalties, among others? How much is coming through GRA, public enterprises, the courts, and immigration, municipal and local councils, private companies among others?

Secondly, our journalists will greatly promote efficiency, effectiveness and integrity as well as the delivery of quality, affordable and accessible social services if they improve their scrutiny of public, private and civil society organizations and institutions including political parties. For example, it is unacceptable that in this small country of 11000sq.km with 1.7 million people, mobile telephone communication is so erratic that one cannot talk for a good five minutes without network interruption! Why is it so hard for the Gambia to enjoy a 24-hour uninterrupted electricity supply since independence while less than half of the population cannot still access these services? What about the poor state of cleansing services in our towns and cities?

In conclusion, it is essential to bring back the voice of that Swedish minister about the role and significance of the media in governance and development,

“It upsets us when we read about politicians who are forced to resign because of corruption. But at the same time we should also be grateful that such information is published and reaches the public. In 1974 the so-called Watergate scandal eventually forced American president Richard Nixon to resign. This, as you know, was mainly the result of efforts by two journalists at the Washington Post. What if they had lived in a country where they had not been allowed to pursue that story? What if, during their investigative work, they had been told by their editor-in-chief that they should stop their work immediately because the president is above criticism? Democracy and poverty reduction can never be guaranteed by politicians alone, whether they are elected or self-nominated. In the end, it is a question of people’s opportunities to influence their situation, claim their rights and being able to voice their concerns. But to exercise these rights presupposes that citizens have access to information that has not been filtered, censored or distorted. How can I claim my rights if I don’t know what they are? How can I voice my concerns if I risk being prosecuted for doing so? These are a few examples of why the role of media is crucial to the development of a country. The quality of the information an individual is able to access will, by necessity, greatly influence his or her ability to participate in the political process. In other words, journalists have a responsibility towards their fellow citizens to provide correct and analytical information.”

Thank you.