We must not take media, democracy for granted

Emilly Comfort Maractho

What you need to know:

  • When governments today regulate the media, do they even remotely contemplate how much the media has changed? 

Someone recently asked me why academics have become mute in Uganda. I said I did not know. A fairly regular question to make us academics, especially of non-scientific brand, feel useless. The person insisted that in a country where academics are voiceless, what chances do journalists and citizens have to tell the truth? 

I maintained that maybe academics were the wrong measure for effective voice. The citizen is.  I learnt this from a producer of a local language talk show many years ago. He told me in his experience, it was easier to get a village man or woman to speak their mind than their educated version, on anything. His point was that education takes something away from us. 

Many things to weigh – if our bosses will be happy, if our husbands (wives) will be embarrassed by our view, if we will sound intelligent or glib, and so on and so forth.

All these inhibitions, in his theory, largely affect the elite. Ordinary citizens do better.

I have just finished reading Maria Ressa’s book, How To Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future. The person who sent me the book from the United States, is a regular reader of this column, and thought I would enjoy it. I learnt more about voice.

Maria Ressa is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021, for her work defending freedom of expression and democracy. Hers has been a career spent holding power to account. Having watched a documentary about her work as a journalist not long ago, I was thrilled to read her book and now very grateful to the one who gifted me.

She observes that ‘democracy is fragile. You have to fight for every bit, every law, every safeguard, every institution, every story. You must know how dangerous it is to suffer even the tiniest cut.’  This is fundamental, because that tiny cut could be the fall out in a weakened political party, or loss of advertising revenue for private media.

There is the issue of the Opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and its leadership struggles. The way this subject has been covered, and the issues at the centre of it all, speaks volumes to the future of our democracy, which it may seem, we are taking for granted.

The other event, is the presidential directive for government advertising to be channeled through Uganda Broadcasting Corporation and New Vision, which I have covered before. While some people have seen this as a way of affirmative action for government media, others see it as nothing less than outright control of media space – an attempt to cripple critical reporting or independent media. Whatever the intention, it will soon show up in the fruits.

While Ressa’s book is largely about the dictatorship and path to democratic transition in her native country, the Philippines, it is also about journalism, the role of (dis)information in democratic transitions, and how we use technology. It is what she considers to be the mission of journalism and what good journalism is that is interesting.

For instance, the mission of journalism is to be honest, according to Ressa. A good journalist doesn’t look for balance, but evidence, she says. As such, ‘good journalists lean on the side of evidence, on incontrovertible facts. Good journalism is a professional discipline and judgment exercised by the entire newsroom operating under a strong standards and ethics manual. 

It means having the courage to report the evidence even if it gets you in trouble with the powers that be’. For Ressa, the words impartiality and balance are dangerous when used outside this context because it is often hijacked by those with vested interests. 

And how things have changed! These were the golden days, which Ressa admits, dates back to the 2000s when news media were still gate keepers, when their audiences counted on the skills of the reporters and the track record of the news organisation, when professionals on an entire editorial team made judgment calls according to the same manual, and the mission was to protect the public sphere and journalism values. 

Balance meant, listening to different sides of an issue, helping the public to make their own informed decisions. Then, journalists were part of a shared culture of democracy, not called ‘witches’ for telling the truth as it was in her case.

When governments today regulate the media, do they even remotely contemplate how much the media has changed? 

The larger part of this book speaks to the role of social media, in particular Facebook, Rappler,  the internet’s black hole and why we can’t find meaning on social media. It is easy, to see this as a book about the Philippines and Ressa’s story.

It is the story of media and democracy in our times, in Africa too. It makes a strong case for why we must not take our media and democracy for granted. Those tiny cuts will surely cost us.

Emilly Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.  [email protected]