A recent media dispatch by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) cautioning RADIO stations against the broadcasting of certain content has sent shivers down the spines of many associated with the Gambian media industry and by extension non-media people. It has raised genuine fears in many quarters that the old older is primed to be midwifed once more. The thing is: we cannot afford to have newsrooms morphed into panic rooms. That will be a slippery treadmill on the democratic path.
A week can be a long time in (not) only politics
“Abusive, uncouth and incendiary language.” These were the key words that stood out in the press release issued by PURA on Wednesday, November 18 2020. Apparently, the country’s independent multi-sector regulator established by Parliament under PURA Act 2001 to regulate the following sectors: Broadcasting, Electricity, Telecommunications (mobile, landline and ISP), Petroleum (downstream), Water and Sewage, wasn’t livid with content from RADIO stations.
The irony is that it comes barely a week after Gambian journalists under the aegis of the country’s press union held a symbolic procession calling for an end to all forms of impunity against media practitioners. It must be said the event in question was not staged by the GPU in isolation of the government as can be alluded to by images of the Minister of Information and Communications Infrastructure Ebrima Sillah nestled amongst journalists. In all fairness to the current dispensation, the breathing space accorded to Gambian journalists thus is a far cry from the previous regime. But that is no favour and must in no way be considered so, for freedom of expression and of the press are in principle guaranteed by the laws of the land. However, what no one can guarantee is that with the passage of time, the same government that promised the media heaven and earth would not also move heaven and earth to suppress dissent? No one should feel perplexed if that were to be the case as similar rhetoric and pledges of media freedom have had been made in several countries only for the rails to come off in catastrophic fashion.
Call a spade a spade and adopt a multi-actor approach in tackling industry related matters
If PURA does have substantive evidence that some radio stations are falling short of the standards expected of them, it would have been appropriate on their part to not only call them out but go further to engage the Broadcasters Association and more crucially the Gambia Press Union and Media Council of The Gambia in nipping the bud anything that may be deemed distasteful, threatening the peace and social fabric of our dear country. And since the press release only made a generalization of radio stations, the impression is that every radio station in town is culpable and that out of all the news media outlets in our country, it is radio stations that are not playing by the rulebook. Hence, one fundamental issue with this is that must every radio station operate as television stations that rarely say a thing that is at odds with the powers that be?
The Pa Modou Bojang Effect and the conspiracy theories
In the wake of the PURA press release, it was being bandied around certain social media channels that the press release in actual sense was some sort of a bidding job by the regulatory authority on behalf of the government to cower into silence certain unnamed radio stations that have proven to be in a thorn in the flesh of government. Chiefly among these is Pa Modou Bojang and his Brikama-based Suu Radio. Whether such interpretations of the press release are off the mark or not, Pa Modou has become a popular voice for the ordinary citizen, especially those within the West Coast Region. No one needs an audience research to establish that. Perhaps the answer can be found in the issues that he forays into – issues that touch on not just the political front but more importantly the daily socio-economic woes of the jobless youth, the market woman, the underpaid civil servant, to name a few. To put to bed any such speculations, the government may as well consider having its image makers at other radio stations beyond Peter Gomez’s West Coast so the citizenry can be engaged in discussing government policies and connected matters
Democracy needs a vibrant media to thrive
Whether the whispers that Pa Modou and Co are the target of government censorship hold water or not, one thing is not in doubt – democracy needs a vibrant media to thrive. There is no better potent avenue at the disposal of the masses than the media that allows them to make their voices heard. It is also the same media that enables journalists to keep the executive accountable by holding their feet to the fire. To understand the evolution of the media in relation to public participation the democratic process, Peter Dahlgren, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Communication and Media at Lund University, Sweden, separates the mediated public sphere into four dimensions for better comprehension: The media can be studied as an institution. Is the media independent or state owned? Do they serve the public’s interest or a narrow range of interests belonging to the owners of the media? Are government funded and government regulated media institutions used for public service or are they propaganda mouthpieces? When private corporations own the media are they furthering their own commercial interests or the public’s?
In the grand scheme of things, all these are pertinent issues that should capture the attention of PURA in its watchdog role rather than zooming it on few morality questions in the name of our norms and values.
Parting Shot: Fix the big boys too!
Whilst PURA came out of the blocks to fire a warning shot to radio stations, the institution might as well do the public a massive service by dealing with GSM companies and other corporate giants that continue to treat helpless customers as cash cows. Frequent hike in internet tariffs are becoming commonplace whilst service delivery and customer care tend to get worsen by the day with little to show for in the realm of corporate social responsibility.
And maybe , just maybe, the government itself should be leading the way in publicly frowning upon inflammatory verbal salvos shot from within its base.
Famara Fofana is a freelance journalist and a student of media and communications studies. He is also the author of ‘When My Village Was My Village’.