Monday, July 22, 2024

Where are muckraking journalists today?

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By Alagi Yorro Jallow

While our democracy may not yet be strong enough and our institutions will constrain whatever abuses of power President Adama Barrow’s administration might commit during his three-year transition, but his policies and actions will not be as extreme as we me may fear. However, the truth is that we don’t know how long it will it take for the administration to continue to disrespect the Constitution as it is already evident in some of the decisions and actions it has taken.

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Therefore, for all intents and purposes, I fear for the health and safety of our democracy if such a trend continues. I fear for people in our society who are vulnerable and different and I fear for the rule of law. But the antidote to fear and horror is not withdrawal. Neither can it merely be righteous indignation.

President Barrow needs to understand why so many people voted for him which made him triumph over a well-entrenched dictator like Yahya Jammeh. We however need not yet lose faith in our democracy and its core values. I hope I am wrong, but I think I could be wrong, but considering what we have seen so far, I fear that the next three years could a test of our democracy and democratic dispensation to a degree we have not seen since independence, 52 years ago,

Therefore, in view of what is already quite evident, independent and muckraking journalism is crucial to democracy and I believe there is no better time to show the Gambian people the type of original journalism and cut the rise of media distortion, bias, fake news and misinformation that we have witnessed since President Barrow assumed the presidency.

Democracy is characterized by the existence of legal rights among the citizens of a given sovereign state. The people are the sole source of political power which they should exercise either directly or through representatives, but the principle of legitimacy is always bound up with the will of the people. Where do the media; a de facto power that was initially national but has now become global -fit into this conception of democratic legitimacy? What principles guide their responsibilities? Where do they stand with regards to the rule of law? These are fundamental questions that need to be adequately answered if we are to fulfill our mandate to the society.

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How do we analyze future conflicts between the institutional powers by which our Constitution has organized the consultation of the will of the people and the reality of “media power” which claims to be or is expressing the will of the masses and cutting across national boundaries? What is the role of muckraking journalism in a democracy?

We can recall that muckrakers under Yahya Jammeh defended their rights to exert influence but remained curiously unconcerned that they themselves might be influenced by the government.

Muckrakers transmit messages to political leaders, whether they belong to the majority or the minority, accompanying them with criticism, of course, but also with words of encouragement and not engage in a big brawl, but as always, a human being and freedom make a nice couple.

Muckraking is a controversial practice, certainly, but there’s no doubt it has definite political effects on the old institutions of representative democracy. Public disaffection with official politics has much to do with the practice of muckraking under conditions of communicative abundance. In recent decades, for instance, much evidence suggests that citizens in many established democracies, although they strongly identify with democratic ideals, have grown more distrustful of politicians, doubtful about governing institutions, and disillusioned with leaders in the public sector.

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The days of journalism being proud of its commitment to the sober principle that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’ are over. References to fact-based ‘objectivity’, an ideal that was born of the age of representative democracy, are equally implausible. Talk of ‘fairness’ (a criterion of good journalism) is also becoming questionable. In place of the rituals of ‘objectivity’ and ‘fairness’ we see the rise of adversarial and ‘gotcha’ styles of journalism, forms of writing that are driven not just by ratings, sales and hits, but by the will to expose wrongdoing.

Muckraking sometimes comes in highly professional form, as at London’s The Guardian, which played a decisive role in the phone-hacking scandal that hit News Corporation in mid-2011. In other context, muckraking equals biting political satire, of the deadly kind popularized in India by STAR’s weekly show Poll Khol which uses a comedian anchorman, an animated monkey, news clips and Bollywood soundtracks (the programme title is translated as ‘open election’ but is drawn from a popular Hindi metaphor which means ‘revealing the hidden story).

There comes a time you just must shake your head in amazement: Where are muckraking journalists today? And where has all the muckraker journalism gone? In its heyday, between 1992 and 2004 muckraking journalism was ubiquitous, urgent and influential. The public interest threatened the establishment; the press attacked the establishment. Even in the wake of President Yahya Jammer’s tongue-lashing, investigative journalism continued to power progressive reforms. Where have all the muckrakers gone? Sure, there are writers doing impassioned investigative work today. But why do the obvious systemic defects and flaws in President Barrow’s style of administration receive so little sustained attention from the mainstream media?

The magic of progressive era muckraking was its centrality. The Gambian media no doubt had its dedicated muckrakers such as the late Alieu Badara Njie, Momodou Musa Secka, A, A Barry, Justice Fofana, Demba Jawo, Ebrima Ceesay, Fatou Jaw Manneh, Abdul Savage, Ansumana Badjie, Alieu Badara Sowe, Ebrima Sankareh, Sheriff Bojang, Sorie Danso, Cherno Ojuku Sesay, Foday Samateh, Deyda Hydara, Baboucarr Gaye and later The Independent newspaper team such as Baba Galleh Jallow, Alagi Yorro Jallow and Abdoulie Sey, as well as others like Pa Nderry Mbai, Alhagie Mbye, NB Daffeh, Momodou Musa Touray (the list goes on) wrote for mass market newspapers. They turned local issues into national issues, local protest into national crusades. They did not preach to the converted; they did the converting, help transform the Gambia from a state of laissez- faire to a welfare state mentality.

However, the Gambian muckrakers of the Second Republic did not get scared of the draconian media laws and military decrees that restricted journalism to any meaningful degree; for the simple fact, that the Gambia Press Union in terms of organization was exceedingly powerful therefore possessed the strength to withstand virtually any challenge or could take on the government anytime.

Another reason of the success of muckraking might have been sociological. The Gambian journalist is an irascible, hungry, paranoid type and the GPU members saw evil and conspiracy at work, and consequently its members viewed their role as that of the avenging angel who must root it out whenever it occurs.

Ever since the dawn of the military dictatorship, the private media did a magnificent job of reportage and had constantly been flexing its muscles on all issues of national concern.

Joseph Goebbels the Nazi Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda, and who was acknowledged as one of the most brilliant propagandists in history was correct when he said ….

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/ or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State”.

 We see Goebbels’s doctrine evident today in the Gambia through the Barrow administration and the bureaucrats inside the Quadrangle and Marina Parade; repeated over and over by a subservient national media, almost without question. The media has forgotten that its primary duty is public enlightenment which is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Furthermore, a journalist must recognize that he/she has special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Journalism is a public trust. Consumers need to trust that every time they share information, they have done everything possible to confirm it.

Seldom do political changes occur overnight. They come about incrementally and are often so subtle the architects often fail to even see it happen. Therefore, President Barrow was the “Stealth or even Manchurian candidate”. So, little was known about the man, not even his ethnic background; and mainstream journalists did not bother to do their homework, violating the very code of conduct professed by the journalist associations. One thing that was in evidence was that Barrow’s only claim to fame was that of “real estate developer” and as a security guard with Argo in the United Kingdom.

As I have said throughout the past, I am not an ardent supporter of conspiracy theories, but how many journalists have taken the Barrow administration to task over the Goebbels-like stories of how the economy and human rights will be improved and is really improving? Let’s take the unemployment figures apart and let’s see with the constant onslaught of the Constitution outside the constitutionality regarding the separation of powers. That may be politically incorrect to the intellectually stupid elite, but it’s high time someone showed President Barrow the errors of his words. That should be the job of the media, which by their own code, have pledged to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Progressive era muckraking in the Gambia was hardly a crusade of virtuous outsiders against entrenched and corrupt interests. But it was nonetheless, a powerful force for reform. So, again; where have all the muckrakers gone!

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