Confronting democratic recession in West Africa: Role of media

BY: Kwame Karikari
 Participants in the conference
Participants in the conference

This is the final part of the keynote address at the opening of the 2022 Edition of the West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards (WAMECA), organised by the Media Foundation for West Africa, 18-19 October, 2022, Alisa Hotel, Accra; the first and second parts were published on Monday, October 24, 2022 and Tuesday, October 25, 2022, respectively.

While ‘democracy capture’ undermines media freedom, independence and pluralism, other factors, external to the media, undermine media and journalists’ resolve and capacity to protect citizens’ rights and interests against pervasive attacks on democracy. Cyber-bullying, with women journalists usually suffering more intensive assaults, is rampant in nearly all countries against critical media and voices.

They may be perpetuated by hirelings of ruling governments as well as all political parties, or by hired thugs of powerful and wealthy individuals and groups. Non-state actors unleashing attacks, intimidation and violence to silence critical and truth-exposing media include extremist forces, criminal gangsters, business interests and in some countries powerful traditional authorities. These attacks may include arson or arbitrary closure of media houses.

Compared to the 1980s and 1990s, extreme cases of assassination of journalists are these days rare bad news. Even then, the isolated ones that have occurred have faced the same old problem of impunity. Indeed, the police and security forces, besides being the most prominent perpetrators of assault and intimidation of journalists, do little or mostly nothing to investigate attacks on journalists however violent these assaults may be.

In all of these assaults, it is not surprising that the most obvious casualty is Investigative Journalism which, incidentally, happens to be among the newest practice in the journalistic profession in most of Africa and taking off during the 19980s/90s resurgence in press freedom and the establishment of independent media.

The continued government control of state-owned media deprives citizens the opportunities for credible sources of information and channels of participating in public affairs discussions.

The widespread aversion of governments to reforming state-owned media into independent public services attests to their interests in maintaining controls over state or public institutions wherever and whenever they can.

In the end an important effect of these external factors is the weakening of professional journalistic standards and an undermining of public trust and confidence in the media.

One result of the waning public confidence is that, in several countries, where the public used to defend and express solidarity with media when under attack, these days it is common to see the same public attacking journalists and dumping them together with distrusted anti-democratic political forces.

These experiences have occurred in countries including some of those where press freedom was considered to be thriving, such as Ghana and South Africa.

Media and combatting democratic recession or ‘democracy capture’ With the media themselves under siege what can they do, and how can they function, to promote a movement to restore democracy from its current threats and challenges?

It ought to be appreciated that the media are not a homogenous industry or institution. Indeed, to advance democracy, we must always strive to promote and protect media pluralism and diversity, principles which are under attack by “democracy capture”.

Instead of diversity and healthy contrastive competition, democracy capture perpetuates corruption of media professionalism by engaging mercenary journalists whose operations of manipulating public opinion includes attacking and intimidating critical and opposing journalists on behalf of their political paymasters.

Where in the past dictatorships used editors, columnists and commentators in the state-owned media to hound and frighten critics and opposition voices, today the enablers of ‘democracy capture’ employ hatchet men in the private media sector.

So we come back to the question: what is the role of the media in this near impossible mission of fighting to restore and renew democratic values, principles and institutions? Some media are already serving the forces of degeneration and destruction.

Therefore we could address our concerns only to the community of embattled and endangered independent media.

For the media to be relevant and receive support, one, they must strive to uphold the high standards of professionalism and fight against the cheap but attractive path of unprofessional conduct. That is the only way self-respecting journalists and responsible media organisations can and will earn back the people’s trust and confidence; two, difficult and often frightening as it is, independent media should continue to report issues of human rights abuses and support social justice causes; three, to sustain their collective survival and freedom, independent media must strive to forge partnerships and alliances, in-country and across borders, to share publications and programmes designed to expose incidents of ‘democracy capture’ and to promote democracy causes; four, individual journalists with democratic persuasion must play active roles in their professional associations so as to prevent the hijacking of their organisations by mercenary agents of the enablers of ‘democracy capture’; five, there appears to be a decline in the commitment to the fight to protect and defend press freedom across the continent.

This spirit must be rekindled by media professional associations and human rights advocacy organisations; six, independent media must find ways, in countries where there is still room to operate openly without violent reprisals, to initiate campaigns to promote and defend the values and principles of democracy through rigorous publications and critical broadcast programmes; seven, independent media should consider it a mission to provoke among the public interest in and active engagement in democracy issues and questions of rights and good governance; eight, independent media organisations should engage democracy and human rights advocacy civil society groups and NGOs in partnerships and coalitions in promoting democracy issues and campaigns; nine, there seems to be a decline in international support for advocacy work in democracy causes and media freedom; there is need for strengthening support to enhance civil society capacity to wage campaigns to defend democratic causes; ten, Independent media and civil society organisations working to promote democracy must engage regional inter-governmental agencies such as ECOWAS and AU to mount campaigns for governments to respect the protocols and conventions on democratic principles and institutions; eleven, it is proposed that this conference comes out with resolutions for strategies to enhance the roles of media in the struggle to defend, promote and strengthen the values, principles and institutions of democracy in our countries.

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