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To Black Out Or Not To Black Out? That Is The Question!

Is it right for journalists to black out or boycott errant politicians?

The answer depends on our conception of what journalism is about; who it serves; and the import of media freedom.

It is possible to conceive of journalism as a servant to the public or a slave to politics.

As a servant to the public, journalism actualises the citizens’ right to know, especially about the people who seek to lead them.

In that context, journalism holds the power to account on behalf of the people.

Media boycott becomes a dereliction of duty to inform and to hold power to account.

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The media’s power to promote enlightenment relies in part on its power to expose wrongdoing.

When the media renege on that duty, they help evil to fester.

As Justice Brandies of the US Supreme Court has said, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

By shining the light on exposure to wrongdoing, the media helps to create a more transparent society.

Conversely, when the media put a blackout on the powerful, they support evil to triumph.

They become conspirators against society.

Oxygen

Where journalism is conceived as a slave to politics, it provides what Margaret Thatcher calls the oxygen of publicity to politics.

The media then give prominence to politicians and others who throw themselves into the vortex of public opinion.

The focus of the media becomes how to create legitimacy and influence for the politicians they serve in order to obtain rewards.
Media then become propaganda tools.

In that context, a boycott or blackout represents the withdrawal of the journalist’s service to the politician.

It becomes the slave’s feeble protest against a high-handed master.

And the slave awaits the master’s remorse, usually given in perfunctory apologies, to return into servitude.

So, the question to black out or not to black out an errant politician depends on each journalist’s conception of their role in society.

As Jean Anouilh says in his French adaptation of Antigone, “A chacun son role”.

Each of us is assigned a role in society.

How we play that role reflects our beliefs and values.

How does this relate to freedom of the media?

When we think of media freedom, we are guided by two sets of complementary questions: “Freedom for what?” and “Freedom from what?”

In Ghana, the 1992 Constitution answers the question “freedom for what?” in Article 162(5) by declaring that the media must be free to uphold the responsibility and accountability of politicians to the people of Ghana.

In return, it answers “freedom from what?” by indicating that the media must be free from censorship, harassment, intimidation, etc. in Article 162(1-4)

Constitution

So, our Constitution guarantees the media freedom to serve the public interest and not to become slaves to politics.

This idea is further supported by the National Media Policy. Paragraph 5.1 provides that “the operation of the media is a public trust regardless of ownership”.

The same principle is re-emphasised in paragraph 6.1.2: “All media and media services shall be regarded as a public trust.

The public interest shall, therefore, be paramount in the operation of all media – public, commercial and community”.

This philosophy has been adopted by the GJA Code of Ethics, which enjoins members of the Association to uphold “the public interest and the right of the public to be informed.”

Hence, when the media are tempted to place a blackout on any person, they must remember that they have a charge to serve the right of the public to know.

The politician who would attack a journalist in the light would attack a teacher in the dark. And the retreat of the journalist would encourage impunity.

The question is sometimes asked: Can’t the journalist shine a light on the misdeeds of the delinquent politician and still deny him publicity?

The answer is simple.

The media cannot tell one part of the truth and suppress the other.

That would constitute a mortal sin to the core values of journalism – truth, fairness and balance.

It is alternatively asked: Shouldn’t it be right for the media to black out a dangerous power-holder who would maim or murder a journalist?

The answer once again is simple.

The more dangerous the power holder, the greater the need to spotlight him for exposure.

Across time and space, if dictators were granted the privilege of media blackout for attacking journalists, they would kill a journalist every day, so the media would back off and allow them to perpetrate wrong without let or hindrance.

Journalism is not a call to martyrdom.

But the price for liberty, it’s been said, is perpetual courage and vigilance.

The writer is the Executive Secretary,
National Media Commission (NMC).