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Opinions of Thursday, 16 February 2006

Columnist: Ampong, Kwabena Owusu

?Who Police the Policeman??

The role of the press in multiparty democracy

One of the biggest problems hindering poverty alleviation in Africa is corruption. State resources, due for the little benefit of everybody, is hijacked for the mighty selfish benefit of one person. There are several reasons, why for more than 50 years after most of the colonial era ended, this situation continues to worsen and plunge Africa into debilitating and abject poverty. When there is corruption, everybody loses. It is very obvious that corruption is everywhere, right from America to Zimbabwe, but it is the degree of pervasiveness in the society which is the issue. This degree of pervasiveness is measured by the perception, of the poor people in society, who have to suffer due to corruption. This is the only currently available scientific way to estimate the level of corruption. In this age of technology and global business, the first step to political/economic development and freedom from poverty is democracy. The next most important step is tackling corruption, and this is where the help of the press comes in.

It has always been said again and again, that there can be no democracy without a vibrant and free press. One of the ideals of democracy is the freedom it bestows on everybody, within the limits of the constitution. This logically extends to the freedom to access and disseminate legal information, irrespective of the quality and content of this information. This poses a big challenge to the press, because in the long run, it is only those who are seen as objective, factual and non-political, who will succeed. The rest will not be taken seriously, and will either die a natural death, or struggle with very little coverage; especially when there is a change of political leadership. The press, acting in their own interest to sell their newspapers are always on the lookout for newsworthy information. Everywhere in the world, a free press is never interested in going beyond that.

The USA for example, has had more than 100 years of democratic governance, which makes it useful as a benchmark for a fruitful discussion about our own democracy. Some of the most popular press in the USA; The Washington Post, The Associated Press and The New York Times are known for their sensational news stories, which sometimes are even branded as not in the best interest of the security of America. USA citizens first heard of the story about the leakage of the identity of the CIA operative, Valerie Plame, in the press. This act, which is deemed criminal under US law, was allegedly undertaken by top officials in the Bush administration who were irritated by the revelations of Valerie Plame?s husband that the Bush administration had ?twisted? intelligence by including in their findings against Iraq that Saddam Hussein had sought Uranium from Niger.

Among others, the stories and pictures about the inhuman treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the coalition forces were first carried by the American press. Stories about the government sugar-coating the evidence to press its case for war against Iraq, in terms of the actual potential threat of Saddam, was also brought up by the American press. Stories about the critical PDB (presidential daily briefing) which stated clearly before September 11th 2001 that Bin Laden intended a terrorist attack in the USA, which President Bush is alleged not to have taken seriously, was first reported by the American press. Even the EU only got to know about the case of the CIA?s secret prisons in Europe from the American press. The corruption case against Jack Abramoff, which has the potential of ending the political careers of a pack of congressmen, was also first reported by the press. The Bush administration?s wire tapping of phone calls without an explicit warrant was first reported by the press. The corruption case against the House Majority leader, Republican Tom DeLay, was first reported by the press, and this even forced him to resign. etc.

In all these instances, the American government comes out scrambling to find answers to the public. The legislature seriously takes up these stories in the House, and committees are set to investigate them. The press normally resist the effort of federal officials who try to force them to reveal the source of their information. Most of the time, a grand jury is empanelled to investigate the criminal content of these cases. In the Valeri Plame case for example, a TIME reporter was even held in contempt of court, for refusing to testify in front of a grand jury in what was deemed a criminal case.

It has never been, and never is, the responsibility of the press to pursue criminal allegations they carry in their news papers. In fact, it will even be viewed as politically motivated, if a press should go beyond their mandate of story-telling to pursue a case in court. Any press which meddles in politics will lose out in the long run, because political governments will come and go, but the press will need to be permanently present and impartial to be successful. For a democracy to succeed, the need for a free press is vital, and this can never be overemphasised. It is the press who police the government, and other public officials, by revealing allegations of corruption in their attempt to get sensational news to sell their papers. By fulfilling this democratic responsibility, the press plays their role in getting the public informed about the people who have been given the mandate to rule them. When the press do their part in revealing these criminal allegations, it is then the responsibility of independent institutions of state that have the capacity to deal with these issues to take it from there.

I hope this can be a good starting point, for a debate in parliament, about how best to deal with allegations of corruption that arise from time to time. It is not good enough for the image of Ghana, for us to sweep these allegations under the carpet, with the notion that there is no evidence, or those who think they have the evidence should pursue their case further. Whether allegations are true or otherwise, can only be determined after a recognised state institution has carried out a thorough investigation. We should however be clear about the fact that it is never the responsibility of the press to put forward evidence or drag somebody to court. What will all those state institutions mandated to check corruptions be there for?

In this time, when Ghana is desperately in need of foreign investments to expand the economy and create employment, the last thing we will wish to do is to portray our government to the international community as weak in fighting corruption ? something recognised as one of the biggest reasons for impeding the development of Africa beyond constantly going around the whole world and begging other countries for grants, loans and debt forgiveness. Our government should be seen by foreign investors as an advocate for anti-corruption beyond words, by being heavy handed in clamping down on corrupt officials. Any allegation of corruption which arises in the press should be investigated. If it is false, the editor should be punished for irresponsible journalism. If it is true, whoever is involved should be adequately punished.

Kwabena Owusu Ampong,
Norway.


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