By James Momoh
April 7th, 2014 hundreds of journalists gathered in front of the headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London, United Kingdom to show solidarity for media colleagues of the Aljazeera International Television network that have been detained by the military backed government in Egypt in violation of their rights to report the truth. The arrest and detention of the journalist in Egypt is an epitome of the difficult relationship between the media and the security sector in most African states.
Indeed there are many reasons to explain the heavy handedness of the security forces in most African states. The fact is that politicians in Africa have created situations that favor violence and civil disorder as means to seek redress for grievances intended to achieve their personal objectives, these same politicians have contributed to the weaknesses and shortcomings of the security sector, by mandating them to obey orders from them that are very often not in the national interest. The crux of the problem in the relationship between the media and the security sector is therefore the latters’ abuse of power.
This article will attempt to vividly portray that there is a long way to go towards getting the media and the security sector to understand each other’s role in building the ideal African society with a trajectory that is focused on national development and the enhancement of multiparty democracy. It is a misunderstanding that partly contributed to the Rwandan genocide in which the power struggle between the two dominant ethnic groups namely the Hutus and Tutsis degenerated into armed uprising in which the majority Hutu killed hundreds of thousands of the minority Tutsis. A similar scenario is unfolding in the Ivory Coast and several other African countrieswhere the media is constrained to project only the government or officials’ version of stories.
The security sector and the media in Africa are often noted as products or legacies of European colonialism. In English –speaking African countries, they like the civil service structures are patterned after their counterparts in Britain. Such is also the case in the French security sector which emanate from the French security system in France such as the army, police and gendarmes.
The role of the media is to report the truth in an objective and factual way without taking sides. The press serves not only as the watchdog of the society in terms of probing and reporting on the ills of the society, but can also serve as a catalyst of national development and a forum for the enhancement of the values of democracy. It is a weapon for the propagation of peace and stability in the society.
In Africa today there are few countries that can boast of peace and stability. The large majority of African and countries are gripped in the throes of violence, stories of genocide ethnic marginalization and religious conflict. There is also rampant corruption, poverty, and civil disorder in most African countries. These are all due to the lack of adequate democratic values, injustices and the culture of impunity. The media in Africa have the critical role to play, to ensure prevalence of justice, peace, development, the rule of law and transparency in a professional and patriotic manner.
This is why it is expected that the press and the security sector should work together to promote the above common values, which are in the interest of peace, democracy and development. In Africa today there is ongoing religious and political war between Boko-Haran Muslim Rebels in the North of the Nigeria. Rwanda recently celebrated20thanniversary of Genocide that took place in that country in which the Hutu Tribe eliminated nearly million Tutsi ethnic. In Egypt there is ongoing violence in which the military backed regime is suppressing the Muslim brotherhood party members. The government has even gone to the extent of outlawing the Muslim brotherhood organization and jailed thousands of its supporters and leadership.
What is certain is that whether in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and the Gambia, the media find themselves on similar predicaments. The general focus of media institutions is to advocate for the enabling environment for journalists and the media to perform their role without fear or favor. These agitations have often been complimented by the efforts of western based pro-journalist associations that militate for press freedom such as the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists.
This solidarity is understandable, given that in many African countries government officials use the security forces as weapons to arrest and detain journalists without trial in efforts to satisfy their own political motives. This is why the first line of defense for journalists is unity and solidarity among themselves. It is also important for the media and security apparatus of the state to be conscious that they are working towards the same patriotic goal of seeking the interest of the nation and for the promotion of peace and development.
The security sector in Africa, which include the armed forces, the police, the immigration, fire and prison services, have the overall objective of maintaining law and order, and defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state. What should not be forgotten is that neither the media nor the security sector can absolutely detach themselves from the realities of the overall challenges facing the society. They include: injustices, the culture of impunity and intolerance, bribery, poverty, criminality and corruption. In other words it is difficult to have a transparent media and security sector in countries where corruption and impunity is the order of the day.
The security sector in Africa has the overall objective of maintaining law and order as well as defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state.
Indeed injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. As long as the security of individuals and groups are violated with impunity inn a given country there is always threats to national reconciliation and stability. In most African countries security sector is taken for a ride, although the security sector is a product of their counterparts of the former colonial powers such as France and Britain. The salary and incentives are very low, promotion to higher ranks is done on the basis of ethnic and political connections to the regime in power and there are few opportunities to housing and training facilities.
Similar stories are narrated by journalists across the continent. They are grossly underpaid, something that compromises their objectivity and professionalism. In many instances journalists lack working tools and training which makes them vulnerable to be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians. As the President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) often warns that irrespective of the problems facing journalists in Liberia, there is always a need for all journalists to conform to professional ethics and the journalist’s creed. Responsible journalism is indispensable to the building of a vibrant and democratic society that respects the tenets of human rights.
What cannot be occulted is that in view of the many challenges facing the media and the security sector, instead of preaching the message of peace some African media outlets have in fact been relaying hate message that incite violence. One of the reasons why the Hutus and Tutsis were provoked to genocide was the hate messages relayed by certain media especially radio stations following the plane crash in which the Rwandan President died.
The ‘Boko-Haram’ rebellion in Nigeria was fuelled by the security forces through the repressive killings of the leadership of the group in Maiduguru the headquarters of the sect whereby he should have been detained and brought to justice in a civilian court.
In Liberia a similar misunderstanding arose between the media and the security forces when during a meeting of the Press Union of Liberia that was organized in the Port city of Buchanan outside the capital city, the guest speaker at the occasion who is also the head of the Executive Protection Services (EPS) which is responsible to provide security for the President proffered abusive languages that the press termed as insulting.
The Ivory Coast offers a classic example of how the government of the day is manipulating the media to its advantage. Since the disputed past presidential elections whose results were claimed by detained ex-President klaurent Gbagbo and the incumbent President Alassane Ouattara claimed victory, press freedom has been stiffled. It has been very difficult for the media in that country to act as an effective watchdog of the society while witch-hunting of political opponents has been the order of the day.
It has been reported as a consequence of the post electoral violence in the Ivory Coast, a number of Ivorian officials took refuge in Ghana, Liberia and other countries. What the security forces of the regime did was to connive with security apparatus in host countries such as Ghana and Liberia to implement the forceful repatriation of Ivorian on the wanted list without regard to the United Nation’s Refugee Agency’s regulations covering protection of refugees. It was in this perspective that ex-President Laurent Gbagbo’s last Minister for the Youths Mr. Charles Ble Goulde was rounded up in Ghana and repatriated back to the Ivory Coast and subsequently to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherland.
Liberia is a role model in Africa on how the media is working in partnership with government to promote governance and security sector reforms. In the first place like in many African states it has been observed that a principal reason for political instability in Liberia over the past thirty years had been dissatisfaction within the security sector. The Armed Forces and the Police were ill-equipped, the personnel untrained and unprofessional while promotion was made on the basis of political patronage rather than merit. The neglect of the security sector was one of the immediate causes of the 1980 coup plot that brought to power the late President Samuel K. Doe.
Development was for the most part centralized in Monrovia while poverty, illiteracy, diseases, hunger and poor infrastructural development was visible all over Liberia. The election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005 injected rays of hope in the spirit of Liberians to see a real development transformation of their country. It was obvious that Liberia needs more roads, to construct more schools and hospitals, develop the mining and agriculture sector and decentralize local governance structures and national development.
To effect a transformation of the society, the Liberian government has put in place a number of well-meaning programs and projects. Paramount among them has been to ensure press freedom. In this direction government has acceded to the Freedom of Information (FOI) law which emanates from Britain.
This means an unfettered access to information from government officials and others to those who need such information. Government is also working towards implementing the table Mountain Declaration which means decriminalizing the remaining laws in the law books in the country that can send a journalist to jail.
The media in Liberia is gradually becoming a force for the promotion of democracy values through radio talk shows and debates on issues of national concern. This is also been compounded by the multiplicity of civil society and Non-governmental organizations on almost every aspect of life in the country.
The media is playing a pivotal role in educating the public on the relevance of the newly retrained security sector geared to making justice and security accessible to all Liberians. There is a systematic development of the Army, the Police, the immigration and other security apparatus on an equal level of development.
Certainly the present level of understanding between the media and security sector in Liberia is encouraging. The security sector must beware that during armed conflict the media is essential in informing the public about military operations. Restrictions and hostile attitude against the media is counterproductive and bribing the media undermines their level of objectivity. Intelligence units in the security sector must be aware that over-reliance on official version of information for reasons of secrecy can hamper the works of the journalist.
What should not be forgotten is that African governments need to establish and develop proactive public relations departments within the armed forces and the police. But this should in no way restrict the editorials and opinion judgments of reports. It is recommended that journalists should not be considered as perceived threats to national security but as partners for the promotion of peace and development in the society. Public relations units of security agencies must hold regular workshops and interface with the media to educate themselves on each other’s role and to avoid calling the media a security threat.Moreover, it is important that regular workshops and awareness campaign be launched by various African governments to raise the awareness of the important role of the media in promoting justice development and the role of the security sector.