African Leaders, the Mass Media and Democracy

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor

The Perspective

December 20, 2001

In every free democratic society as defined supra, the mass media is cognizant that the government is accountable to the people. Therefore, it makes a commitment in bridging that gap by providing information of essence and relevance. Such information centers on foreign policy issues, the economy, education, and civil rights. The availability of public information affords the people the opportunity to better understand the government, its direction, role and impact on the their daily lives. This commitment is based on ethics and morals, upon which the media is oblige to be honest, sincere, critical and give laurels where and when expedient.

And these are some of the reasons why Western democracies are considered the “free world”. Few of these most conspicuous reasons are: free elections, where voters are given alternatives, conducting of survey or polls to serve as a barometer for necessary voters’ opinion, the free enterprise system, which encourages competition and regulation of monopoly and perhaps the most significant, the freedom of the mass media.

Freedom of the Mass Media lies at the very core of Western democracy. Since the invention of the printing press, and now the Internet, the possibility of communicating a message to a large number of people have had tremendous impact on politics and political socialization. As late as the 18th and early 20th century, the spread of literature to the literate middle and working classes aided in proliferating their influences, as well as politicians, in making mass participation and manipulation possible. In addition to this, were movies and radio simultaneously conveying the same message to millions by the mid 1920’s and the turn of the century. Later on, the advent of television went beyond that horizon, and today, news can be telecast and transmitted instantly via the Internet all over the globe.

The significant role of the Mass Media in the West clearly contrasts with its role in the developing world, Africa to be precise. Since the scramble for Africa and the emergence of independent African states in the late 1950’s, some of these states modeled themselves to be “western type democracy” or part of the free world. They professed to operate in the milieu where the characteristics of the free world mentioned are promulgated; this mean denizens of these free world African states are not denied freedom of information and expression of views through the mass media. To the contrary, this proclamation is hard to swallow. Why, because it is very untrue!

In most African and developing nations today, the government in power controls the mass media. Newspapers, printing presses, radio and television stations and movies are predominantly government owned or censored. As a result of this, an atmosphere of phobia and apathy is created in the journalistic community and amongst those individuals who enjoy expressing their views through this avenue. Being denied this inalienable right, the people are not sincere at all in expressing their views about how they really feel about an administration when interrogated. The mass media, a paramount victim of this controlled act is affected by being divided into three competing groups, according a study, I once read. The three groups are: the Advantage, Disadvantage and the Pareto Optimists.

The Advantage are journalists and individuals, who by means of their pen can adjust to any administration. They are favored and programmed by the administration to sing praises. They are not objective, purposely, so that the administration can maintain its legitimacy and credibility. Unlike the Advantage, the Disadvantage is very critical of the administration, which often attempts to discredit its legitimacy. They are often instruments of the opposition and assist in setting the momentum of insurgency. Due to their intent, their literature infiltrates from abroad or surge from underground activities. When caught, they are crushed and often times imprisoned or put to death. Whereas, the Pareto Optimist is conceivably the true journalists but less committed to the interest and causes of the people. They have the inner desire to present pros and cons on issues but since the threat of extermination surround such activities, they engage in journalistic activities that are non-essential and irrelevant. They take apathetic position on political and economic issues. For this matter, they are considered pro-administration because the old cliché states “silence means consent”. In Liberia, they are called – yellow journalists or “gravyseekers.” For them life goes on and they hardly gain, and loose nothing.

Past and present records reflect the attitudes of African leaders towards the mass media vis-a-vis, the groups mentioned. Interestingly and notably, during the presidency of Ghana’s Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, most journalists and individuals that opposed his ideal and policies were sentenced for life or exterminated. Prominent among these was Dr. J. B. Danquah. He was jailed on numerous occasions for expressing opposing views through the media and later it was alleged that he was injected to die. It is also believed that Tom Mboya of Kenya and Diallo Telli of the Republic of Guinea (former Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity – OAU) while in retirement, were killed for similar reasons. In Liberia, the pattern was the same - Tuan Wreh and Albert Porte were victimized for expressing views contrary to the Tubman administration.

The question that comes to mind is why are African leaders unable to deal with political opposition and the media? One would think that by encouraging such activities, these leaders would be able to get feedback and input which would enable them to become better leaders. And also that to their credit will be added the development of rapid progressive economic activities and a workable healthy political environment that will seek and promote the interest of “all of the people.” If the first question is not the problem, then are there exogenous forces responsible for these attitudes?

I would like to suggest that besides external forces, much of the problems emanate from these leaders. In spite of their awareness of what needs to done, it appears they refuse or never seem to reach political maturity. Moreover, they don’t have the guts to accept defeats and criticism gracefully without personal malice. The concept of the divine rule of the chief prevails in their minds, therefore their subjects are not allowed to voice their opinions or complain. Secondly, some of them are encouraged and manipulated by self-centered external forces. These forces support them in being tyrants while they behave as critics from abroad.

Until these African leaders can minimize their quest for power and wealth and abandon the divine rule of the chief concept there is little hope for them to become true leaders of their people. Until they are politically matured to accept defeat in elections and criticisms from opposition without personal vendetta there is little chance that mass media can respond to its responsibility as it ought to be. Let us remember that the government of any country is accountable to the people and the mass media serve as the means of communicating the message. Therefore, the voice of the people must be heard through the media because as the old adage maintains, it is the voice of God.

The Perspective
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