Free press crucial for democratisation

13Nov 2017
The Guardian
Free press crucial for democratisation

THE great story of the American presidential election is not the vigorous and level ground competition that is on display. That is a tradition that dates back to 1796 when America held its first contested presidential election.

It is not that the various security services of the United States remain non-partisan. Institutional governance and the rule of law, entrenched under George Washington's first administration, are part of America's political DNA.

It is not even the self-destruction of Donald J. Trump, that most unfit, ego-burdened racist misogynist who exploited the dark side of America to get very close to the White House. He is heading for defeat on November 8.

The big story is the role American journalists have played in exposing the truth so that the public can make an informed decision.

While American news media cover the whole spectrum, from very independent to partisan to extremist, they have been relentless in digging deep to unearth information that the politicians would have rather kept hidden from public scrutiny.

Trump's demagoguery, founded on torrents of fabrications and manipulation of less educated European Americans, brought him perilously close to capturing power. Feigning a Republican identity, the political freelancer became the adopted flag-bearer for conservative America. His rhetoric resonated with a segment of European Americans who endured eight years of watching an African American in the White House. His "outsider" claims invited a second look by people who were suspicious that Hillary Clinton's long stay in Washington had made her hostage to special interest groups. Had Trump been a candidate for president of a country with lazy or easily corruptible journalists, he would have probably sailed through unchallenged. To be sure, had he been a ruler of a country where journalists dare not speak the truth about a powerful person, the voters would have remained uninformed about him.

However, his theatre was the United States of America, where there are enough independent news media houses to ensure that the truth about the candidates is exposed.

So the New York Times exposed the hypocrisy of a man who was railing against the poor state of various American institutions when in fact he had avoided paying US federal taxes for 18 years because he had reportedly lost nearly $1 billion.

The Washington Post revealed a tape in which Trump confessed that he had engaged in sexual assaults on women, a development that drove a nail into the Republican candidate's political coffin.

Cable News Network (CNN) has been unrelenting in their pursuit of the truth about Trump, giving both pro-Trump and anti-Trump panelists ample time to dissect his story.

His past statements and actions have been scrutinised, cutting through his gibberish speeches that have been the perfect diet for xenophobic, racist, bigoted, misogynistic souls who still cant believe that an African American is president of the United States of America. Other magazines, papers and TV networks have done their best to expose the real Trump.

Not that the journalists have been easy on Hillary. Her three decades in high-level politics and government have been thoroughly dissected. Her errors of judgment and her statements on the campaign trail have been subjected to fact checks. Journalists have called her out whenever she has made outlandish statements and promises.

So as Americans begin to cast their ballots, they have sufficient information about the two candidates to make up their minds. To a large extent the credit for this goes to the members of America's Fourth Estate who have been bold and highly professional in support of democracy. This is a standard to which journalists in a country like Uganda must aspire and achieve in order for democracy to be enabled.

One understands, of course, the very hostile environment in which most journalists operate. The threat of prison, loss of livelihood and even death encourages self-censorship.

However, the culture of greed and easy corruptibility is alive and well in some Ugandan media houses, and accounts for their willingness to undermine the democratisation efforts.

Some journalists and their papers or radio stations are nothing but public relations officers and campaign mouthpieces for the ruling party.

The superficial handling of politicians' statements, claims, promises and actions often suggests professional laziness. Balanced investigative journalism is sacrificed. Uncritical reporting of the President's actions, statements and promises denies the population the information to make objective judgment of their ruler.

The struggle for democracy must include a push for true freedom of the press, exercised by ethical journalists who are well-grounded in their profession.

Obviously freedom of the press cannot exist in a vacuum. Military dictatorships in their various guises will always suffocate the press. So the paramount struggle must remain directed at achieving respect for human rights and freedoms.

However, in a country like Uganda, where the press has some room to breathe, efforts to advance journalism towards the above ideals must be embraced and supported by all who care about their own freedom. It is risky, yes. But the alternative is entrenchment of corrupt regimes riding atop an ill-informed population.