Media role vital for human rights protection

28Feb 2016
Mboneko Munyaga
Guardian On Sunday
Justice Africa
Media role vital for human rights protection

One of the most ingenious concepts in a democracy is clearly the doctrine of the separation of powers among the three branches of government or estates of power; legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

But for the system to function well and avoid conflicts, there had to be checks and balances so that power could never be concentrated in any one branch.

Later, was added to the system the principle of religious freedom, which was seen as an important step toward the development and protection of human rights.

Most countries also enshrined in their constitutions the doctrine of press freedom, not as a direct branch of government but as a necessary estate of state craft.

Yet, because of its watchdog role over the behaviour and functioning of the other branches of power, the media was perceived as dangerous and in many dictatorships especially, its powers critically curtailed.

Muzzling the media though, led to a horrific culture of impunity on the part of the executive and terrible corruption in the judiciary as it tended to drift towards a fusion of interests with the executive and away from its time honoured and jealously protected doctrine of independence, which was the only way to guarantee the rights of all in society, whether rich or poor.

The writer therefore, is more than heartened by the recent call by the President of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) Justice Augustino Ramadhani in N’Djamena, Chad recently for the media to reassert its lead role in the defence of human rights in Africa.

Journalists, of course, have themselves been among the most afflicted victims of human rights abuses in Africa. They have been tortured, killed and intimidated in their line of duty. However, they refused to be broken and I believe they have finally earned the respect that Napoleon Bonaparte once bestowed to them.

The legendary soldier and Emperor said: “I am brave enough to meet a thousand enemy soldiers in battle but lacks the courage to confront a single journalist because by the stroke of a pen, he demolishes an empire you spent years labouring to build.”

But the relationship between the media and the other estates of power need not always be tepid, acrid and confrontational. It only sours when the other estates, especially the executive branch or “real power”, work to manipulate the media and attempt to turn it into their kind of wagtail.
That, the media truly abhors.

On the other hand, to be a journalist is like to be a perpetual student. Also, I would take the call by Justice Ramadhani as a challenge to journalists to empower themselves on subjects they seek to communicate to society.

A World Bank official once wanted me to specialise as an education journalist. My immediate reaction was: “Why don’t you look for a teacher? I am not a teacher!”

In a calm and rather patronising voice, former Senior Communications Specialist for Africa, the late Fatoyinbo Akintola told me: “My friend, you don’t seem to know yourself. Don’t you understand that as a journalist you are by far a greater teacher than the one who lectures confined to the four walls of a classroom?”

“Akin” died in Dar es Salaam in December 2002 where he was attending a meeting of African education ministers. He had dedicated his life to change in Africa through the power of the pen.

My readers too will excuse me for remembering here another dear friend, professional icon and role model, Eugene Corbett Patterson, (October 15, 1923 – January 13, 2012). Patterson was editor of the Atlanta Constitution at a time of great racial tension in America’s south.

Gene, as he was fondly called by friends, wrote a signed newspaper editorial every day for eight years. An editorial he wrote in 1963, A Flower for the Graves, was so moving that Walter Cronkite, the leading news anchor-man of the era, asked him to read live on television.

The editorial was in response to the notorious bombing of a black Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963, which killed four black girls, all under 15 years old.

Gene wrote mostly to his fellow whites about the futility of racism. We shall never know what potential America lost in that madness by white supremacists but a friend of the girls was former Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice.

For some reason, she didn’t go to church that day but most likely she would have been one of the victims!Gene was awarded the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Surely, it pays to be both a journalist and activist.East African News Agency