Role of Media

What really is the role of the press in an emerging democracy like ours? We could limit ourselves to the normative roles that every freshman student of the media touts out: to educate, to entertain and to inform. But obviously the role of the media in a democracy is much more extensive than that.

At this transition stage between the old and the new – when the old constitution has not completely been shelved, and the new constitution is still taking shape both in our lives as well as in our minds there is no gainsaying the educational and informational role of the media. This task requires the media to educate the public on the truths of the constitution and how that constitution affects them, but also to build the capacity of the leaders, particularly the legislators, to enable them have foresight in their effort to formulate laws, and the effort of other sectors of the nation in their efforts to implement the laws.

Even more critical is the watchdog role – to ensure that the executive does not focus too much attention on self-interest and in the process forget to work for the people. At the same time, the media must contribute in marking the legislature to ensure that the house of the people’s representatives remains focused on the people’s agenda. The watchdog role requires the media to point out if the debate in the house is increasingly frivolous, if the house is faced with constant lack of quorum, if the focus of the house is still on the core business of the nation, and if the discussions in the house are substantial.

Obviously, it is no easy task for the media to play these roles in a democracy governed by the rule of law. For too often, in the effort to provide information which in many cases touch on the lives and activities of individuals media must navigate the terrain gingerly to ensure that in the process it does not step on peoples toes.

This puts a huge responsibility on the media to balance between providing information and being sufficiently careful so that in the process it does not open itself to accusations of defamation. There is the age-old question as to whether media can be too brusque as to invade the privacy of others in the process of providing the public with information.

This points to how to treat issues that fall within the private and public domains. How private are public officials? How public are private citizens whose activities affect the public? How private are private citizens whose exploit of the media have made them public enabling them to benefit from this exploitation?

It is generally accepted that public officials serve the public and therefore their activities must be scrutinized more critically due to public interest, while other citizens whose activities impact the public domain in one way or the other may win a right to less public scrutiny, because public interest in their activities need to be tempered with greater circumspection.
In the process of implementing the new constitution, as debates take place in hallowed corridors of power and law, in stadia, in market places and in bars what ought to be the educational, informational and watchdog role of the media in synthesizing some of these debates and bringing them to public domain as a basis for further investigation or simply for caution? If the media have access to information that they have not been able to sufficiently verify, yet in their judgment is of sufficient magnitude to greatly injure the interest of the public how should they balance caution against public interest?
Should the noble objective of objectivity, balance and fairness weigh heavily on the media against the public interest? It was noticeable, in the recent debates in parliament regarding appointments that relate to constitutional offices that too often the media have leaned on the side of caution.

The recent stand off in American politics is instructive. On the one hand are the republican lawmakers with their eternal commitment to tax cuts vowing that they either have their way or it is the highway. The media pretty much took off the gloves and told the republican leadership to think again. Were they being objective or were they siding with one side of the debate? The argument is that because of their network of correspondents, call ins and other channels of communication the media have their fingers on the pulse of the nation more than many a politician. As such they may be in a better position to assess public interest.

And where the media assess the public interest should they be bold enough to take bold position on issues? For instance, should the media maintain objectivity, balance and fairness when in possession of information that individuals with less sterling public record are poised to be hoisted on the nation? Does it not serve the public interest more for media to take positions at such moments and while letting every side have its say – in the process remaining objective, balanced and fair – put forth their position and declare where the public interest should lie.

The media in this country have been accused for playing certain not altogether wholesome roles in our more recent history. Many sectors in the nation are being reformed and beginning to do business differently. Media too must come out in the public interest and start doing business differently.


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