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Issues At Stake: When Free Readers’ Tribunal Slams The Establishment

Yerima Kini Nsom

By Yerima Kini Nsom

A huge crowd throngs at a popular newspaper kiosk at the Melen neighborhood every morning. It is a diverse crowd of people who peep and leer at catchy newspaper headlines from the safe distance of their empty pockets. They are usually referred to as members of the “National Free Readers Association, NFRA. By their indicting comments, they usually transform themselves to a tribunal that slams the establishment for bad governance in many spheres of national life. They even go further to ignite a free-for-all cursing of newspapers that are seen to be the mouthpieces of the “oppressors”.

Their fiery comments swing from the leftist radical resistance to the rightist conservative insistence. They are varied and diverse in their reading of national issues with a rainbow of ideas. But what stands out clear, is the fact that those who hold briefs for Government in such heated debates are in a tiny minority. The finger-pointing crowd takes off time to boo and jeer at the pro-establishment press while hailing what they refer to as the people’s press. They denigrate the former as the mouthpiece of embezzling oppressors and the sit-tight tyrants. They slam the establishment for being at the centre of their woes and predicament. The charges are usually many and varied, ranging from electoral thievery, corruption, abuse of human rights, tribalism, nepotism and the hyper-centralisation of power in the hands of a few arrogant oafs.

They curse newspapers and journalists that support the regime, instead of doing balanced reporting on its activities. Indeed, the Cameroonian press is strongly divided along partisan lines. More often, it is a yawning dichotomy between the truth and falsehood as well as news and propaganda. Apart from the mainstream newspapers that treat national issues in an objective manner, the rest is an “awarawara” press that is embarked on survival journalism. From every indication, it is journalism of the highest bidder.

Communication scholars like Tom Rossential and Bill Kovach, who outlined the contours of journalism, would be certainly embarrassed with the “chop-I-chop” journalism practised by the garbage heap press in Cameroon. The experts hold that the first obligation of journalism is to the truth, while its first loyalty is to citizens. Its very essence is a discipline of the verification of facts in such a way that every news report is a balanced and faithful rendition of what happened. In such a situation, the reader should be able to see with his mind’s eyes what happened.

That is why journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover. A journalist who belongs to political party, for instance, can hardly guarantee anyone that he or she would keep his or her biases away when sent to cover other political parties. Can a journalist who is a supporter of the ruling Cameroon Peoples’ Democratic Movement, CPDM party, cover a rally of the opposition Cameroon Renaissance Movement, CRM, in all objectivity? On the other hand, can a militant-journalist of the CRM party cover CPDM activities without bias? It is only when journalists cover events in an objective and balanced manner that they can be true independent monitors of power and enable journalism to provide a credible forum for public criticisms and compromise. Only in such a situation can journalism make the significant relevant and interesting. For one thing, journalism must keep the news comprehensive and proportional while its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal consciences.

These are the elements that make journalism different from other forms of communication and from citizen journalism. For, the difference between professional journalism and citizenship journalism is like day and night. The former is predicated on the respect of ethics and social responsibility, while the latter is a misguided missile without any benchmarks and code of conduct. Professional journalism gives priority to a discipline of verification of facts that would lead to the objective truth. Citizen journalism prioritises speed and is more interested in breaking the news even when the issue remains frugal with the truth. Thus, it is unfortunate that some traditional journalists behave like citizen journalists by making sure that “everything goes” in their collection, treatment and dissemination of information. Most of them are at the beck and call of the rich and the powerful who belong to the fraternity of callous oppressors. They are usually robotic and idiotic in their spin-doctoring. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that over 10 newspapers carry the same headline in extensor whenever any of their masters in high places sneezes? Once international rights NGOs indict Cameroon for abusing human rights in the two crisis-hit Regions, such newspapers are mobilised to attack these organisations as enemies of the Republic of Cameroon. They are the watchdogs of some obscenely mighty of the regime. They do not care about looking for the truth. They are watchdogs, ready to defend their masters once criticised. The journalists of such media organs are the perpetrators of hate speech. They insult and pour unprintable invectives on people of certain Regions and from other political parties for a fee from their masters. They have fuelled the current socio-political crisis in the country. Such newspapers have refused to be a mirror for the rest of society to see its face.

They go as far as practising dog-eat-dog journalism by attacking newspapers that publish articles that do not put a smile on the faces of their masters. This explains why the court of public opinion and the free readers’ tribunal usually slam heavy sentences on them.

They hold that journalists, as the voice of the voiceless, ought to take sides with the oppressed and not with the oppressors. Such a view is in tandem with Debora Potters’ view that journalism’s responsibility is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.  Thus, it is incumbent on journalists who have divorced with the masses by relaying the alchemy of lying statements and belly-aching propaganda as if they were the gospel truth, to repent. I take exception to those who justify such an unfortunate development in the name of editorial policy. No editorial line should reduce any journalist to a megaphone of Government propaganda.

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