The media and political power addiction

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Afamasaga M. F. Toleafoa

A brief news item in this week’s Friday’s Samoa Observer was a reminder of the tension that must exist in a democratic environment between governments and those exercising power on one hand, and the media on the other. 

The item was about the Tonga prime minister, Mr Akilisi Pohiva’s ongoing spat with the Tonga Broadcasting Commission. According to the piece, Mr Pohiva was suggesting the possibility of some other media provider facilitating the work of government as the Tonga Broadcasting Commission was not doing it. 

One assumes that like our own Radio Broadcasting Service, the Tonga Broadcasting Commission is owned by the Tongan government. And it’s not hard to see why Mr Pohiva must feel that the latter should support government.

If the outfit is owned by government, then it should be a government mouthpiece would appear to be Mr Pohiva’s take on the matter.  The comment carried a veiled threat it appeared about what might happen to Mr Pohiva’s protagonist if it continued in not facilitating government work. 

But the comment drew a response from Monica Miller of the Pacific Freedom Forum, a media watchdog agency to the effect that the work of the media is not to support governments but to represent the people’s interest in government. She also reminded Mr Pohiva of his own “roots” as a former journalist and pro-democracy activist politician. 

One would be forgiven for wondering if the incident is yet another sign of the times. After all, it seems that wherever one looks, populism and authoritarian tendencies in governments show their ugly faces. And along with these developments is an accompanying declaration of war of sorts on the media, or at least on the members of the media that are representing the “people’s interest” After all, much of the media in the Pacific appears more than happy for their own reasons to go along with the flow and wherever governments go and let sleeping watch dogs lie.

Our own column comment a couple of weeks ago on the standoff between our government and the Judiciary ended with a quote from former US President George Bush about the need for systemic checks and balances on the exercise of political power in a democracy. He added as a former president that power is addictive. And any form of addiction as we know is harmful, but he might have also added that power also corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely as English historian and politician Lord John Acton said many years ago. 

Democracy guards against the double headed menace of power addiction and corruption through a system of checks and balances that Parliament, the Judiciary and the Executive provide. 

To begin with, these three agencies of state operate in unison, with clearly defined roles and spheres of operation with independence of one from the other. Parliament makes the laws which the Judiciary interprets and applies.  The two also have the added and all-important function of monitoring the work of the Executive, the elected government of the day. This is to ensure that government operates within the law and the limits set by the Constitution and by Parliament. 

This monitoring process is facilitated by a number of specialized agencies such as the Chief Auditor’s office with extensive investigative powers and independence from direct government control. They report directly to parliament on most important aspects of government operations. When allowed to work as originally designed when our system of government was first set up, it’s a system that has proven in most functioning democracies capable of delivering effective and transparent government based on the rule of law and not of men as found in Pacific countries including Samoa.

But the democratic checking mechanism is not complete without the “Fourth Estate” the media. Freedom of expression is fundamental to the work of the media in investigating and reporting on the operations of government for the benefit of the public, the people who put governments in power in the first place. The media in the Pacific faces any number of impediments and constraints, not least of which is the animosity of those in power, and not wanting the exercise of that power checked or questioned in any way. Mr Pohiva’s unhappiness with the Tonga Broadcasting Commission falls into that category.

We have our own version of the same as does Fiji and most Pacific countries where the state mechanisms for checking the exercise of political power have largely been done away with. One wonders what life would be like today without the media providing a measure of dissent and another point of view.  

They say one of the first steps to imposing authoritarian rule is to silence or do away with a free media. And we can only watch in amazement the attack in the open by the Trump administration on the media, on information and on the nature of truth itself. Fake news, alternative news, half lies, full lies, it’s all fair in war it seems. And as always, unrestrained political economic and military power both at home and in the world appears to be the prize.

But wherever governments set out to still the flow of information and the power to inform and enlighten people about what their government is doing, the methods are pretty much the same. Information they say is power. Keeping people in a state of blissful ignorance and ensuring their pet fears and prejudices are properly stoked will work miracles anytime.  

After all, many have succeeded in politics on the premise that to govern effectively one should never overestimate the intelligence of the people. 

A rueful thought perhaps, but we know it is true.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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