Monday, June 17, 2013

Media and Government Accountability

1.0 Introduction Since time immemorial the media has always been perceived to the “watch dog” that enhances government accountability by the role it plays in informing citizens and persuading them to hold government officials accountable and answerable for their actions or lack of it. The past half a century has been characterized by an increased rate of democracy. In many parts of the world, even those that have not fully adopted it, democracy is perceived as very powerful force with the propensity to inspire and motivate the citizenry in different parts of the world to take more interest in politics and increase their levels of participation. The governments in many of the nations in the modern day-particularly the newly rising democracies- have reportedly not yet reached the level in which the fundamental principles that typify democracy are applied fully. On the contrary, many nations, particularly in the Arab Spring for instance Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, have in the recent days been characterized by revolts and violence as citizen protest against authoritarian governments, irregularities in the voting process and corruption and ineffectiveness by the governments in power. The media plays a very important role in sensitizing citizen about their rights, the functions that governments ought to fulfill and how the nation should be governed . This paper will discuss the interplay between the media and government accountability. 2.0 Government Accountability Government accountability in politics is described as the obligation or duty vested upon the government as well as the agencies and officials affiliated to it to conduct themselves in a manner that serves the best interests of the society and electorates who elected them to office. Public officials should be aware of the fact that they have duties to fulfill and that they are at all times, answerable for their actions or inactions. The most well known mechanism through which electorates can hold their government and its public officials responsible for their actions is by not voting the back to office. In case the irregularities are of a criminal nature, the unaccountable officials can be prosecuted. As already indicated, good governance is not about the adoption of effective institutions or models of politics but rather the accountability that a political system demonstrates in its activities. One of the most important theories in the deliberation of government accountability is the social responsibility theory. In order to deter unrest and nation wide protests, all governments- be they democratic or authoritarian- realize that they have to deliver to their citizens a minimum of public services and commodities. Political governments that incline towards the democratic system of governance are vested with the responsibility of ensuring that their agencies and government officials remain accountable to the general public –particularly the citizens- at all times. A majority of government officials realize that they need to demonstrate their accountability to the citizens since the citizen possess the vote. The vote gives the electorate the power to either reward or punish a government for its inaction or action. This is dome by voting in government and officials who perform well and voting out those that are unaccountable. In order for the government to be accountable it is important that the citizens in the political system engage actively in the politics that affect them; the general public has to play an active role in the community policy formulation processes as well as participate in the election processes. 3.0 Function of the Media In order for any nation to ensure that it is democratically governed it is important for the media in that nation to be very active and accurate in its coverage of politics. Through such media coverage of politics the electorate will receive the education and information they require and thus be in a better position to hold their governments and politicians accountable for their action or inaction. Thomas Jefferson, one of the former Presidents on the United States of America once stated that “The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe”. There are a number of functions that the media plays in ensuring that the government is accountable to its citizen. The existence of independent media in a democratic society ensures that the democracy functions well and the citizens are allowed to enjoy their constitutional rights and freedoms. According to the social responsibility theory, the media houses are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that they fulfill their obligation to society by being truthful, objective and self regulated. Moreover, the media should advocate for public interest so as to enhance government accountability. There are several functions that are played by the media in ensuring government accountability and increased involvement by the electorates in politics. (a) Watchdog Function One of the most classical believes in journalism is the fact that the media has a duty to act as the “government’s” watchdog so as to ensure that the government remains accountable to its people. In this function the media is perceived as possessing the power to control the government since it has the power to carry out investigations, report, broadcast and provide editorial opinions regarding the actions or inactions of the government. More over, the media possess the power to make public any form of corruption, illegal happenings and irregularities conducted by a government of its officials. It is however argued that in some nations rather than be a watchdog, the media is so oppressed by dictatorship that it becomes either a toothless or a lap dog. This means that it is manipulated and not allowed to practice its independence. (b) Media Polls One of the major sources of the transformations that have occurred in modern day American politics in the last couple of decades have been brought about by Media polls. Polls are a very significant characteristic of any journalism activities. The media polls play a very significant role in monitoring democracy and allowing the people to determine the pace of public agenda. News medial polls increase the accountability of the government by ensuring that the performance of the elected government officials is X-rayed and the electorate allowed to make the decision on whether to vote the leaders back into office or not. Many times media polls are carried out in order to augment other commercial polls that are conducted on politicians to gauge their popularity. Such police closely monitor the government officials and encourage them to be more accountable. Nevertheless, there have been many issues with media polls with a number of politicians and the general public feeling that the media polls are not conducted in a transparent manner. As a matter of fact, the increase in the number of media polls in the present day is accused of undermining the deliberations that occur between electorates and their leaders particularly in issues to do with democracy . (c) Educative/ Informative Function The most important and significant role played by the media is probably that of educating and informing the general public on the significance of the electoral process as well as the government structure and the manner in which it functions. In accomplishing its educative and informative function the media also makes sure to encourage the electorate to participate in the process of election since this is the only way in which they can elect leaders that will be dedicated to bringing about development as well as ensuring the safety and well being of the electorate. The media is also able to increase accountability by government officials since it highlights and broadcasts the malpractices in government that deny the electorates their rights and freedoms which they are entitled to by their constitutions, as well as the corrupt government officials who are responsible for such. This in turn puts the government as well as its agencies and officials under a lot of pressure to increase their accountability to the citizens by responding effectively to the shortcomings and irregularities in the system. In its capacity to educate and inform the electorate the media is able to promote the restructuring and reform of policies or strategies by the government by making the people aware of the factors that hinder their development as well as the reasons why positive transformations are absent in different aspects of their lives. The media also provides a forum for critics and autonomous experts and analysts in different areas such as politics and economics to offer their opinions and assessments on the government and its activities as well as promote the importance for policy reorganization and enhancement. 4.0 Media Access There are a number of ways through which politicians and government officials can access publicity through the media. The most common techniques include talk shows, interviews ranges and memories. The television plays a very important role in such publicity stunts . The television is amongst the most dominant media of political transparency in the present day. This is due to the fact that many people consult the news broadcasts and reports broadcasted on the television to acquire information about politics, politicians and the government agencies that affect them. Media intrusion is very significant in enhancing government accountability since it highlights issues of public concern. Many a times the media also reveals any scandals-whether personal or professional- that government officials are involved in so as to give the public a clear picture of the kind of leaders that they have. Nevertheless, there are a number of issues that have emerged regarding the social responsibility and morality of media depictions. One such adverse effect of media coverage on political issues is the fact that the media in the modern day has a propensity to focus on the personal celebrity status of politicians as well as their sporting aspects which are demonstrated in political conflicts. Television coverage of politics, particularly during campaign periods tends to focus on the politicians that are “winning” and the techniques that they are applying to attain political victories. Such stories about the political maneuvering of politicians offer the citizens some level of transparency since such broadcast evaluate the inside stories about the politicians and reveal their strategic intentions and aims. Politicians can also make use of media events so as to manipulate political transparency; this is particularly so when they stage events for the media to cover. 5.0 Conclusion Good governance requires more than just the adoption and application of political structures and agencies believed to be proper. In spite of the focus that many political activists and analysts currently place on reform factions, the most effective form of governance are those in which the governmental system and its officials remain accountable to the people. As already indicated in this paper, despite the increased number of democratic governments in the modern day and the increased use of constitutional structures to ensure that government officials and politicians are accountable to the citizens, there are still many nations with governments characterized by corruption, ineffectiveness and dictatorship. Accountable governance is a process which requires the collaboration of the political systems and the media houses. The media is reliant on information from the government which is in turn presented to the citizen for the purposes of analyzing it and ascertaining whether or not the government is behaving in an ethical manner. Due to the very important role that is played by the media in ensuring that governments are accountable through informing the public, it is very important for the media to conduct itself and its activities in a manner that is transparent and ethical. Quality and objective journalism has been an issue of debates in many democracies. In spite of the fact that in areas where the media is autonomous there are rules and regulations established to ensure ethical journalism, it is important for autonomous media houses to establish their own rules, regulations and codes of ethical conduct which will ensure ethical journalism by its reporters. 6.0 Work Cited Balkin, Jack M: How Mass Media Simulates Political Transparency, Yale University (1998) Behr, Roy and Iyengar, Shanto: The Media: American Politics in the Television Age, New York: Macmillan, (1993) Bennett, W. Lance and Lawrence G. Regina: Press Freedom and Democratic Accountability in a Time of war, Commercialism and the Internet, in The Politics of News: The News of Politics, Eds. (2008) Gentzkow, Matthew Aaron and Shapiro, M. Jesse: Media Bias and Reputation, Journal of Political Economy (2006) Ibrahim, Leonard: The Watchdog Role of the Media: Media as the Fourth Estate, Rrezja Journal, January 27th (2008) Khanal, Prem: Independent Media, Information Access and Accountability, Centre for International Private Enterprise Development Institute, (2013), pp. 1-5 Malena, Carmen, Reiner Forster and Janmejay Singh: Social Accountability An Introduction to the Concept and Emerging Practice, The World Bank (2006) Manns, E. Thomas and Orren, R. Gary: Media Polls in American Politics, Brookings Institution Press, (1992) Newport, Frank: A Matter of Trust. American Journalism Review, July, (1998), p. 30 Patterson, Thomas: News Images: Journalist Portrayal of Candidates, Syracuse University, (1992) Roll, W. Charles and Cantril, H. Albert: Polls: Their Use and Misuse in Politics, Basic Books (1972), pp. 7-8 Snyder, M. James and Stromberg, David: Press Coverage and Political Accountability. NBER Working Paper Series Paper No. 13878, (2008), pp. 2- Quindlen, Anna: Talking About the Media Circus. New York Times, June 26, (1994), p. A28