Media should not be muzzled on key issues of national interest
On Saturday, the Reconstituted Transitional National Legislative Assembly (R-TNLA) gave an unflinching caution to journalists and media houses against reporting about parliamentarian emoluments.
The caution came in the wake of reports which said lawmakers allegedly received about $2000 in their bank accounts for emoluments. In their defense, the legislators argue that airing or publishing information about their pay would incite the public against the Members of Parliament.
So expansive was the warning that the parliamentary leadership advised the fourth estate not to defy the order, lest they risk withdrawal of their licenses.
This statement sounds concerning and could have far-reaching negative impacts.
The R-TNLA statement is dangerous and intimidating to the media and may likely affect the fair coverage of media on parliamentary activities. It is likely to interfere with the freedom of expression because the legislature is the government’s arm that deals with the enactment of the law that intends to protect the rights of the citizens and institutions.
Like other institutions, the parliament is supposed to be friendly to the media so that they can jointly work towards promoting the rights of the public.
The freedom of expression is granted in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act that gives every person the right to express their views freely without government interference. This same law also accords one freedom to receive information from other people like the media.
Therefore, restricting the media to report on some activities of parliament is reminiscent of preventing citizens from knowing the activities of their elected representatives as well as their welfare. In no part of the world have the media been prevented from reporting about the parliamentary benefits or deliberations.
This happens on the premise of voters’ right to information access. The voters want to know what is always happening in parliament. It should not be treated as the house of secrets where things are covered up by the public. A legislature is a place where freedom of expression is highly respected.
Empowered for the job
It is not only in South Sudan but in any parliamentary democracy, legislature and the press have a common obligation of working for the welfare of the people and that is why in Britain the media fraternity is referred to as the fourth estate of the government. This is a term that connotes that it enjoys the privilege of authenticity and influence, which is enjoyed by the three arms of the government.
The Legislature may have informed debates on various important issues and the press will appropriately keep the people informed about the deliberations. Therefore, for someone to be able to perform their responsibilities effectively and efficiently; both the Assembly and the press are required to exercise the freedom of expression to offer oversight.
Another point to take into consideration is that the media, having been bestowed the duty of informing society, now work as the conduit of enforcing the right to information. In this case, the public has the right to know the expenditure especially on issues of national interest; legislature included.
Any money wired to the treasury for use in the name of ‘public funds, be it from oil, non-oil revenue or donations are subject to transparency in the transaction.
So, the legislature needs to maintain a humble and good working relationship with the media so that it gives the required coverage for its activities especially at this particular time when the parliament is preparing to debate on the 2021/2022 national budget. Therefore, the responsibility of the media is to keep the public informed on all issues of interest, including parliamentary business.