“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, right or wrong – is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public,” says Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the US (1858 – 1919).

Two former United States of America presidents, Franklin D. Theodore Roosevelt ( 26th US Presiden) and John F Kennedy (35th US President), both said so eloquently in standard American voices in paraphrasing and courtesy to the two US  Presidents that citizens must always speak the truth, pleasant or unpleasant,  must speak truth to power and courageously confront an authority, calling out on systemic tribalism, corruption, injustices on their watch and demanding change. 

Their timeless wisdom and exciting facts for inspiration and motivation came a couple of decades later. The words hold fast for words for the wise that are essential and sacrosanct in today’s Gambia emergent democracy and governance system. 

Furthermore, media freedom and freedom of expression are inviolable to Gambia’s young democracy.

“Nothing but the truth should be spoken about (the President) or anyone else,” Roosevelt wrote in 1926. “But it is even  more imporant to tell  the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”

Is criticising the President a danger to democracy? The role of the independent media critics and social media criticism in protecting the country’s too fragile institutions and ravelled civic fabric from political leader’s assault and whether the independent media critics should support democracy or provide unflinching help to the President. 

The private press and media critics must not be partisan in the service of democracy. The Gambia is in an existential struggle between good governance, self-governance, and an authoritarian alternative. 

Moreover, all those in the private media and social media must not give unequal treatment to the President, if not slightly more favourable.

Most African Presidents and their loyal supporters do not respect dissenting views, they suppress and attack truth-telling media critics, independent journalists, and bully critics who oppose them.

Citizens are not subjects, and they have the right to criticise their government. Every citizen has the right to hold their leader accountable in a  proper democracy without fear. 

Unfortunately, when freedom of expression is stifled, bad decisions are often made, and heart-breaking tragedies occur – too often on a breathtaking scale that can leave societies wondering how this happened. 

Freedom of information, by all accounts, is critical to expanding meaningful citizen participation and influence in contemporary democracy and serves as the oxygen of democracy.

The story and anecdote from two former American Presidents, Franklin D. Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, on why criticising the President matters, once responded positively about why does criticising the President matter in a democracy? 

Speaking about the relationship between the President and the citizenry, Roosevelt noted that and had been clear on the need for the public to be able to criticise the chief executive. 

The President is merely the most important among many public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation. 

Therefore, there must be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts. This means that it is strictly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in a citizen is both base and servile.

According to President Roosevelt, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

Roosevelt wrote these words while the United States was embroiled in World War I, in case anyone thinks that even a wartime president is immune to criticism. Roosevelt knew that paying obeisance to power regardless of how well-intentioned is a danger to a thriving balance of power.

Let me start a little differently, with some words to live by and a reminder about the relationship between the President and the citizenry. To Gambians, John F. Kennedy said, “without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed, and  no republic can survive.”

Moreover, in part, aesthetic criticism can genuinely prove an aesthetic proposition; if they concern matters of factual or logical evidence, it validates the need for the public to be able to criticise the chief executive — something extraordinary in our new and evolving democracy, to blind supporters of the President and his government officials. 

However, if the President were the one getting in the way, the people had to have the ability to say so and participate in the political process.

“The President should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct. His efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able and disinterested service to the nation. 

“Therefore, it is necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts and this means it’s exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.”

President Roosevelt noted that “To announce that there should be no criticism of the President or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is unpatriotic and servile but is morally treasonable to the American public. 

“Of course, nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else, but it’s even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than anyone else.”

Moreover, John F. Kennedy echoed these words eloquently in 1961 “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed, and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian law-maker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy.”

Furthermore, that is why the First Amendment protected our press – the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution – not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasise the trivial and the sentimental, not to “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.

However, no president or public officer should fear public scrutiny of his programmes, political ideology, development plan. From that scrutiny comes understanding, and from that understanding comes support or opposition, and both are necessary. 

Moreover, both are necessary for good governance. They were not asking independent newspapers to support the Administration. 

Still, those two American leaders were asking for the media’s help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the people with complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever the media fully informed them.

In a democracy, the President and his supporters must not stifle controversy among citizens and critics. On the contrary, every Administration must welcome criticism. 

President Adama Barrow’s Administration should be candid about its errors. A wise man once said: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors, and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.”

No true partisan for democracy can be a reflective defender of a leader. No matter how well-intended, adopting this tendency will further undermine the civic edifice. It plays into the hands of democracy’s would-be grave-diggers. 

However, presidents are the servants of democracy; its beneficiaries are ordinary Gambians. They are who genuinely deserve our best effort and our best coverage by putting the Gambian people front and centre of the discourse. 

These changes would go far – but certainly not all the way – toward ensuring that future citizens under future administrations can continue questioning and criticising their government without fear of being publicly humiliated, bullied, or prosecuted by their government and agitators. 

It would also set a clear example to the rest of the world that, in a genuinely democratic republic, the suppression of journalists, dissents, and critics cannot be tolerated. Then the Gambia could no longer be used as an excuse by repressive governments worldwide to say: Dictatorship.

By Alagi Yorro Jallow

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