Editorial Human Rights Opinion

Why Does Criticizing the President Matter?

“To say that the president cannot be criticized, whether right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and submissive but also morally treasonous to the American public.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the U.S. (1858-1919)

Fatoumatta: Two former Presidents of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt (26th President) and John F. Kennedy (35th President), articulated in standard American discourse that citizens must always speak the truth, whether pleasant or unpleasant. They must address power with honesty and bravely challenge authority, denouncing systemic tribalism, corruption, and injustices during their tenure and demanding reform. Their timeless wisdom and inspiring truths, which emerged decades later, remain vital and sacred in today’s burgeoning democracy and governance system in The Gambia. Moreover, media freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental rights in The Gambia’s nascent democracy.

Fatoumatta: The Gambian Constitution enshrines the right to criticize and protest within Chapter IV, dedicated to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. Section 25 of the 1997 Constitution specifically guarantees freedoms of speech, conscience, assembly, association, and movement. This provision supports the individual’s right to voice opinions, gather peacefully, and form associations, including engaging in criticism and protest.

Moreover, the right to freedom of expression for every citizen is affirmed under the same section, which encompasses freedom of speech and the press, among other forms of media. This is a crucial element of the constitution that reinforces the country’s democratic values.

The right to freedom of expression is also supported by section 25 of the Gambian Constitution, article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, ratified by Gambia in 1983, and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Gambia acceded in 1979.

Furthermore, section 25(1)(a) specifically safeguards the “freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media,” while section 207 affirms that “the freedom and independence of the press and other information media are hereby guaranteed.”

It is vital to recognize that while these rights are granted by the constitution, they may be subject to legal limitations, especially concerning national security, public order, or morality. It is always essential to ensure that any form of criticism or protest aligns with the legal boundaries set by Gambian law.

Fatoumatta: In democratic societies, the ability to critique government leaders, including the president, is widely regarded as a core element of free speech and expression. This right enables citizens to voice their opinions and hold their leaders to account, promoting robust public dialogue and aiding the democratic process. It is crucial, however, that such criticism is carried out respectfully and within legal parameters.

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

Is criticizing the President a danger to democracy? The role of independent media critics and social media in protecting the country’s fragile institutions and unraveled civic fabric from a political leader’s assault is pivotal. They should support democracy and provide unflinching help to the President. The private press and media critics must remain non-partisan in serving democracy. In The Gambia, there is an existential struggle between good governance, self-governance, and an authoritarian alternative. Moreover, those in private media and social media must not show unequal treatment towards the President, if not slightly more favorable.

Unfortunately, most African Presidents and their blindly loyal supporters do not respect dissenting views, suppressing and attacking truth-telling media critics, independent journalists, and bullying critics for criticizing their political leaders. Citizens are not subjects; they have the right to criticize their government. Every citizen should be able to hold their leader accountable in a proper democracy without fear. When freedom of expression is stifled, poor decisions and heart-breaking tragedies often occur on a scale that leaves societies in disbelief. Freedom of information is essential to expanding meaningful citizen participation and influence in contemporary democracy, serving as its very oxygen.

The anecdotes of former American Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy highlight the importance of criticizing the President in a democracy. Roosevelt once articulated the necessity for the public to critique the chief executive, emphasizing that the President is the most important among many public servants and should be supported or opposed based on his conduct and efficiency in serving the nation. He asserted that citizens must have the freedom to speak the truth about the President’s actions, insisting it is just as important to blame him for wrongdoing as it is to praise him for doing right. Roosevelt firmly believed that any other attitude in a citizen is both base and servile. He famously stated, “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.” These words were penned during World War I, countering the notion that a wartime president should be exempt from criticism, and reflecting Roosevelt’s belief that unquestioning allegiance to power is a threat to a healthy balance of power.

Fatoumatta: Allow me to begin uniquely, with enduring words and a reflection on the relationship between the President and the citizens. John F. Kennedy told Gambians, “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed—and no republic can survive.” Aesthetic criticism, when it pertains to factual or logical evidence, can substantiate an aesthetic proposition; it underscores the public’s right to critique the chief executive—an extraordinary aspect of our new and evolving democracy, often overlooked by the President’s unwavering supporters and government officials. If the President becomes an obstacle, the populace must have the means to express this and engage in the political process.

“The President should be supported or opposed precisely to the extent that his conduct merits. His effectiveness or ineffectiveness in providing loyal, capable, and unbiased service to the nation dictates that there must be complete freedom to speak the truth about his actions. This entails the necessity to censure him when he errs just as much as to commend him when he acts correctly. Any other stance by an American citizen is both contemptible and submissive.”

President Roosevelt asserted, “To declare that the President must not be criticized, or that we should stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and submissive but also morally treasonous to the American public. Indeed, only the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else, but it is even more imperative to tell the truth, whether pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”

John F. Kennedy articulated this sentiment in 1961: “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed, and no republic can survive. This is why Athenian lawmaker Solon made it a crime for any citizen to shy away from controversy. This is also why the First Amendment protects our press—the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution—not primarily to entertain or to focus on the trivial and sentimental, nor to ‘give the public what it wants’—but to inform, to stir, to reflect, to present our dangers and our opportunities, to outline our crises and our choices, to guide, shape, educate, and sometimes even anger public opinion.” No president or public official should be afraid of the public scrutinizing their programs, political ideology, or development plans. Such scrutiny leads to understanding, and from understanding comes support or opposition, both of which are essential for good governance. They did not seek the independent newspapers’ endorsement of the Administration but rather sought the media’s assistance in the vital task of informing and alerting the people, trusting fully in the response and commitment of our citizens when they are well-informed by the media.

Fatoumatta: In a democracy, neither the President nor their supporters should suppress controversy among citizens and critics. Instead, every administration must embrace criticism. President Adama Barrow’s administration ought to be transparent about its mistakes. As a wise man once said, “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” We plan to take full responsibility for our errors and expect you to point them out when we overlook them. No true advocate for democracy can unreflectively defend a leader. Regardless of intentions, this behavior could further erode the civic structure and aid those who threaten democracy. Presidents are servants to democracy; the true beneficiaries are the ordinary Gambians who truly deserve our utmost efforts and attention by prioritizing their needs.

In a democratic system, implementing institutional reforms that bolster accountability and transparency is vital. Such reforms guarantee that government actions and decisions are made for the public good and subject to examination. They set up specific mechanisms for holding government officials accountable, including regular reporting, performance reviews, and the creation of independent oversight agencies.

Initiatives for transparency can render government data and decision-making processes open to the public by proactively releasing information, utilizing open data platforms, and conducting public policy consultations. Moreover, fostering citizen participation in the political process is crucial and can be promoted through public forums, participatory budgeting, and digital tools for policy feedback.

It is also critical to reinforce the legal framework to fight corruption, safeguard whistleblowers, and maintain the integrity of public institutions. These measures can cultivate trust between the citizenry and their government, which is fundamental to a robust democracy. They also lead to more effective and fair governance, ensuring that democracy’s benefits are experienced by all societal members.

Fatoumatta: In a democratic society, the ability to critique the government and its leaders, along with transparency, integrity, and accountability, are indispensable for a democracy rooted in the rule of law. They support sound governance and foster trust in the policymaking process, thus strengthening the legitimacy and trustworthiness of public institutions.

These reforms would significantly contribute – though not completely – to ensuring that future citizens under subsequent administrations can continue to question and criticize their government without the fear of public humiliation, intimidation, or legal action by the government and its proponents. It would also demonstrate to the world that in a true democratic republic, the silencing of journalists, dissenters, and critics is unacceptable. Then, Gambia could no longer be cited by oppressive regimes globally as a pretext for dictatorship.

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