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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Democracy in modernity means that the media play an integral part in the modern lifestyle

FrontPage Columns Friday, August 31, 2007 -
A Lesson In The Genesis Of Democracy - The Right To Question All LOUISA NAKANUKU
It is my understanding that democracy in modernity means that the media play an integral part in the modern lifestyle, which is not only characterised by mass-scale production of goods for entrepreneurial markets and urbanisation to keep up with industrialisation, or even newly adopted innovations in science and engineering.
But large communities of strangers without any kinships, common social values or religion are also elements of the modern life.
Thus, in modernity, the idea of democracy means that society requires well-informed individuals to actively engage in debates and negotiations to reach agreements on the rules of society; a society with diverse citizens who are often distrustful of each other.
The mass media are that platform where issues are deliberated, and where citizens can engage in a language game.
This language game favours those with the ability to persuade others to their ideology.
We in Namibia gained our right to determine ourselves in 1990.
As with most revolutions, such as ours, people fought long and bitterly for their right to determine their own rules of existence, a fight that is still occurring in many parts of the world.
It is thus with gloom that I observe that there are those who dare to assault the idea of democracy, which not only comprises of free elections and parliament, but also free speech.
In this regard, what was Phil ya Nangoloh's crime, apart from exercising the ideals of democracy, a system that we, as Namibians, all agreed to adhere to? Exercising his democratic right in turn, the Swapo Chief Whip in the National Council, Jhonny Hakaye, used the media as a platform to vent his uneasiness about the fact that every citizen has the right to become a politician; "even an unsound mind" says Hakaye.
With those words, Hakaye shows that he is obviously against the idea of democracy, and perhaps he has a point (think Adolf Hitler).
However, even though no one dares to argue that democracy is the only way to govern society, history has shown us that it is the better of all evils.
So unless a new governing system is designed, not one that has already been tried and failed, democracy is the ideal system to work with, and within this system comes along its institutions of communication - that is, free elections, parliament, free speech, and free media as an integral part thereof.
That means that everyone has the democratic right to use the institutions of communication in order to question the socio-economic and political spheres of society.
In other words, if there are issues like the ones that have emerged, then we need to find ways of dealing with them rather than suppressing them.
That is the "healthy" part of democracy - or ought to be.
Enlightenment thinkers have guided us to use reason to find rational explanations of life, which consequently led to the transformation of a new social order that allows for ordinary citizens, (grudgingly even those with "unsound minds") to question all spheres of life and to engage in the language game.
But this transformation of a traditional social order to a modern social order could only happen because God, the unquestionable ruler of life in ancient times, could be questioned.
Positivist thinker Albert Einstein came to the following conclusion after questioning the existence of God: "I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.
If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."
This freedom to express oneself like Einstein did has allowed for reason to excel, for if we could not question the existence of God, we could not find rational explanations of life that led to human milestones such as Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon in 1969.
Even Mother Theresa participated in democracy by questioning her ruler of life.
The TimesOnline recently reported on letters that revealed that Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who was canonised six years after her death in 2003, had severe doubts about the existence of God.
In her letters, Mother Theresa wrote: "Where is my faith? Even deep down there is nothing but emptiness and darkness.
If there be a God — please forgive me."
If saints and intellectuals who have altered the way people view the world can question the existence of a God, why should a President be exempt? After all, in the words of Jefferson: "When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property."
Theo-Ben Gurirab queried, rightfully if I may add, the media's agenda.
It is in his democratic right to raise that question.
As a communication scholar with an interest in the analysis of global media systems, I encourage all to question the media, which are instrumental in controlling messages to mass society.
However, just as Gurirab and Hakaye used the media as platform to raise their concerns, so does Ya Nangoloh have the right to use the media in order to raise his rhetoric.
Thus, when a new law is proposed to regulate the media, some questions come to mind: What criteria will be used to decide who will be given the platform to raise their satisfaction, anger, frustrations and concerns, among many other emotions on the socio-economic and political sphere? How will it alter the socio-economic and political organisation in Namibia? In my view, a new law to regulate the media not only spells danger for the marketplace of ideas, which is essential for a progressive society, but it is an attack on any free individual's ability to use reason for the betterment of society.
Namibians are currently at a crossroads. We can use our dilemma to choose one of two avenues:
(1) to regulate the media, and the fearful society that will follow as a result; or
(2) to start a national dialogue on addressing the unmistakable cracks in our democratic foundations.
We all have a role to play in the path that will be selected. Politicians might be able to propose a law for media regulation, but we, the ordinary citizens, can rise up and defend our democratic right to question ALL, including the highest political office in this country.
In other words, Councillors and Members of Parliament of the Namibian Government have the mandate to govern us, but we, the ordinary citizens, have the mandate to decide on their parameters.
In conclusion, if the questioning of God's absolute rule can lead us to a modern society, how would Namibia progress if we allow the marketplace of ideas - the media - to flourish? There is a phrase that states: "look to the past to glimpse the future".
History has shown us, yet again, what happens when the marketplace of ideas is controlled: Zimbabwe. The unquestionable autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe has turned Zimbabwe into one of the poorest nations in the world. Is that the path that Namibia really wants to follow?
* The author of this opinion piece is a PhD candidate in mass communication at Carleton University, Canada. Latest Columns • SummaryHeadlinesForums

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