Opinions Mon, 19 Apr 2004

The Media In Election Year.

Ghana?s media have become a vital and indispensable part of its evolving democracy. From a mere four state controlled newspapers and the 60 year old Ghana Broadcasting Corporation( with its radio and television divisions) in 1990, the country now boasts of 127 radio stations, 6 television stations and more then 60 newspapers many of them with a circulation of below 15,000.

Applications for licenses to operate radio and television according to Major J.R.K. Tandoh (Rtd), Director General of The National Communication Authority (NCA), the nation?s licensing and moderating frequency body, continues.

The measure of media freedom with especially the technology of people phoning-in into radio programmes contrast sharply with the situation twelve years ago when people were afraid under the military Government of Jerry John Rawlings (before 1992) to read certain anti-government publications secretly distributed from London.

The 65 year old President, John Agyekum Kufuor says, ?Now there is freedom everywhere and people are not afraid to express their views and even insult the president. This is the price we have to pay for democracy and it is good.?

This is reinforced by the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers which in 2002-2003 declared that notwithstanding suppression in many parts of the world, ?certain positive breakthroughs, like in Benin and Ghana, probably the two countries on the African continent, together with South Africa, has the highest level of press freedom.? The main Opposition, National Democratic Congress (NDC) under whose previous incarnation, Provincial National Defence Council, some journalists suffered lost of jobs and detention says, the media are still Government friendly and contributed through campaigns of vilification and lies to help the Kufuor Government come to power in the December 2000 presidential and parliamentary elections.

John Mahama, Minority spokesman on communication for the NDC says of this: ?The NDC has problems with the state media for unfair coverage and we will continue to protest until we have a level ground. The forthcoming elections would be media elections because the media would be major decider and this should not be ignored.? While they cite the media?s less critical attacks on the Kufuor Government as proof of this, the Government?s answer has been that ?we have been more democratic and not corrupt.?

The President?s Press Secretary, Mr. Kwabena Agyei Agyepong thinks, ?The media have been vibrant and put Government on its toes. They have generated several critical issues for public discussions. By and large, this is an era of media pluralism and editors decide on what they want to publish.??

The newspapers are largely ideological and have three shades-those privately owned that are Government and party friendly like The Statesman (founded by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Hon. Nana Akufo Addo) and Accra Mail whose editors are members of the ruling NPP .There are other anti-Government ones like The Ghana Palaver that week after week churn controversial reports of alleged Government corruption and nepotism. Other editors and newspapers are Nkrumahists, like The Independent, The Crusading Guide, The Guide that espouse the ideology of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana?s first Pan-Africanist leader and the fragments of his old Convention Peoples? Party. There are those trying to be mid-stream like The Ghanaian Chronicle (credited with some investigative reporting), The Dispatch, The Network Herald.

Many of these papers are owned by professional journalists with small capital base and are eight or twelve paged with very limited editorial and administrative staff. This creates problems in terms of circulation and revenue mobilization as co-operative publishing or mergers have failed. That is why the state-owned Graphic Corporation which publishers four leading newspapers including the 48 paged Daily Graphic (over one-third covered with advertisements) with an estimated circulation of over 60,000 tops (though it very difficult to get accurate figures for all publications in Ghana)them all and is the single richest newspaper industry with a turn-over of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a good year .The other state corporation Times Corporation publishers of The Ghanaian Times and The Weekly Spectator together constitute about the second largest media corporation in the country in terms of equity. But the media freedom is not very much matched by professional ethics and training. Critics of the media and the practitioners themselves admit that low levels of education, lack of training and deliberate politicization as well as accusation of corruption have not put a section of the media in good steady.

?The media are fanning democratic values but in their zeal to get there, they trump upon the very things they try to achieve, democratic culture,? says Mr.George Mac Badji, Executive Secretary of the constitutional body National Media Commission (NMC) which settles disputes between offended members of the society and editors/journalists in the media.

According to Badji, in 2003, the NMC settled 38 cases brought to it by aggrieved members of society. 98% of the cases went against the media practitioners ?because they did not do basic cross-checking.?

Notwithstanding the general acceptance of lapses, Major Tandoh of NCA thinks that, ?media pluralism is helping our infant democracy. The peace Ghana is enjoying in a West Africa under turmoil is partly due to a liberal media.?

President Kufuor?s four year mandate ends in December. Elections for the presidency and the 200-member parliament, (which the Electoral Commission has announced would be increased to 230) the NMC with the support of the British Council, Frederick Ebert Foundation of Germany and other media non-governmental organizations have been planning seminars for election coverage for the media as Badji believes that ?sensitivity to national interest is lacking as it is manifested in reportage.??

The media itself just got out of a divisive storm of eligibility and disqualification of some members in the election of the president and executives of the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) the biggest umbrella for media people in the country. At the end, one of the country?s respected journalists-Ajoa Yeboah-Afari, who had just returned from a Commonwealth contract as editor of Currents in London was elected; the second woman in succession for the association.

Ms.Yeboah-Afari, who previously worked for the BBC, West Africa magazine and wrote one of the most popular columns in the annuals of Ghana?s contemporary journalism is currently the editor of The Ghanaian Times and is aware of the problems: ?My immediate task as president is working towards improving the quality of reportage by roping in as many of the practitioners out there as possible so that when we organize training programmes, it covers as many as possible. Under the constitution, you can?t stop people from practicing even if they?re not qualified?other feel the quacks should not be allowed to join the association. The problem, as I see it, is that even if they are not allowed to be GJA members, they will still be able to practice and call themselves journalists and the public doesn?t know who is trained and who is not trained.? In the 2000 election, the GJA provided a media platform for the Electoral Commissioner to address the nation on the preparations for the elections two days before the polls. It was a great success. But the GJA wants to go beyond that in this election. Ms.Yeboah-Afari is making a proposal for the results of the elections to be displayed at The Ghana International Press Centre located in the middle-class neighborhood of Accra, a property given the association by the current Government.

Previously, the culture of using media for political campaigns was always limited because of Government monopoly. With media pluralism, politicians need the money and not the channel for propaganda.

Pluralism has helped to reduce vote-rigging. In the 2000 elections, JOY FM in Accra, like many other radio stations, sent over 60 correspondents to the field of voting. Acts of intimidations and attempted rigging were reported.

Pluralism however creates a competitive sprite to the advantage of politicians who pay less for advertisements and enjoy more of news reporting. Because of this, the cost of media expenditure for the NPP, (the ruling party which may be tempted to abuse incumbency) according to its Secretary-General, Dan Botwe, will remain the same 10-20% of total campaign expenditure.

?The media? according to him ??operate without fear because this Government repealed the criminal libel law which under the previous Government impeded media freedom.?

It is clear that Ghana?s media have entered a new phase and will be a vital component of this country of 20 million people for many years to come.

Originally published in New African Magazine, London

Columnist: Agyeman-Duah, Ivor