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Opinions Thu, 24 Nov 2011

The Tragedies of African Democracies – XXIII

The State of Journalism and the Media

The role of the media and journalism in advancing individual freedoms and liberties cannot be underestimated in any democratic dispensation and Ghana is no exception. The media remains the epicenter, the heartbeat, or the nerve center of any functional democracy. It is no wonder that Walter Lippmann referred to reporting, the core task of journalism and the livewire of the media, as “the truly and priestly offices of democracy.” Subtract the independent media from the democratic equation and you would end up with dictatorship. It is an inbuilt mechanism within a democracy to check corruption and abuse of power by those in leadership. Within it, too, there are inbuilt conflicts that help it to achieve self-censorship. While its vibrancy varies from society to society, it cannot be wished away in any democracy.

In Ghana, the role of the media can be traced to the pre-independence period. The media are known to have played crucial roles in the struggle for independence, which eventually resulted in the liberation of the then Gold Coast from colonialism and it continues to play such roles in advancing individual freedoms and liberties.

Under colonialism, “the newspaper was introduced and used more as a political tool to link the center to the periphery than a tool for the dissemination of information,” Anokwa points out. It was also used in mobilizing the people of the Gold Coast in opposition to the colonial establishment. The Accra Evening News, Kwame Nkrumah’s own paper was used to mobilize the people to fight to liberate the then Gold Coast from colonial rule.

During much of Ghana’s post-independence history, the media have been largely under government monopoly and control. While Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, believed that the type of free expression “which established democracies have taken generations to evolve” was beyond the reach of young independent countries such as Ghana, and concomitantly suppressed free press, the situation was even worse under military regimes. Some of the military regimes outlawed the independence of the press altogether. For example, during the unconstitutional rule of the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC, 1982-1992), the media lived under a regime characterized by a “culture of silence” with the promulgation of the newspaper licensing law (PNDC Law 211) and the Criminal Libel Law, the latter being a residue from colonial edicts.

Until 1992, both the print and the electronic media were the absolute preserves of the government of the day, though there were a few private newspapers. Appointments to the top hierarchies of the state-run media establishments - the only media outlets of the day and conduits for dissemination of public information - were controlled and managed by the government, depicting how politics was conducted and covered. Dissenting views were seen as anti-government, dangerous and destabilizing, thus government media was heavily censored, sometimes with the use of brutal force, mimicking authoritarian media of the 16th and the 17th centuries in the United States and elsewhere, with a top-down approach to its management and news dissemination.

The advent of a democratic dispensation, in 1992, led to the liberalization of the media environment. This translated into the establishment of more and more privately owned media outlets and legitimizing dissent and maybe seen as in tandem with Beata Rozumilowicz’ pre-transition stage in a four-phase model of analysis of democratic change. The general media environment portrayed a migration toward a semblance of a libertarian press, based on John Stuart Mill’s concept of “free market of ideas. This was not without its hiccups, as the Criminal Libel Law was still intact and under which many journalists were hauled before the courts for publishing or broadcasting what was considered defamatory against public officials. Some of the issues for which journalist were taken to court clearly bordered on unethical infringement of journalists’ on rights of public officials in the discharge of their duties. This links journalism to such key notions as democracy and freedom of expression, but at the same time requires journalists to be honest, fair, independent-minded, respecting the rights of others, and respecting the truth and the public’s right to information. It must be noted that there were no great variations between Ghana’s pre-transition stage and the primary stage.

The Ghana Journalist Association (GJA), therefore, instituted a code of ethics to guide the practice of journalism across the media landscape including state, privately owned media, and freelance practitioners. The code was meant to ensure that members adhered to the highest ethical standards, professional competence, and good behavior in carrying out their duties. The repeal of the Criminal Libel Law in July, 2001, consolidated the liberalized media environment and assigned greater responsibility to journalists toward the egalitarian, or social responsibility, model of the press.

The role of the mass media in Ghana, like any other democratic country, has therefore been in tandem with the political dispensation at each time. However, since 1992, it has gradually transformed from the “freedom fighter press” of the early newspapers to its “watchdog role” assigned it by the 1992 constitution of Ghana (Article 162 (5)).

Comparatively, the new media, by virtue of their exponential ease of connection, unlike the traditional media, has set the tone to dislodge the last vestiges of government control over Ghana’s media. This is in line with observable global trends. Although the transformation has not been very expeditious, the progression is toward greater freedom from government restrictions by providing alternative conduits by which individuals and news organizations can reach their audiences.

Presently, there are multiplicity of online media outlets such as Ghanaweb, JoyFM and Peace FM reporting news, hosting features, commentaries, commercials and editorials, among others, on Ghana. The fascinating thing is that, unlike in the past when censorship was the prerogative of the government with the possibility of killing stories it found distasteful, things have changed a great deal today. Some of these online media houses operate in a way similar to offshore businesses. They are hosted by service providers, in some cases, far away from the shores of Ghana, therefore, eluding control mechanisms that may apply to locally-run or hosted media houses including other media houses in which the government has a stake. Outsourcing of news, sometimes with or without the consent of the originators, has become a common feature of this transformation in cyberspace. Ghanaweb, Joy FM, Peace FM, Ghana Review International, Ghana News, and Modern Ghana, among other online news providers, can be seen hosting the same news, feature, or commentary from the same source at the same time.

Homing in on Ghanaweb, the most widely visited web site among Ghanaians both home and abroad, it is incredible how an individual’s innovation and ingenuity can challenge and eventually surpass the might of nationally resourced media houses. Ghanaweb is a “free holding” web site that accepts news, features and commentaries from individuals and news organizations without regard to political affiliation.

It is encouraging to note that the private media, especially those online, have in an unprecedented development, dislodged all the traditional gatekeepers associated with the state-owned media in their conventionality. The interactive platforms of Ghanaweb, Joy FM, and Peace FM have provided access to other news organizations and individuals to host their features and also be able to post commentaries and responses to features that appear on their platforms. The point of divergence is, however, that while Ghanaweb operates an unrestricted/unfiltered interactive platform, which allows audience/users to post their comments unfiltered, Joy FM’s platform is filtered, as comments and responses go through a filter/moderator before they are released on its platform. Furthermore, while Peace FM, Joy FM and newspapers such as the Daily Guide, the Ghanaian Chronicle, the Daily Graphic, all have their websites, they have a link to Ghanaweb, but not the other way round.

The Ghanaian with limited political clout, who may choose to be faceless, or choose to adopt pseudonyms, is now granted unfettered access to public participation without necessarily going through the press, political parties and other gatekeepers. The regulatory roles of these gatekeepers are progressively dissipating in cyberspace, as the Internet provides multi-links, thus decreasing the opportunity for regulatory intercessions or what we might refer to as the disruption of media hierarchies.

This, on the one hand, provides a platform for news organizations and individuals both at home and abroad to engage in a critical dialogue about issues of interest to them. On the other, it has offered participants or users access to contribute by way of comments and responses to some of the items they read. This dispensation affords the producers of the news and readers of the news to shape and position the public discourse in ways never before in Ghanaian media history.

It is this new awakening - the level of openness and transparency in the new media – that government of the day (past and present) and power holders are finding very difficult to contend with. While we all agree that standards of practice in our dear country is at its lowest ebb and even made worse by the tremendous transformation the Internet has wrought out on the media landscape, the influence of political power and the use of money by politicians and other powerful interest are more threatening to emasculate the media from its watchdog role than the “goofing” of newspapers that do not deserve the attention of any reasonable soul.

At the 15th Ghana Journalist Association (GJA) awards, the Vice President of Ghana, John Mahama and his Information Minister, Tia Akologo, respectively called for the purging of the media landscape of unprofessional practice by a section of the media and the making of the ethical code to be legally binding in order to attract legal sanctions for those who flout the “rules of the game.”

We seem to gloss over our roles and responsibilities as consumers of media products, politicians, and gatekeepers of the media, who are to ensure that standards are maintained and safeguarded. The politician who interferes with the news process through the use of financial inducements in whatever form and the consumer of the media product who continues to pay for unwholesome product – the lies, the contorted stories, and the twisted facts – are both culpable of emasculating the very media they accuse, just as the gatekeeper who condones in corrupting this priestly institution.

In the subsequent series, I will address the following questions: i. who is a journalist? ii. The role of politicians in emasculating the media? iii. Why those thinking of control of the media might be in a dreamland.

Keep tuned in as we head to the apogee of the series – corruption !!!

The above-title is serialized into 30 articles covering issues of politics, corruption, education, migration, the economy (Ghanaian economy), unemployment, land tenure, dearth of policy innovation, and stories from the frontlines – Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, ECOWAS and the AU. The series are syndicated and media houses/outlets interested in enriching the national debates in Ghana for the 2012 are free to publish all the series.

By: Prosper Yao Tsikata

Email: pytsikata@yahoo.com

Blog: http://theafricanmessenger.blogspot.com

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao