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Opinions Mon, 7 Oct 2002

What Do We Do With The Media?

John Mahama is an MP and the Minority Spokesman on Communications.

During the drafting of the 1992 constitution while attention was riveted on the controversies of the transitional provisions, a more significant chapter was being drafted which would have far reaching implications on governance in the 4th Republic. This was chapter 12. This is the chapter that guarantees the freedom and independence of the media.

This chapter provides more sweeping freedoms to the media than under any other constitution in the history of Ghana. Chapter 12 removed all obstacles to the establishment of media of mass communication in Ghana. It also charged the media with responsibility to hold government accountable to the people.

Since then the Ghanaian media has fully exercised its freedoms and robustly carried out its watchdog role. The media landscape has been transformed and life has never been the same again. Public officials are more cautious of the prying eyes of the media in all they do.

It is interesting how one’s view of the media is transformed depending on which side of the governance divide one finds himself. These days I hear a very familiar refrain that I remember reciting when I served as Minister of Communication. I constantly urged the media to be responsible. I called on the media to exercise circumspection in their reporting and to strive for accuracy, fairness and balance. I kept emphasizing and defining the limits of media freedom. These days, I hear these very words from good old Jake.

At a recent seminar organized by the NCA to discuss developments in the communications sector, a speech read on Jake’s behalf decried the irresponsible use of phone-ins to lambaste public officials. He suggested the installation of delayed broadcast equipment to give presenters greater control over phone-in segments of programmes. He spoke about the need to restrict coverage of FM radio stations. Only recently, the Vice President at a rally at Koforidua, urged the public to ignore the lies and distortion carried about government in the print and electronic media. In a veiled threat he cautioned the media not to take the repeal of the criminal libel law as a license to be irresponsible or else they will find out that government is not weak after all.

I shared similar views and voiced the same sentiments when I stood on the executive side of the governance divide. These days as part of the minority, I feel more empathy with the media. I believe government needs to exercise more tolerance for criticism. I find myself very protective of the rights and freedoms of the media. I feel supportive of expanding the limits of free speech and media freedom. It is instructive to note that the minority was first to protest against restrictions imposed on the media during the recent Dagbon crisis, even while some media people were eager to obey the gag order.

The media has come a long way since the adoption of the new constitution in 1992. There has been a qualitative improvement in the media compared with the early days of the constitution. The media is striving for more accuracy and balance. There is more cross checking of stories than in the past. Only recently, I got a call from a senior reporter with the Statesman. He asked if I had a fax number. I promptly gave it to him. He then faxed me a letter written from Techiman making wild allegations about my purchase of a property belonging to Ghana Cotton Company in Techiman for which I am reported to have paid only 20% of a purchase price of ?120 million. I informed the reporter that my brothers have a sawmill in Techiman and are involved in processing lumber for export, I was therefore sure it was a case of mistaken identity. As it turned out, my brothers had rented a property from the Ghana Cotton Company in Techiman. They had not purchased it.

Knowing the contrasting political positions held by the Statesman and myself, it is significant that this reporter took the pre-caution of cross checking this particular letter with me. In the past a screaming headline, “Mahama in Property Scandal” would have been all that was required to fix me, not to worry that the story is inaccurate.

The media has felt very powerful coming out of the elections of the year 2000. They played a critical role in the victory of the NPP. A concerted attack on the NDC party and government by print and by airwaves painted a quite negative picture of the NDC and gave root to a general public yearning for change. This paved the way for the easy assimilation of the NPP’s message of Positive Change.

In such an all-powerful position the media has continued to dictate the national agenda. The media appears to lead while government, and civil society follow. The media can demonize and completely discredit any public official they take a dislike to. Working closely with E.T. on the minority benches in Parliament I have found him quite a warm and likeable person. He has a fierce loyalty for his friends and will rise to their defense in any circumstance. He has not been convicted on any charges of corruption, and yet most of the public will hesitate to touch E.T. with a ten-foot pole as a result of the rather unkind image painted of him by the media. Public officials in both the past and present government have been accused, charged, prosecuted and convicted by the media even before they have been brought before any constitutional body. The media is both the judge and the jury.

There is an over-concentration on politics to the exclusion of all else. The arts, culture, society, health, agriculture, all play a distant second fiddle to politics. This is all lapped up by a scandal hungry public.

Infringing on government’s freedom to execute its mandate, the media’s strident cacophony ensures government remains permanently off-balance. The President, ministers and other public officials have to spend most of their time responding to one allegation, criticism or other. It is very easy in opposition to enjoy such discomfiture of government. It is easy to urge the media on in its scathing criticism of government, and the NPP used this to full advantage when it was in the minority. But is this healthy for national advancement? It threatens to become a vicious cycle, which will plague any government that comes into power in this country, including any future NDC Government.

Media telescoping of government paralyses public officials and keeps government spin-doctors busy 24 hrs a day. In recent times government has had to distance itself from several of its own decision as a result of apprehension about media and public reaction. The MP’s car saga and the PURC decision on tariffs immediately come to mind.

Does this mean any restrictions should be placed on the media in the discharge of its duties? Certainly not! The media in Ghana and indeed most other democratic African nations is still evolving. It is still reveling in its new freedoms. The media is still struggling to find its proper niche and role in the new democratic dispensation. Qualitative improvements will continue to infuse the work of the media. The media must continue to exercise its freedom and independence. It must give adequate ventilation to the views of all segments of society. It must continue to hold government accountable to the people. But it must also give government space to exert leadership and fully execute its mandate. Constitutional Institutions must operate and satisfactorily perform their duties as spelled out by the constitution. But most of all, all players on the political stage, civil society, religious groups and the public must agree on the answer to the question “what do we do with the media.” How can the media perform its legitimate functions without usurping the leadership role of government?

This article was originally written for the 'Network Herald'
John Mahama
Minority Spokesman on Communications
Parliament House
Accra, Ghana


Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of Ghanaweb.



Columnist: Mahama, John