Ghana's not a bad place for a journalist in Africa. Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Ghanaian constitution, and the country tied 26th place (with Cape Verde and Mali) in the Reporters Without Borders 2010 Press Freedom ratings - the second-highest in Africa, after Namibia. But the partisan nature of much of the Ghanaian media means readers take their news with more than a pinch of salt. By BAAFOO AHENKORA.
Ghana is reputed to be one of the African countries with an environment most conducive to freedom of speech and expression. Enshrined in the constitution, this provision encompasses the freedom to protest, organise, and most importantly, of the press. Even though it now seems normal for journalists and media houses to operate freely, the liberty with which they ply their trade came at a price. During the many autocratic regimes that plagued Ghana from the early 1960s to the beginning of the fourth republic in 1992, the media suffered greatly and were forced to be cautious in their reportage.
But today, they get away with blatantly obvious libel. Even though malpractices in the media are frowned upon, most Ghanaians would be reluctant to approve of checks that would limit their scope. Through a long period of gruelling tribulations for personal and corporate freedom Ghanaians have learnt to prefer a culture of ugly noises to one of silence.
Ghanaian culture, or rather, the proverbial Ghanaian culture, does not look favourably on children questioning adults. That is not to say adults are free to misbehave. Rather there is a stigma associated with wanting to reason out issues with one's elders. Naturally this inhibits the ability of citizens to hold leaders accountable – a hurdle the media has had to surmount. However, this tide is turning and surprisingly fast too. Today, it is not uncommon to hear citizens insult leaders on radio. The bleak history that free speech has suffered in Ghana's short history might be to blame for this swift swing to the opposite extreme.
Ghana attained independence in 1957 from Britain through a struggle that involved both the grassroots and the political elite – those citizens, mostly educated abroad, with a proclivity to philosophical argumentation over political ideology. In fact, the fight for independence was championed by two main factions: One which called for a systematic handing over of power by the Queen, and the other which preferred immediate transfer of power. The former group adopted the slogan “Self-government in the shortest possible time”, while the latter adopted “Self-government now!” In the end, the second, more radical group, led by Kwame Nkrumah, won the struggle, although not without contention. The repercussions played out in all arenas of society and, not least, the media.
Nkrumah was a persuasive speaker and writer who fought his ideological opponents in the media through articles arguing his vision for Ghana and Africa. A remarkable testament to him and his lieutenants’ effectiveness is that he won the first election while in prison - overwhelmingly. Even though all the factions owned newspapers, the main newspapers were run by the British with a few Gold Coasters on the staff. As prime minister, and later as president, Nkrumah controlled state media using it for propaganda. He used the media to manipulate the general emotion in the country, but his attempts at turning Ghana into a virtual one-party state coupled with the economic difficulties of his day made his propaganda a tough sell.
In his later years, Nkrumah became increasingly despotic, imprisoning opponents without trial under the Preventive Detention Act. Notable opponents like JB Danquah and Emmanuel Obetsebi-Lamptey died in prison without trial - Danquah in his cell, Obetsebi-Lamptey in hospital chained to his bed. This fostered an atmosphere of fear that trickled down to journalists, media houses and citizens in general. The Ghana Broadcasting System had a watchman posted to censor the news to Nkrumah’s taste before it came out.
Gross discontent with Nkrumah’s administration at home, coupled with distrust by Western countries, mainly the US led to his overthrow in 1966. A series of coups d’état ensued in the two decades after, resulting in a jittery media, with heads of state striving to control it.
The darkest days were those of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC)/National Democratic Congress (NDC) from 1981 to 2000, in which hundreds of people disappeared or were executed. The press was also suppressed and had very limited space in which to operate. In addition, many notable journalists who were considered as members of the opposition were imprisoned on weak charges under criminal libel laws. Kwesi Pratt, Ben Ephson, Kwaku Baako and Haruna Atta among others spent time in jail for minor infractions. These became so rampant it was considered an honour to be jailed as a journalist – it was proof of one’s credibility. Baako had his office sprayed with human excrement, a landmark event that became known as “the shit-bombing”.
This era was characterised by a gloomy silence in which virtually no criticism of the government went unpunished. There was, however, great solidarity between the media and the people as many Ghanaians questioned why the government was being so antagonistic towards people who were trying to distribute information. The potency of the media as a tool for social change became apparent.
Agitations by various local and international groups eventually led to the formation of the fourth republic with a new constitution in 1992 instituting democratic elections every four years. The PNDC, led by Flight Lieutenant Jeremiah Rawlings, morphed into the NDC and won the elections.
Photo: Ghana's President John Agyekum Kufuor (L), the then newly elected Chairman of the African Union, speaks to the media after a closed door meeting during the African Union Summit in the United Nations office in Addis Ababa January 30, 2007. REUTERS/Andrew Heavens.
The main opponents of the culture of silence were the New Patriotic Party and its allies in the struggle for democracy and the rule of law. They rebelled with the means available to them: Demonstrations, some of which resulted in the loss of life, journalists writing under pseudonyms and entrepreneurs starting clandestine FM radio stations. When the NPP finally came to power in 2001 with John Kufuor as president, it repealed the criminal libel laws. The repeal marked a watershed in Ghana's history, giving voice to both legitimate and unwarranted speculation and reporting in the media. It may rank as the most significant event in the history of the media in the past several decades for it offered unprecedented freedom to the press.
Despite the NDC's antecedents, in recent times it has striven to strike a more cordial tone. President John Evans Atta-Mills recently invited top journalists to his residence for a Q&A banquet. There was widespread approval for this, acknowledging it would go a long way towards clearing up the NDC's fractured image. Atta-Mills has also employed media-savvy journalists who once worked for prestigious media houses in Ghana as part of his communication team.
It is unfortunate that some in the media have taken this as a licence to make unwarranted accusations maligning public figures. The 1992 constitution stipulates the formation of a national media commission to be a neutral umpire in the supervision of the media, but it is not well-resourced, which limits its ability check unethical practice. This has made the media significantly less effective in its watchdog role as it has lost a great deal of public trust. Despite these difficulties, the media remains vibrant – there is a proliferation of new newspapers, FM stations, blogs and other news outlets. Ghanaians have grown accustomed to an abundance of news sources, so entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity to provide information. The natural questions that arise are: How to ensure quality? Will the reportage be fair? Will this system work well?
A long-standing question in Ghanaian journalism, and perhaps journalism elsewhere, is whether a biased media can be an effective contributor to the social discourse. My opinion is that the news cannot be viewed through a non-partisan lens. In fact, what counts as news depends very much on the observer and what he or she cares about. Some people take the view that it is only neutral journalists who should purport to report the news, yet having reporters who acknowledge their bias can help bring out hidden sides of a story.
Because of the context from which our media’s freedom evolved, many of the best journalists in Ghana nail their colours to the mast. In the pre-fourth republican era, and in its early days, activists had to struggle for their rights from the military regime as well as the nascent democracy. In those days, journalists who were favourable to the government were employed by the state newspapers and did not do much other than sing government’s praises. It became more essential to report on internal party politics when the NDC lost power in 2000.
This trend has continued so that today there is a clear divide between NPP and NDC media. Virtually all newspapers, except the state-owned ones, can be classified as sympathetic to one or the other. The effect of this is that the journalists are always in the news, sometimes themselves being the newsmakers. It also means that whatever is reported should be taken with more than a pinch of salt, for there is almost always a hidden agenda. The way Ghanaians are dealing with this is by the numerous news analysis programmes that have become pervasive on our airwaves. Every morning, on radio and TV, political commentators and seasoned journalists are invited to sort through the mess of the day. Even though some of this is objective and informative, most is speculative, just like the reports themselves.
If this system has had any advantage, it is that it has made more Ghanaians interested in the news. More Ghanaians are up to date on the happenings in the political system. The strengthening of civil society has ushered in a wave of accountability where politicians are kept under public scrutiny. FAM
Baafoo Ahenkora is the pen name of a Ghanaian freelance writer who lives in New York, US. You can read his blog, Ghana Biased.
Main photo: Then Ghana's main opposition presidential candidate and tax law expert, currently President, John Atta Mills speaks to journalists after casting his ballot for the presidential elections, in Accra December 7, 2008. Ghanaians voted in large numbers to choose between two foreign-trained lawyers hoping to lead them into an era of oil-funded prosperity in a tight poll that may set an example for African democracy. REUTERS/Stringe
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