Internet penetration in Ghana is sitting at only 5% and the government is relying on donor funding, rather than its budget, to improve access. So for many media houses, a website is a nice-to-have, not a must-have. And it's the radio stations, not the newspapers, that have been most successful at building an online presence. By BAAFOO AHENKORA.
The Ghanaian media is still very conventional. Over the past decade, the main modes of news transmission have remained quite static, even though media houses have incorporated new technologies here and there. On first reading it seems contradictory to claim that the media is static in one breath and then claim it has incorporated new technologies in another, so I will explain.
First, many major newspapers do not have a website, and even for most of those that have websites, they are not regularly updated. It appears newspapers are content with newsstand sales and are not that fussed about reaching a wider audience. Admittedly, if these newspapers were to go online, they would probably not appeal to people who are likely to buy hard copies of their publications, so it may make sense not to serve them, as this venture may constitute a liability to the business model. I would argue, however, that by refusing to publish online, they are ignoring their duty to disseminate information to the public, whoever they might be.
Apart from the fact that only about 5% of Ghanaians use the Internet, less than 1% own an Internet subscription, meaning the majority of users either go online at the office or at an Internet cafe, where they pay by the minute to browse the Web. Furthermore, less than 2% of Ghanaians own a personal computer, even though about 50% of them own at least one cellphone.
On the other hand, almost every household owns a radio set, making radio the most pervasive medium of information dissemination. If the news gets on radio, it is bound to reach the masses. Entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this to flood the airwaves with radio stations of varying flavours. Some broadcast in a combination of English and local languages while others are primarily English-speaking. Some focus on playing music while others focus on talk. The most popular radio stations are in the major cities and broadcast over a wide area of the country. The smaller radio stations broadcast the news of the larger stations as they do not have the resources to gather their own news.
Since about a quarter of all households own a TV set and there is an average of five people in a household, television is a profitable and effective medium of news transmission. But the largest TV stations, even though they have an online presence, have not capitalised on their existing extensive archives and brand names to deliver new content to the public. Apart from GTV, the government-sponsored television station, which makes video clips of some of its stories available, the rest of the TV stations just report on the stories in prose, and some do not regularly update their websites.
Hence, the most reliable sources of online news are GhanaWeb and the websites of the three radio stations, Joy FM, Citi FM, and Peace FM. Morning newspaper review shows are commonplace on these radio stations so they provide ready sensational material for publication. These radio stations also break news, regularly update their websites and are active on Twitter. Their anchors are also well-known, being frequently poached by the TV stations to host regular programmes. Joy FM and Citi FM are predominantly English-speaking, while Peace FM is almost exclusively Twi-speaking. In fact, Peace FM was the pioneer in private radio broadcasting in Twi. It is, therefore, quite ironic that its website is entirely in English. However, that is to be expected as not many Ghanaians can read Twi and those who can usually read English better.
According to Alexa, the most popular news sites in Ghana are My Joy Online, Peace FM Online, the BBC, GhanaWeb, and Citi FM Online, in that order. These websites, with the exception of the BBC, carry primarily local news with a few stories from outside the country. The local news is dominated by political reporting. They also feature opinion columns that tend to be partisan – and sometimes very caustic – in their remarks. Some of the opinion sharers are known for their peculiar methods of presenting their opinion. Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, who writes for GhanaWeb, is noted for his ostentatious use of English and his acerbic tongue. Another GhanaWeb columnist, Akadu Ntiriwa Mensema, is known for a genre of poetry described as populist, hyperbolic and satirical. These commentators are well known for their flamboyant pieces, but it is not clear how much they influence public opinion. These online sources sometimes mirror one another's stories with GhanaWeb serving as a news aggregator – mainly for Ghanaians in the diaspora.
There is a preponderance of blogs written by Ghanaians, some at home, but mostly in the diaspora. These blogs address topics ranging from everyday observations in the world to poetry and literary works, from politics and social commentary to entertainment and technology. Even though the bloggers are popular among themselves and the initiated few who patronise them, they are yet to break into mainstream Ghanaian consciousness. For instance, there is no famous Ghanaian political newspaper like The Huffington Post. Neither is there a famous online political blogger in the mould of the UK's Iain Dale. All the punditry is limited to the early morning shows on radio and TV. Hence, blogs do not pose a threat to traditional media forms, though this might change as more Ghanaians gain regular access to the Internet.
The government of Ghana is working on eventually making Internet access cheaper for more people. The major infrastructure change is the construction of a national fibre-optic backbone that would connect municipal and cosmopolitan centres by high-speed Internet and streamline the extension of broadband to major towns and cities in each of the 110 districts. In the last budget statement some funds were dedicated to the communications sector, but only 21% of the funds were guaranteed by the government, leaving the remaining 79% to be funded by donor agencies. This leaves me quite sceptical regarding the seriousness of the government to implementing these projects.
The advent of online publication may be broadening the scope of press freedom, but there is no threat to traditional publications, and, for now, news outlets publish online mainly as a means of reaching more people and extending their influence. There is a lot of room for entrepreneurs to win large sections of the market as many of the possibilities are yet to be explored. 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.
- Statistics on ICT in Ghana, at the World Bank, and
- 2011 ministry for communication budget statement (pp 118 to 123 on ICT), at Ghana's ministry of finance and economic planning website.
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