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Self regulation: Cure to media excesses

BY: Kobby Asmah
Self regulation: Cure to media excesses
Self regulation: Cure to media excesses

On July 27, 2001, Parliament unanimously passed the Criminal Code (Repeal of Criminal Libel and Seditious Laws (Amendment Bill). A few days later, then President John Agyekum Kufuor assented to the bill, leading to the repeal of the infamous Criminal Libel Law.

The swift action by Parliament and the President in repealing the law ensured that journalists would not operate under a cloud of fear of being held criminally liable and incarcerated in the exercise of their constitutional right to free speech and freedom of the press.

President Akufo-Addo was the Attorney-General at the time the Criminal Libel Law was repealed.

Bold attempt

The repeal of the law was heralded both locally and internationally as a bold attempt by Ghana to not only protect press freedom but also expand the frontiers of its democracy.

The fact that it was repealed after the first successful change of government through the ballot box under the Fourth Republican Constitution further boosted the country’s image across the world as a true beacon of democracy on a continent that was full of authoritarian regimes.

Since the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law, the media have blossomed, making them a critical watchdog and for information and education.

Currently, it is estimated that there are about 40 newspapers, and according to the National Communications Authority (NCA), 505 radio stations and 128 television stations in the country.

Boom in media operations

The boom in media operations has come with its challenges and problems. While some media houses have stayed dedicated to upholding the principles and values underpinning journalism, many others are more or less an extension of the propaganda wings of some political parties and other interests.

What is more worrying is the fact that some of our journalists go about spewing false news and engaging in unethical journalism to further their interests.

The basic tenets of fact checking, verification and giving hearing to the other side, which form the foundation of professional journalism, have, in many instances, been relegated to the background, with some journalists and media houses engaging in rumour mongering, outright insults, blackmailing, causing fear and panic and unnecessary apprehension.

Dramatic changes

These dramatic changes in the media space have led to an era of unregulated media environment. In recent times, the police have been zealous in arresting and prosecuting some journalists and political commentators for allegedly publishing false news, which is a criminal offence, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment, per Section 208 of the Criminal Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29).

I believe that although the police are acting within the law, the prosecution of journalists under Section 208 of Act 29 may not be different from the Criminal Libel Law, and if we are not careful, we may be going back to the dark days when journalists were cowed into silence.

Free expression

President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, before he became President, had described the offence of publication of false news as “inconsistent with the constitutional provisions on free expression”.

I share the President’s view and really hope that the Attorney-General will initiate steps to have the offence of publication of false news repealed from our Criminal Code.

My position does not in any way mean that I am advocating that journalists be given unlimited rights to engage in all sorts of unprofessional conduct and pollute our airwaves with falsehood.

Self regulation

Rather, I want to associate with comments by a media advocate, Prof. Kwame Karikari, who urged the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA) to turn the association into a self-regulatory body which would regulate the activities of its members and ensure professionalism and decorum in the media landscape.

For me, any talk about media regulation must start with internal regulation in each and every newsroom across the country. Self regulation is, therefore, the way to go. It is a pity that many of our media houses do not have editorial policies guiding their conduct.

Those flaws have contributed to the problems we currently face in our media environment.

As is the case on a production line, the supervisor ensures that high quality standards are maintained. And so must it be in the newsroom or media house where owners, managers and supervisors must ensure that any unethical expression is avoided. Like the factory, it is at the production level that we need to self-regulate to discharge our mandate of informing and educating the citizens.

The onus is really on us the practitioners to adhere to the rules of engagement and the ethics of journalism.

It is only when the media fail to self-regulate that we leave space for external intervention, and that is what the police are currently doing.

Regulatory agencies

Regulatory agencies such as the National Media Commission (NMC), the National Communications Authority (NCA), the police and the courts can only come in when everything else fails and an individual feels maligned by the media and has been denied the right to rejoin or there is a public condemnation of ethical breaches by the media.

Introducing standards and broad frameworks by the regulators in the media space will not be out of place. Even in the advanced democracies such as the UK and India, there are standards that must be followed by media operators. We can go the same way by introducing standards and mechanisms that ensure that the standards will not be used by those in authority to censure or oppress the media.

I believe that one of the best ways to tackle this menace is to empower the NMC to be able to enforce certain internationally accepted standards in our media space. These standards should however not be an unfettered hindrance to media freedom or lead to censorship.

An attempt by the NMC to introduce some form of standards was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2016 because according to the apex court the regulations amounted to censorship in contravention of Article 162 Clause (4) of the 1992 Constitution.

The NMC should therefore initiate broader consultations with all stakeholders to come up with some form of standards that would be acceptable to media houses and help sanitise our media space.

Angle of diversity

The media must be encouraged to report from an angle of diversity and speak up for the disadvantaged in society. They should avoid reports that take sides. The media must ensure that they covers all sides to the story. Reports and articles should be checked well, accurately and carefully. How can we talk of objective journalism when many of us are already aligned and allow our biases to influence our editorial judgement? The media set agenda and point to what is important. Journalists must also ensure truthfulness.

It is good to have an opinion, but this opinion must be based on facts, not fiction. It must be verifiable.

A journalist invests in a track record of credibility. Advocate and journalist have the same interest – Respect the truth, are independent, respect their audience

The media space has changed dramatically but we still need informed analysis that is why we need journalists who are well trained.

The media must not change its course of action at the expense of truth, objectivity and accuracy.

Rights and freedoms

Our democracy has come a long way. The media have been instrumental in our quest to build a society that upholds the rights and freedoms of everyone. Let us not do anything to destroy the gains we have made in the media space. Also, the country needs a dynamic media that put the government on its toes and fight ills in society, but this must be done with adherence to all ethics and professional standards.

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