This week, Ghana hosted the world’s media to deliberate on press freedom, in an annual celebration known as World Press Freedom Day. Throughout the week, the sad fact was highlighted that journalists are being molested in various parts of the world for alleged crimes. Autocrats intensely hate journalists. Autocracy comes from the need some human beings have to control others. Not surprisingly, there are autocrats even in democracies. There is autocracy even in democratic Ghana!
The seed for World Press Freedom Day was planted on the African continent at a UNESCO seminar held in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia from April 29 to May 3 in 1991. The theme of the historic seminar was: “Promoting an independent and pluralistic African press.” The participants of the seminar were mostly newspaper journalists including Ghana’s own Ajoa Yeboah-Afari. The output of that seminar was a statement of press freedom principles, which became known as the Windhoek Declaration.
In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed the Declaration, and of May 3rd each year as a day to shine the searchlight on press freedom around the world. Press freedom translates to safety of journalists, as well as the independence and pluralism of the media.
MEDIA FREEDOM & PLURALISM
Without a doubt, considering our history from under the mighty thumbs of dictators when Ghanaians dared not express their opinions publicly, our country has achieved media freedom and pluralism. We probably have too much pluralism! That a small country like Ghana has over 400 radio stations beats my mind!
What is the purpose of pluralism, and of many that do the same/similar things? It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate one radio station from the other. Our radio stations are just twining in content, following the same programming formats with little effort at originality and creativity. In a copycat fashion, in the mornings, everyone reviews newspapers.
Many radio and television stations have little or no quality content; and only exist to waste valuably national resource of frequency. For a developing country, one would expect our broadcasting airwaves to be used for important issues. Rather, they are filled with frivolous content. Whilst we claim to be enjoying a free media, there has been a bogus exploitative Christian prophetic capture of our airwaves.
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Press freedom is not just about the freedom of journalists. At the heart of press freedom is the freedom of the citizenry. Anyone in Ghana could make telephone calls to radio stations. That is a good thing; a very very good thing. Yet, the media remains elitist and access is beyond the reach of the many poor and underprivileged.
Even in this our free press environment, funny things happen. Government officials and powerful folks are able to influence what journalists report on. Instead of the media setting the agenda, powerful people are setting some of the media’s agenda.
I have been writing this column for the past 12 years. Behind the scenes, I have been the subject of attacks by politicians whenever I venture into issues that a powerful somebody considers as unpalatable. On a number of occasions, this column was under pressure, with efforts to muzzle and silence me, and even shut it down.
Not surprisingly, even though we brag to be in a burgeoning democracy, some of our journalists engage in self-censorship, by which they turn on their own internal antenna to avoid touching on issues they know will upset the powers that be. Without a doubt, self-censorship is the most insidious form of censorship.
INDEPENDENCE OF GHANA’S MEDIA
We exhibit troubling cracks in this democracy. There are aspects of Ghana’s media that have not attained the independence that was sought after in the Windhoek Declaration. As matters currently stand, Ghana’s media can easily be used as a tool by the highest bidder. Soli (the payment of gifts to journalists) constitutes bribery of the integrity of the mass media of public communication. This means that the media, which is meant to belong to us all, can be privatized by a few self-centred individuals and institutions through illicit acts of bribery. After money changes hands, a journalist could be motivated to either kill a story or report it in a fashion that will please the paymaster because as the adage goes, “Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.”
The media could also become tools for character assassination. Anytime you hear some media houses dwelling so much on a story and prosecuting issues without regard to basic principles of objectivity and balance, be cynical because something untoward might have happened on our collective blindside.
Our journalists are not finishing stories to their logical (and illogical) conclusions. There is a herd mentality by which everyone follows the same story whilst it is hot, and all move away to follow the next hot topic. Meanwhile, the previous topic is abandoned. This creates opportunities for crafty politicians and business people to manipulate the media by shifting our attention from hot issues they are uncomfortable with. This scenario is happening more often that we could imagine. Stories are being planted in the midst of certain news cycles. As a result, Ghana’s media content is like a graveyard, replete with unfinished stories.
SAFETY OF JOURNALISTS
Apart from the media’s own internal weaknesses, there are external forces. Periodically, police officers and citizens beat up journalists. So although Ghana is supposed to be doing very well on the Press Freedom Index, this country records one of the highest incidence of violence inflicted on journalists in West Africa.
This makes it dangerous to be a journalist in Ghana because at any moment, one could be beaten up. So although journalists in Ghana are not in prison, sadly, on any ordinary tropical sunny or rain-soaked flooded day, they could receive horrible beatings, and end up with cracked skulls!
DEALING WITH THE SHIFTING SANDS OF MEDIA
Freedom is not like a rock; it is more like shifting sands. As you walk through the sand, your grip loosens and you might experience a sinking sensation and loss of balance. Like a normal human institution, the media is not constant. It changes over time to correspond with changes in society. So despite the gains, there is a need for us to constantly “shine our eyes” over the media space because if we blink for too long, we could lose our freedom without even knowing that we had lost it.
We need to be eternally vigilant. On one hand, citizens should pay close attention to what is happening in the media and call to order, journalists and the entire media establishment when they feel uneasy about the goings-on. On the other hand, journalists should be courageous and have the love for Ghana as their guide. They should fearlessly confront the system and speak truth to power. They should train their minds for good analytic work because “a mind is like a parachute; it only functions when opened.”
The anchor of Ghana’s media must hold because if we lose the gains of freedom and independence of the media, our democracy will sink in the shifting sand.
The writer is a member of the National Media Commission (NMC)