Corruption is a significant obstacle to development, democratic consolidation and environmental security, particularly in the developing world. It involves a misuse of power in serving private ends at the public expense. Corruption occurs in both the public and private sectors.
There are different forms of corruption. Political corruption is a classic example. It is often committed by politicians and top government officials acting alone or collaborating with other actors to advance private agendas.
In democratic societies, free and independent private media can investigate and expose political corruption. They can also pressurise relevant authorities to address the problem.
But this isn’t always the case. In my paper I look at whether media liberalisation and freedoms make the private media a powerful anti-corruption force in developing countries such as Ghana. I focused on for-profit electronic (television, radio and internet) and print media organisations.
I argue that, contrary to the popular view that media freedom, pluralism and competition can help tackle corruption, democratic freedoms aren’t adequate safeguards for private media to fight political corruption. Despite Ghana’s prevailing democratic freedoms, my study indicates that Ghanaian private media actively contribute to political corruption. This happens through biased reporting, propaganda peddling, indulgence in corruption, weak investigative journalism, and limited follow-up reporting.
These activities all contribute to weakening anti-corruption struggles in Ghana.
My research included 25 in-depth semi-structured interviews in Ghana. These included media personnel, politicians, anti-corruption activists, academics, and students of journalism and political science. Interview questions focused on whether the private media play a constructive role in combating political corruption.
Media corruption usually occurs when the press solicits – or accepts – cash or kind from those who want them to do their bidding. My research shows that the Ghanaian private media have become a “rented press” or “cash for coverage”.
Participants talked about the practice of “brown envelope journalism”. This mostly involved money being handed over as a bribe to influence a story.
One common practice is soli (solidarity). This refers to money given by individuals or organisations whose events reporters travel to cover.
Media personnel are divided on whether soli constitutes corruption. One editor commented:
Soli is something you take to influence. I don’t take soli.
But not everyone agreed. For some journalists, soli is not a bribe because they consider it their “legitimate” per diem, which provides a crucial means of survival.
Studies done elsewhere indicate that brown envelopes and “soli” practices compromise critical anti-corruption reporting and embolden those involved in political corruption. For example, in Ethiopia, Lodamo and Skjerdal showed that freebies and brown envelopes undermine anti-corruption efforts.
Media houses and journalists that maintain strong ties to political candidates and parties tend to engage in partisan reporting. One participant said:
Journalists defend the political party they are affiliated with corruptive practices or attack opposition or people who raised issues about corruption.
My research showed that those who provided biased coverage – sometimes openly, sometimes subtly – for political candidates and parties did so for different reasons. During my research I was told that this could include being offered money, cars and political appointments.
Reporting that comes from these corrupt relationships is partisan and tends to mask or distort the truth about political corruption cases.
One example is the coverage of financial sector reforms by media outlets. The pro-National Democratic Congress Herald framed the reforms as a witch-hunt and cover-up for political corruption committed by the New Patriotic Party affiliates.
But media outlets that are considered to be pro the New Patriotic Party, such as the Oman FM and Net2 TV, portrayed the exercise as crucial to addressing the banking crisis. They linked the crisis to political corruption that marked the immediate past National Democratic Congress administration.
Both sides of the reporting framed the anti-corruption fight as a partisan issue rather than as a national problem.
My findings show that sections of the Ghanaian media have become propaganda tools in the hands of unscrupulous politicians and political parties to advance their political agendas. As one participant commented:
Politicians understand how to capture the media and use propaganda to destroy [otherwise credible] stories.
Previous studies have shown that propaganda peddling weakens anti-corruption efforts.
Undercover journalism is the media’s major weapon in the fight against corruption. In Ghana’s Fourth Republic, only a few people have been visible in the anti-corruption journalism field.
Most private media houses don’t have investigative desks. As a result, media reports tend to rely on allegations and counter-allegations. One participant said media houses should “go underground and find out the information”. This is important “because sometimes, people allegedly involved in the corruption feed you with what they want you to know.”
There are challenges in pursuing investigative journalism in Ghana. The first is that journalists can be harassed, or worse. In 2019 a prominent investigative journalist, Ahmed Hussein-Suale Divela, was murdered just before he was due to give evidence in a major football scam involving influential Ghanaians. His murder has not yet been solved.
Journalists also mentioned political interference and nonavailability of funding as barriers to investigative journalism in the country.
Another weakness is that media outlets don’t consistently follow up on cases where political corruption has been exposed. As one participant commented:
There have been many instances in which we bring critical issues to bear and discuss them for a week or two and leave them.
Sustained monitoring helps keep the pressure on politicians and law enforcement agencies to ensure a logical conclusion.
Journalists are expected not to allow money and political affiliation to influence their work. They should see their work as a calling. To uphold their journalistic independence, they should decline offers, including payments and cars, from influential people they investigate.
Civil society and state institutions should support media houses and journalists that demonstrably play a critical, active watchdog role in society.
Security agencies also ought to protect media houses and journalists threatened by thugs because of their anti-corruption work.