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Press freedom, whose freedom?  (1) - A Tale of Two Eras

Press freedom, whose freedom? (1) - A Tale of Two Eras

Yesterday, May 3, 2024, was Press Freedom Day.

The day set me thinking of press freedom from my personal experience over two different eras. What has changed over these two different eras in terms of press freedom in our country?


As I embarked on my journey as a Staff Writer at the Daily Graphic in 1982, I was confronted with a Ghana that had no press freedom. This was not unique to Ghana, as many African countries at the time did not prioritise this concept.

The average Ghanaian's media consumption was limited to a government-controlled stream of information, a stark contrast to the diverse media landscape we see today. As it was then, the Ghanaian media consisted mainly of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which owned the only television station and two radio stations, unimaginatively known as GBC One and GBC Two.

There were two leading daily newspapers, The Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times, and two weekly newspapers, The Mirror and The Spectator. The Ghana News Agency had the most extensive network then; it was also state-owned.

There was a smattering of private newspapers, but they carried primarily sports. The Kumasi-based Pioneer sputtered on in its last journey. The state practically owned all the means of producing and disseminating information.

This had been the case since Nkrumah's government bought the Graphic Group a couple of years after independence. The media, such as it was, had the Ministry of Information as a regulator and a censor.

The state had owned and controlled the media since independence, but 1982 was different from all the years before and since. Three months before Graphic employed me, the December 31 coup had taken place, and with it came the launch of the 31st December revolution.

At that time, the developing world had come to realise that colonial control of the media by the West was undermining our independence and had called for a New World Information Order.

The New World Information and Communication Order, a term coined by the MacBride Commission, was a global response to the issue of media representation. This commission, chaired by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Seán MacBride, was tasked with creating recommendations to make global media representation more equitable.

Their report, 'Many Voices, One World', outlined the key principles of the New World Information Communication Order, which had a significant impact on Ghana's media landscape.

The effect of the call for a new and more equitable distribution of information resources found immediate echoes in the vision of Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings and the revolution's leadership sought to make the flow of information less reliant on the Big Western producers such as Reuters, AFP, and others.

However, interpreted locally, the revolutionary government wittingly or unwittingly set out an unwritten code of media conduct that wanted the media to support the revolution, line, hook and sinker.

So, while the state had owned media resources before 1982, including the era of Nkrumah's one-party state, journalists could write on different subjects with flair. Of course, no government tolerated dissent in the media, as we learned when Prime Minister Busia, the presumptive saint of liberal politics, dismissed Cameron Duodu as editor of the Daily Graphic when the latter disagreed with the government in an editorial.

In 1982, journalism was the eye of the hurricane that had been launched. The media, its institutions, and those who worked in them were considered more part of the security infrastructure than the communication business.

There are many anecdotes of newsreaders at GBC being stopped as they read the bulletin because someone high up did not want some information to be broadcast. I can tell my stories about my time as acting editor of the Daily Graphic and later Editor of The Mirror, but not today.

For a good reason, the PNDC period has come to be captured under the rubric culture of silence. Journalists learned to stay safe by censoring themselves extensively. 
No one wanted to become an "enemy of the revolution"; it was the worst possible label for a journalist. 

The 1992 Constitution was supposed to cure the ills of the culture of silence and other negative influences of the state's monopoly of media resources. Before 1992, we thought state media ownership was the biggest obstacle to enjoying press freedom.

The 1992 Constitution has removed that obstacle, although it took some hardy souls to get us there. Today, that hurdle has disappeared like a night ghost at midday. No trace. Or is that the case? Not really.

GBC is still the biggest broadcaster, with stations in almost every region. It continues to broadcast the most important state events, and many people turn to its stations when they need to verify information. On any normal day, GBC has only a small audience share, but as it likes to boast, it is the Station of the Nation.

The Graphic Communication Group and its stable are state-owned, as are the New Times Corporation and the Ghana News Agency. The difference is that today, unlike in the dark past, the state is not allowed to control these resources, so the National Media Commission appoints their boards and acts as the interface between these media assets and the government.


That is the theory. A culture that has taken decades to build has not been dismantled by the mere say-so of a Constitution. The government, in the form of the Ministry of Information, ensures that the government's imprint is not erased.

But the main story resides somewhere else. Overwhelmingly, Ghana's media and its resources are in private hands. In theory, this must be good news for the country. However, ironically, today, state ownership, with its veneer of independent regulation, has become a much safer guarantor of press freedom than independent media.

Of course, one cannot tar every media house with the same brush. Some are abiding by their professional mandate, but the vast majority have become a hindrance to press freedom. How is that?

The answer is simple: without quality, there can be no press freedom. It is like saying that we would enjoy good health in the hands of many fake doctors. We have more than 600 commercial radio stations, more than 150 free-to-air TV stations, scores of online news portals, and social media.


That lineup should be more than sufficient to give us press freedom. But that is not the case.
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