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Press freedom, whose freedom? (2)

Press freedom, whose freedom? (2)

There is a stark contrast between the media landscape of today and the one I entered as a staff writer at the Daily Graphic 42 years ago. 

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This difference, largely influenced by changes in governance architecture and technology, is a cause for both nostalgia and concern. In 1982, Ghana underwent a revolution following a coup on the last day of the previous year.

One of the revolution's lofty ambitions was to create a different media that worked for poor and disadvantaged people and communities. This ambition coincided with the call for international communication equality, which found expression in the New World Information Order, which UNESCO championed.

At that time, most African governments chose to translate the idea of the new information order to mean government control. In Ghana, the PNDC tightened its hold on the media to a choking point. In media history, the main character of its rule has come to be known as the Culture of Silence.

The 1992 Constitution, the supreme law of Ghana, created a robust structure to institute, promote and defend press freedom through several provisions that protect the rights of journalists and the media.

Media plurality and independent regulation are the cornerstone of the guarantees in Chapter 12 of the Constitution. In this article, I will argue that the ruling class, political actors, and some excessive entrepreneurs have hijacked the media and undermined the purpose of press freedom with their political and economic expediencies and self-serving attitudes to media freedom.

For instance, for such people, winning political office, or using the media to sell their products rate far higher than the abstract notions of press freedom and media independence.
Media freedom is not good merely because it is an excellent democratic attribute.

It has a purpose, and its usefulness must be measured by how much of that purpose it can fulfil. So, what is the purpose of press freedom? Press freedom must enable journalists to provide citizens with diverse and unbiased information, which empowers individuals and communities to make informed decisions.

Press freedom promotes public discourse and safeguards against censorship and misinformation; it enables journalists to hold those in power accountable, uphold democratic values, protect human rights, and ensure a well-informed and engaged citizenry.

Is press freedom serving this purpose in Ghana? Our exuberant media makes a lot of noise, which, on the face of it, is how the media in a democracy must behave. But how far does the media go in providing unbiased information, holding the government to account, and upholding democratic values?

For the media to live up to its mandate, it must consistently, ethically and professionally uphold its values. Unfortunately, most of our media outlets would struggle to pass this test. Let me state that we cannot tar the entire media of Ghana with the same brush.

Some media houses are good, and others strive to uphold their principles, but for the majority, the freedom they enjoy is compromised by their lack of independent perspective.

Let us look at some factors undermining the Constitution's guarantees of press freedom. In Ghana, the Constitution allows anyone wanting to set up a media house to do so with little resistance.

No licence is needed to set up a newspaper, periodical or magazine; only an annual registration with the NMC is needed. However, one needs to obtain a frequency from the National Communication Agency to set up a broadcasting station.

The NCA is not an independent media regulator, as some people erroneously believe. It is an agency of the Ministry of Communication, which appoints its board and management.

The crucial involvement of a government agency in the allocation of broadcasting frequency directly impacts press freedom in the country. Media ownership is a critical factor in the editorial behaviour of the media, especially in a situation where partisan politics undermine press freedom.

As it happens, more than one-third of radio stations in Ghana are owned by politicians, especially Members of Parliament. Indeed, some MPs are believed to own several stations.

The two political parties with shared power in the Fourth Republic ensure that they allocate frequencies to their members when in control. Those stations are not independent and do not contribute to a climate of press freedom in the country.

Another group of owners consists of entrepreneurs who have entered the media business purely to promote their businesses. These business owners consider the media as another avenue to profit, not through media profitability but through the unfettered promotion of unrelated businesses.

Television in Ghana has become the preserve of religious organisations, predominantly Christian ones. Their proselytising techniques are geared towards enticing as many followers as possible.

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Apart from looking for members to contribute money in various ways, these stations rarely provide any form of content. Another group that is even more blatant in its approach is made up of money-doublers and spiritual mediums who claim to provide instant miracles for viewers in return for money.

So, when we cite media plurality as a factor in our much-vaunted press freedom, where do we place these compromised media whose activities directly undermine the Constitution's expectations and the accepted standards of media behaviour?

We could argue that the many morning and evening political discussions on radio and TV provide information and education for citizens to guide us in making political and electoral choices.

That may be true if we consider fire without heat a useful phenomenon. For the most part, the media provide a rigid and predictable format for political parties to talk. The political parties use those platforms to assure and delight their members. They can be exciting but are of limited use to the people as vehicles for information and enlightenment.

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Our media outlets pump out fake news, misinformation and disinformation at an alarming rate. This is the direct consequence of the politically compromised media landscape and the insidious celebrity culture spawned by the media's interface with social media.

Of course, the media must provide entertainment, but when entertainment loses its social context and cultural values, it can undermine collective education, which is essential for our country's development.

There are many challenges facing our country today. When people were fighting for democracy and its attributes, including press freedom, their vision and expectation was that the media would contribute to finding solutions to those problems and challenges.

The idea was that press freedom would be a weapon in the struggle against poverty, oppression, unemployment, ethnic disunity and other manifestations of underdevelopment. Is that what we see today?

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So, years ago, when I was the Chairman of the National Media Commission, I advocated the NMC to set up its press freedom index, which considers Ghanaian historical development and expectations.

We need to put some of the concepts of our governance into context and ask serious questions about their essence and purpose. We must ask whose press freedom we are talking about; is it for the politicians and business moguls for whom the media is only a vehicle to reach more power and wealth, or must it be for the masses?
 
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