Closure of 4 radio stations in Bawku: The wrong approach to doing the right thing

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) welcomes as a step in the right direction the decision to shut down four radio stations in the conflict-stricken Bawku Municipality, in the Upper East Region of Ghana.

The National Communications Authority (NCA), one of Ghana’s media regulators, announced on February 24, 2024, that it has closed four broadcast stations, namely Bawku FM, Source FM, Zahra FM and Gumah FM, “on grounds of national security.”

“This follows the recommendations of the Upper East Regional Security Council, and on the advice of the Ministry of National Security that the operations of the said FM Stations and the incendiary utterances of their panellists/presenters have contributed to the escalation of the Bawku conflict, leading to loss of lives and property in Bawku and its environs,” the NCA’s statement said.

Having monitored the media in Bawku over some time, we have witnessed and can confirm the inflammable, rabble-rousing pronouncements that the NCA is citing as the reason for its decision. In fact, in September 2022, we participated in a virtual forum of media stakeholders convened by the National Media Commission (NMC), the other media regulator, to discuss and make recommendations on the increasing recklessness of certain radio stations in Bawku.

Subsequent to this meeting, the NMC on October 2, 2022, issued a press release warning the owners of the stations involved “to adopt stronger gatekeeping measures to ensure that persons with interests in the conflict do not hijack radio stations to foment trouble.”

The NMC also requested all radio stations in Bawku to submit to the Commission clear measures they have put in place to ensure professionalism in the radio stations. The Commission went on to advise stations that faced capacity challenges to approach the MFWA and the Ghana Independent Broadcasters’ Association (GIBA) for assistance to enhance their gatekeeping systems and professional standards, as agreed during the said stakeholders meeting.

Against the above background, the closure of the four stations does have some reasonable basis. While the decision might be right, the MFWA is of the view that the closures should not have been carried out by the NCA which has no power to enforce ethics and professional standards and is, therefore, not the appropriate body to issue sanctions over media content. That role lies with the NMC.

The NCA’s action, which the Authority seeks to justify under Section 13(1)(e) of the Electronic Communications Act, 2008 (Act 775), amounts to claiming concurrent powers with the NMC over broadcast content regulation. It is our contention that the NCA’s power to revoke or suspend broadcast licenses under this law relates to breaches of a technical nature, such as diversion or misuse of frequency by radio or television license holders for activities liable to undermine national security or public interest.

As the media regulator and arbiter of conflicts involving the media, the National Media Commission is insulated from external influence. Article 172 of the Constitution says:

Except as otherwise provided by this Constitution or by any other law not inconsistent with this Constitution, the National Media Commission shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority in the performance of its functions.

The National Communications Authority, on the other hand, is an agency of the Ministry of Communications, operating under the control and direction of a Minister with partisan interest. The Board of Directors of the NCA, Director-General and Deputy Directors-General are political appointees who are beholden to the President and his political party.

It is, therefore, a dangerous precedent for the NCA and the National Security Ministry, both run by persons with partisan interests, to be clothed with the power to sanction broadcast stations for their content.

The action of the NCA in concert with the National Security Ministry without recourse to the NMC could pavé the way for future autocratic governments to embark on politically-motivated targeting of broadcast media organisations using the National Security, whose intelligence claims cannot be questioned by the public.

In view of this, we recommend a review of the Electronic Communications Act 2008 (Act 775) and the National Media Commission Act 1993 (Act 449) to transfer the broadcast frequency allocation and licensing function of the NCA to the NMC to completely insulate the broadcasting sector from possible political meddling.

We are privy to and do deplore the reckless broadcasting by some stations in Bawku and do recognise the danger they pose to the peace-building efforts in the area.  Their closure is, therefore, a decision in the right direction. Nonetheless, we maintain, as a matter of principle, that it was carried out by the wrong institution. We might not always get it right if we allow State Security and the NCA to get into the arena of sanctioning media outlets over their content.

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