Ghana’s journalism and media freedom crisis (Part 1)

In the last two weeks, there have been major developments in Ghana’s media and freedom of expression landscape. A number of radio presenters and civic actors have been arrested and put before the law courts mainly for publishing what is said to be false information or information with the potential to breach the peace of the country.

One radio presenter has been jailed for contempt of court. During the same period, a journalist has been mercilessly beaten up by police officers in the Western Region of Ghana.

The recent developments are not unique. They only represent an amplification of Ghana’s gradual but rapid slide into a crisis in journalistic practice, oppression of media freedom and the muzzling of free speech.

The apparent crisis at hand represents a toxic mix that has the potential to undermine media freedom and freedom of expression in Ghana.  It also has the potential to reverse Ghana’s modest gains towards democratic consolidation, peace and security. This is because, while reckless speech can undermine the peace of the country, attempts at dealing with such acts through the powers of the state, when not well managed, can result in undue tension and rancour that could equally undermine the peace of the country.

The situation that confronts the country, therefore, needs to be urgently addressed in order to fully restore the role and value of the media and free speech in Ghana’s democratic enterprise.

Undoubtedly, what is being witnessed is the consequence of the combination of the following three critical and broad factors in the political economy of the Ghanaian media and freedom of expression environment:

  1. A wave of reckless, unprofessional practices in the media and by the media;
  2. The absence of effective regulatory institutions and mechanisms;
  3. A phenomenal surge in repression, oppression and intimidation by a government that is increasingly becoming despotic rather than democratic.

In this first part of what is to be a series of analysis, I will be looking at the first point – the phenomenon of reckless, unprofessional practices in the media and by the media.

Recklessness in the Media and by the Media

 Just as elsewhere, journalism or media practice in Ghana has never been perfect. Being a human endeavour, there will always be slips and imperfections. However, over time, there appears to be a free fall in adherence to standards and ethics by media practitioners and media organisations.

In the name of media freedoms, it has become very common to hear or see people baselessly abuse others on radio, TV or online. Pure fabrications, outright lies and unsubstantiated allegations in sections of the media are perpetrated with disdain. It is sometimes done as if to suggest that the laws of Ghana guarantee both media freedom and media recklessness.

Indeed, nearly all the reckless conduct in the media and by the media happens on certain types of media platforms – the ones that are openly partisan with partisan owners. Such media outlets often exist, not for the business of journalism, but to serve the interest of either the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP) or the main opposition national Democratic Congress (NDC). What matters to such outlets is partisan interest, not journalistic ethics.

For the NPP, such abusive media outlets have included Oman FM, Womtumi Radio and their affiliate TV stations (NET2 TV and Wontumi TV respectively), among many others across the country. For the NDC, such outlets have included Power FM and Accra FM (and before the Akufo-Addo government’s decision to selectively shut down opposition radio stations ahead of the last elections, it would have included Radio Gold and Radio XYZ), and several others in the country.

For many of these partisan media organisations, the situation has literally become ‘anything goes,’ so long as what goes is in the interest of the political party of the owners. Professionalism doesn’t matter.  Presenters on many of these stations act as if the assessment of their performance is based on how abusive they are against members of their opposing political party.

Leaders and members of the governing NPP, including the President of the Republic have expressed concerns about media unprofessionalism and reckless media conduct. But it appears they are concerned only when such unprofessional conduct happens on opposition media platforms. When their allied media organisations such as Oman FM or Wontumi Radio do the same things it appears okay. They loathe unprofessionalism on opposition media outlets but love same on their allied partisan outlets.

The situation was not different when the main opposition NDC was in power, except that the then John Mahama government was admittedly more tolerant of dissent.

Some Illustrations

 From June 2020 to May 2021 for example, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) monitored incidents of ethical violations on 10 Accra-based local language radio stations. During the period, a total of 1,754 incidents of ethical violations were recorded on the 10 radio stations.

As highlighted in the graph below, just three stations, namely Power FM, Oman FM and Accra FM, accounted for 1,463 of the violations representing 83.4% of the ethical violations.

Monthly reports were issued spotlighting the high frequency of ethical abuses especially on the three radio stations. Recommendations were also made each month on what could be done to correct or address the situation. But no one heeded. Managers of the stations couldn’t be bothered. Regulatory agencies showed no concern.  The ethical violations continued unabated.

Again, ahead of the 2020 elections, the MFWA monitored incidents of abusive content on 60 radio stations across the country. A total of 582 incidents of abusive or indecent expressions were tracked and documented. The main types of abuse were insulting and offensive comments; and unsubstantiated allegations.  See the graph below for the trend on types of violations.

Once again, the leading perpetrators of abusive content were the same partisan radio stations. In fact, just five out of the 60 radio stations monitored—namely Oman FM, Wontumi Radio, Ash FM, Power FM and Accra FM—accounted for 432 (74%) of the 582 of the incidents of violations. The table below indicates the number of violations recorded on each of the five partisan radio stations.

Oman FM Wontumi Radio Ash FM Power FM Accra FM
126 99 87 85 32

At the time, the MFWA also highlighted the personalities who were the leading perpetrators of abusive language on the networks. Those persons included the owners of the two topmost abusive radio stations (Oman FM and Wontumi Radio). As a country, we looked on despite the monthly presentation of facts and evidence from the media monitoring work.

The top three most abusive stations belonged to leading members of the ruling NPP. But leadership and members of the party and government were not perturbed. Presumably, they loved the reckless effusions, the false claims and the abuse because the victims of those abuses were members of the NDC.

At the time, the leadership and members of the NDC loved the reckless conduct on their allied radio stations too. The most abusive presenters including Mugabe Maase and Oheneba Boamah Bennie were among the most popular and loved folks among NDC party loyalists and fanatics.

As a country, we looked on while all these acts of unprofessionalism and abuses were going on as if such conduct did not matter for our democracy, for our peace and security, and for the morals of our society.

But how and whose actions got us into where we are? Who can and should be acting to help correct the situation? An attempt to respond to these important questions will be the subject matter of part two of this series while part three will focus on the intolerance and despotic tendencies of the government as far as media freedom is concerned.

By Sulemana Braimah, Executive Director, MFWA

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