As a country, we pride ourselves in having successfully gone through six competitive presidential and parliamentary elections without violence. What is evident, however, is that these elections have always been associated with potential election crises, which have had to be managed in order to avoid full-blown election-related conflicts.
As Ghana prepares for its seventh consecutive elections in November, political tensions are already building up. It is the 2nd quarter of the year and already insults and propaganda messages have become common in political debates, discussions in the media and other public platforms.
Elections constitute one of the first steps in any democracy; ordinarily meant to afford citizens the freedom to choose their leaders in a peaceful manner. Unfortunately, in Africa, elections exceed just the competition of ideas and how best those ideas are communicated to convince the electorate in one’s favour.
Clearly, underlying the kenkey and fish concerns or bread and butter issues (depending on your class) which politicians promise to deal with are the lofty capitalist ideals of winning power, forming a government and controlling state resources. In many cases these have led to personal aggrandisement rather than actual development and improvement in the lives of the electorate.
The partisan nature of elections no doubt divides society along such lines and in the effort to win over the electorate, politicians go all length, foul or fair, in their campaigning. Political discourse during electioneering periods gets heated such that the closer the Election Day, the hotter the political discourse gets.
As a result of the agenda setting capability of the media, they become the most influential platform for reaching the masses. Political parties, their assigns, serial callers and communicators more vigorously than ever use the media, especially radio, to reach the masses. Unfortunately, this is sometime done in ways that suggest that any expression can be used on radio without regard for the basic ethos of cultural and social values regarding public communication.
Indeed, the dangers inherent in mass communication cannot be overlooked and in a media pluralistic environment such as the one we enjoy in Ghana it will be naïve for us to think that all media are set up based on the much-coveted ideals informing, educating and entertaining towards the ultimate of ensuring social justice, peace and development.
Clearly, ownership wishes and political party interests become glaring in such times making the ideals of truth, fact-checking and objectivity casualties in the process. Simply put, they are sacrificed on the altar of jarring penchant for intemperate, indecent, unethical language expressions and personal vendetta. The result is the resort to character assassination insult of persons, lying unsubstantiated allegations, unwarranted outburst of fury, provocation and inciting violence.
Perhaps Rwanda and Kenya have become a cliché in Africa such that they no longer invoke the caution it used to. But should Ghana become the next synonym for electoral violence on the continent? Certainly not!
In the 2012 elections, insulting/offensive comments, unsubstantiated allegations and provocative remarks were the three most frequently used types of indecent expressions against political opponents of a list of 10 of such expressions. There was an average of four (4) indecent expressions recorded on daily basis by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) between April and to December.
For the nine month monitoring period, 2,850 programmes were monitored on the 31 radio stations. A total of 509 indecent expressions were coded on those programmes with as much as 404 indecent expressions by political party affiliates.
As the elections draw closer and political parties intensify their campaigning, Will these change in 2016? Will media discussions be focused on issues rather than insults? Do politicians and media institutions care enough about the brands and reputation so as to be measured and guarded in their remarks? Already, there is on daily basis one allegation or the other; can the media help by doing some more fact-checking and separating facts from opinions, can the media also wear their gate keeping caps tightly so as to control such elements on the airwaves.
As remarked by a friend recently, “even in America, elections are characterised by these kinds of expressions and particularly for their 2016 electioneering process there is a certain Donald Trump rocking the boat”. This may be rightly so but how do we compare apples and oranges, contrasting social and cultural values of the two countries. We live in a country where culturally words such as “sebe” and “taflatse” are the expressions used when a communicator thinks his or her language will be deemed insulting. Our cultural modes of address simply frown on abusive language in public communication.
Again, some media practitioners ask “how do you expect our programmes be hot if we should only empanel people who will appear like saints; our programmes will lose their popularity and that will cut our advertising incomes drastically”. While this may also be a legitimate question, what is also important to remember is that ample evidence suggests that people can discuss issues passionately without insults or descending into the gutters. This is where owners and operators of media bear a greater responsibility of professionalism.
During the 2012 elections campaign language monitoring exercise, several individuals called the MFWA to challenge the findings put out. They however did not come back after they had received audio recordings of their voices and some of the unprintable remarks they had made on air. Of course, in the haste to outdo opponents politicians are often unmindful of what they are saying, how they are saying it and how what they are saying affects listeners.
The radio campaign language monitoring exercise defines indecent expression as any statement or insinuation that seeks to attack or damage the reputation of an individual, political party or ethnic group; or that could provoke the target of the expression to react in an unpleasant or offensive manner or that could offend the sensibilities of members of the public. These include insults, prejudice or bigotry, inflammatory expressions, hate speech, tribal slurs and stereotyping, provocative remarks unsubstantiated allegations and gender specific insults.
So here we are in 2016; the MFWA expects to monitor about 70 radio stations across the country with the first report released in April. The reports to be issued fortnightly will help us know whether we have improved as a people or gone from bad to worse.
No matter what we as a collective bear a responsibility to ensure our country Ghana is in one piece.
I sincerely wish all Ghanaians peaceful elections 2016.
By Abigail Larbi-Odei
Programme Manager, Media Development & Democracy at Media Foundation for West Africa.
Photo Credits: ghanawaves . com