Monday, 2 January 2017

The Role Of The Media In Ghanaian Society

Unquestionably, Ghana is one of Africa's foremost democracies - with voters regularly voting out ruling parties after every eight years. And on each change of government after elections, power has been handed over peacefully to the victorious opposition party.

Ghana has a thriving and pluralistic media that is amongst the freest in the world.

Because of the important role the media plays in democracies, this blog takes a keen interest in the work of young Ghanaian journalists - because they represent the profession's future.

It is for that reason that not too long ago I had a conversation with a group of young journalists about the Ghanaian media landscape that I found quite interesting.

It turned out that the 7th December, 2016, presidential and parliamentary elections were the first they would cover as media professionals - and it was a pretty exciting event they were all looking forward to.

In the main, they were earnest and highly-intelligent young people, and I was particularly struck by their sense of idealism and the high moral purpose they exhibited.

This  blog's hope is that they will embrace the media's watchdog role in society, and have the courage to expose wrongdoing by powerful people in our homeland Ghana at all material times, throughout their careers in the Ghanaian media world.

One of them proudly stated that to her journalism  was a calling - the means through which she hoped she could help make Ghana a better place for all its people. Marvellous.

Hopefully, they will not mature in the profession ending up selling their consciences like so many of today's so-called "senior journalists" have done over the years.

There are many societal issues the Ghanaian  media seldom focuses on in sustainable fashion. Could some of today's young media professionals not take an interest in reporting on them and provoking debate about them  in society, one wonders?

How do we deal, for example, with the issue of the billions of dollars of sub-standard goods imported into Ghana routinely, by dishonest and unethical importers - from places such as China?

Anyone who has taken a walk recently along the shoreline of the Weija water reservior, for example, will wonder why vehicle repair workshops and the makers of concrete products are being allowed by the authorities  to squat and gradually turn it into a shanty town.

What does that mean for water users in Accra who source their drinking water supply from the Weija production unit of the Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL) - in terms of how safe their water is: if  huge quantities of chemicals such as alum salts are required to treat the pollution now being added to that from the Densu River's upstream course by those squatters along the shoreline of the Weija reservoir?

Then there are the issues of pollution and environmental degradation caused by illegal gold miners poisoning  streams, rivers, ground watertables and other water bodies, as well as soils, across vast swathes of the Ghanaian countryside. Ditto the denuding of forests by illegal loggers.

And when will the media make the connexion between the attempt to foist GMOs on our country through Parliament, and the compromising of Ghanaian politicians by lobbyists operating on behalf of the vested interests backing multinationals such as Monsanto, in our country?

And what are those high net worth individuals and businesses who fund the two major political parties in Ghana, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), getting in return for their money? That is a shadowy part of our national life that definitely needs the media's spotlight thrown on it - for the funding of political parties is the mother and father of high-level corruption  in Ghana.

Today, for the benefit of young Ghanaian media professionals throughout our country,  this blog is posting the speaking notes that a 90s NATO spokesperson, Dr. J. P. Shea, prepared for a press briefing he gave during a NATO seminar at Sarajevo, the largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which took place between 2-3 July, 1998. It is culled from the archives of the NATO website.

Since the words of wisdom they contain about the role of the media in democracies are applicable to our situation here, too,  one hopes that they will help guide today's young generation of Ghanaian media professionals as they go about their daily work across our peaceful, stable, and modern democratic African nation-state.

Incidentally, it ought to be pointed out that although at the time he wrote the 1998 Sarajevo seminar speaking notes for his press briefing, he was a NATO spokesman, today, Dr. Jamie Shea  happens to be NATO's Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges.

Please read on:

"Role of the Media in a Democratic Society"

Speaking notes by Dr. J.P. Shea, NATO Spokesman

The media as the 'fourth estate': basic functions of the media in a democratic society.

•    inform the public on what is going on: inform democratic choices through the clarification of complex issues, particularly in an age when information is the driving force of economic advancement and international events impact on people's daily lives as never before;

•    provoke public debates leading to greater public participation in important decisions;

 •   uncover abuses, pressure for their rectification;

 •   alert and mobilize public opinion to humanitarian causes/injustices;

 •   allow political pluralism to express itself by advertising different views/ ideological approaches to certain issues;

 •   keep politicians attuned to public opinion while offering politicians a medium to explain policies/decisions to public opinion and build the necessary support.

The responsibility of the media towards society: with great power comes great responsibility.
A totally impartial media is neither possible nor desirable. Most newspapers have political or ideological preferences but, it is:

•    essential to maintain distinction between facts and opinion, reporting and analysis;

•    use only trained, professional reporters with knowledge of subject and who check sources before reporting;

•    set the political agenda: explain issues without trivializing or sensationalizing;

 •   publish corrections;

 •   preserve state secrets / not use information likely to be harmful to national security or to endanger individuals.

The responsibility of society to the media

 •   create the conditions for a pluralist media to thrive / survive. This can be done by means of:

 •       anti-monopoly/trust legislation; avoid excessive taxation on small media;

 •       making large spectrum of airwaves, frequencies available;

  •      encouraging a strong private sector in addition to state controlled media;

 •       legislating minimum TV/Radio access to all opposition political parties, particularly during election campaigns;

  •      freedom of information laws or at least avoiding catch-all official secrets laws that discourage free flow of non-national security related information; release of information after certain dates;

   •     legislating appropriate privacy or libel laws that prevent media intrusion into people's private lives or sensationalization of human suffering. However, these privacy laws must not block legitimate investigative journalism of the Woodward/Bernstein variety.

   •     having a press council or regulatory commission that upholds standards, clamps down or abusive or inflammatory language calculated to provoke social divisions and unrest, adjudicates complaints and allows individuals/organisations redress for unfair treatment - through libel actions for instance. Rather than the state closing newspapers, it is better for individuals or organizations to drive abusive media out of business through financial penalties.

The relationship between politicians and the media

 •   basically it is a love/hate relationship. Both need each other; the one to provide the information, the other to communicate it. The role of the media in a democracy is the result of the permanent "creative tension" between the two sides. It is a messy system but the alternative is a media that is excessively docile or excessively critical of the fact that politics is only "the art of the possible".

 •   governments want to control the release of information and present a united front; the media like to look for the cracks and the contradictions. One likes good or predictable news - "dog eats man"; the other likes bad news or the unusual - "man eats dog".

•    politicians like to present their successes and their opinions, to use the media to gain public recognition and enlarge their authority; the media's role is to question these critically, to analyze, to judge and to relativize - the role of the media is never to blindly or unquestioningly support a given political party or cause. That not only undermines the credibility and value of the media (which becomes simply a propaganda machine); it also undermines the political party or cause as no institution can thrive and adapt to change without regular, constructive criticism.

•    if the media are to do their job seriously, politicians must treat the media seriously. Regular flow of information, briefings, an honest objective approach, never lie. If the media do not get information from you, they will usually get it from someone else - less accurately. So it is counter-productive to ignore the media;

 •   avoid cover-ups - if a mistake is exposed by the media, acknowledge it and show that you are taking steps to redress it - that restores confidence;

•    politicians and journalists should treat each other with respect but not friendship - politicians who believe they control journalists are invariably disappointed; journalists who get too close to politicians lose their objectivity. The relationship should be close but not too close.

•    in deciding on any policy, it is essential to devise a media strategy as an integral part of the process. The perception of the policy is as important as the policy itself particularly in an age when the media present news in real-time and political leaders announce their decisions to each other via CNN rather than through diplomatic cables. It is inevitable in modern democracies that politicians should use spokespersons and PR consultants to keep their personalities and messages prominent in the media but there is no substitute for political leaders explaining themselves directly to their voters via the media: that is the essence of the democratic process."

End of Dr. J. P. Shea's July 1998 Sarajevo seminar speaking notes culled from the NATO website's archives.
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