by SANDRA FERRARI
Community radio advocates and civil society members rallied through the streets of Accra last month in what they called a “Voice Walk”, which Ghana’s National Communications (NCA) calls irresponsible and unexpected.
“Everything we do, we consult them. I don’t know what has happened,” says Henry Kanor, Deputy Engineer for Ghana’s National Communications Authority.
With gags in their mouths and signs in hand, members of the Ghana Community Radio Network (GCRN) and the Coalition for Transparency of the Airwaves (COTA) demanded that government answer to the limited frequency allocation being given to community radio stations across the country.
“It’s just a deliberate refusal to give people voice,” says Wilna Quarmyne, Deputy Executive Director of the GCRN, who believes the NCA is subtly putting up barriers for community radio stations in Ghana and the implications of this are detrimental to freedom of press in Ghana.
According to Quarmyne, in December 1999, the then Minister of Communication promised to lift the freeze on frequency allocations exceptionally for community radio, because of their developmental role,” says Quarmyne.
“By the following Easter 2000 this had not happened. Then we went back to him and he says, ‘By November 2000’. It didn’t happen. Then there was a change in government. Same pattern.”
In October 2007, the GCRN initiated a project with 11 community radio stations applying for frequency. The association assisted these community stations with technical assessments and assistance with the application process with the hopes of growing the number of community radio station operating across the country.
“We involved them in all of are operations. But some of them don’t understand the concept of how things should run and they turn they whole thing into politics,” says Henry Kanor, Deputy Engineer of the NCA.
According to the NCA, some of these 11 stations have been granted frequency, however these stations are either not yet set up or they were granted frequency but failed to follow up with their applications.
Quarmyne insists: “Although we started formal advocacy in 2004, the [project] is still lingering and I don’t know when it will see the light of day – no one really knows – and what it will be when it does.”
The NCA maintains that if the frequencies are available they will be provided to community stations that do apply.
While the previous Guidelines for Operation of Community Radio Stations in Ghana stated that the NCA had to respond to an application within 60 days, the current guidelines no longer include this clause and there is no legal provision requiring NCA to award frequency within a given time.
Advocates maintain, however, the untimely manner to which these applications are processed are part of a more sinister plan to corrupt plans to develop community radio stations in Ghana.
“I tell people that if you look at the reality on the ground, the few on-air community radio stations that there are have managed under great odds to be and to be perceived as non-partisan by their communities, which is a tremendous achievement in this highly polarized environment,” says Quarmyne.
These disputes have made for an anti-climactic battle for the airwaves that officially began almost 12 years ago with the start of the GCRN and the first independent radio station, Radio Ada, which Quarmyne founded with her husband Alex Quarmyne.
“[Oppositions to press freedom] have gone underground, but they are still very real,” says Quarmyne.
“We are still where we were in 1999 when we began the Ghana Community Radio Network.”
Last year the National State Security branch of the Ghanaian government proposed a plan to initiate a state owned and operated district assemblies across the country.
“If you can imagine,” says Quarmyne, “a town in which a community radio station is operating – should there be a district assembly radio – of course proponents to the party in power will gravitate towards the district assembly radio, leaving the community radio station with no option to be populated on the air only with opposition figures and automatically being branded as an opposition station. Even at the most practical level that’s what will happen.”
The NCA drafted a proposal and presented it to the Minister of Communications, but no plans have been solidified to date.
“That argument should not go there,” says Kanor. “It’s not like the government says I will have district assembly stations and no other stations. That’s not the agreement.
Both parties acknowledge the value and the role of radio in Ghana but priorities and fundamental beliefs for both parties keep them ideologically at odds.
“Currently we have about 204 operative radio stations in Ghana – community, campus and commercial. They are playing a very vital role in society. Some are helping education, and entertainment, [they also] take care of women’s issues. Especially in the north, they help the farmers a lot,” says Kanor. “We also have a responsibility – a model for broadcasting stations. So why do you want to go and recreate the wheel?”
According to the GCRN the role for community radio is to enable marginalized communities and groups to participate actively in the discourse and the direction of what development in this country will be like.
“Unless we are able to restructure the organization of communication resources – in order to give them a voice that they are proactive in – development will always be controlled as it has been by a small group that perpetuates its own interests,” says Quarmyne.
According to the 2008 statistics provided by UNICEF, Ghana’s total adult literacy rate is 66 per cent, making radio an essential tool for education in the country.
The NCA maintains that they will not respond to hostile ultimatums imposed upon them by the GCRN and COTA.
Radio advocates in Ghana will continue to fight, they say.
According to Quarmyne, you will never have true democratization, unless you have community radio and community radio resources that are genuinely representative of the interests of marginalized groups in marginalized communities.
“In many countries [media regulatory bodies] are independently constituted. They are not answerable to the executive, so at least you have a fighting chance.”