By: John Van Dusen
ACCRA — Ghana’s media landscape is a shell of its former self. Twenty years ago there were only a handful of newspapers and no private radio or television stations. Today, there are dozens of newspapers and TV stations and more than 250 radio stations .
A requirement of Ghana’s 1992 Constitution called for a formation of a National Media Commission (NMC). It was created the following year and is now celebrating its twentieth anniversary.
After two decades, the NMC is looking to redefine itself to keep up with the changes. The commission is holding a number of townhall meetings across the country to discuss its role and the role of the media in the hopes to kick start a review that will bring it into the 21st century.
John Van Dusen and Adams Issaka sat down with the chairman of the commission, Kabral Blay Amihere, and touched on some of the country’s favourite topics – politics, soccer, and the media.
jhr: How has the media in Ghana changed since 1993?
Kabral: In 1993 we had a very limited media scene. We had just the four state owned media, that’s Graphic Operation, New Times, GBC (Ghana Broadcasting Corporation), and GNA (Ghana News Agency). I don’t think we had more than five private newspapers. We had no broadcasting, no private radio or private television stations.
Now fast-forward to 2013, and you’re talking about 250 plus private FM stations, about 15 private television stations, so many newspapers. It’s not even the quantity as the freedom to register a newspaper. In ’92, you needed a license. Now you don’t need a license. We didn’t have social media. Today we have social media. We didn’t have citizen participation. So that’s where we are today.
jhr: What does it mean for the commission now that the media landscape has changed?
Kabral: Well it means that within this diverse and pluralistic media landscape the burden will obviously increase. Now how do you monitor and evaluate the performance of such an expanded and exploded media landscape when you don’t have the capacity or resources? For all these 20 years until quite recently, we had an experimental system provided by the European Union. There was no way we could look at the media landscape and evaluate their performance. So resources have been a problem all these 20 years and it’s sill a problem.
jhr: Has the commission reached out to the government for funds?
Kabral: A lot of past commissioners have made an appeal. It’s not something that should be our headache. If you create the police to protect your safety and security and you don’t equip them, then we are not interested in your safety. If you create an electoral commission to run elections and you don’t equip them, then you don’t want them to be effective in organizing elections. So if you want a free and responsible media, and you create a body as the National Media Commission and you leave it on its own, you don’t want to see any implementing standards. So to answer your question, a lot of dialogue has taken place on this matter. A lot of public pronouncements have been made and it’s up to the authorities and state to address the issue.
jhr: Do you blame the state?
Kabral: I’m not going to put any blame on anybody. All I’m saying is that the media commission as constituted cannot fulfill its role. It is not for the commission members to be championing the debate. I think that this institution doesn’t belong to the members – it belongs to the whole society. So when people say the press isn’t doing well, and they don’t look to the body created to improve standards, then we are just shouting to the wind.
jhr: What is the roll of the media commission?
Kabral: Well, one of the mandates of the media commission is to promote high professional standards. Another function, which is tied to the constitution, is the state owned media should afford all parties of divergent views equal and fair access to the public owned media. Now how can you sit here in this office and establish whether they are doing that? If there are ethical violations, how can you do it without having a system that monitors on a daily basis what the media is putting out? So when we want to evaluate, these are the things we look at, whether there is hate speech, whether there is incitement, whether the code of ethics of the profession is being violated, and if it’s elections time or there’s coverage of political parties, we want to see whether the state owned media is being fair as required by the constitution.
jhr: If the media isn’t being fair, what authority does the commission have?
Kabral: In the case of the state owned media, if they are not being fair we can more or less compel them to do that. And it’s been done, there’s a court case, a precedent, where the Supreme Court ruled in a case where a party alleged it wasn’t given fair coverage. There was a platform granted to the government of the day and they wanted a similar platform to explain their side of the issue. And they were denied by GBC. They went to the Supreme Court and the court ordered that because you gave a platform to this party, you have to give the same platform to another party. So there’s a precedent.
Now when it comes to ethical violations, we occasionally come out with a statement that is supposed to be a warning to advise the offending authority. We don’t have the power to interfere in the editorial performance of the media. So you can only advise in this instance. The constitution or the act doesn’t prescribe specific sanctions.
jhr: So you can advise but you can’t enforce?
Kabral: Well it would be against the canons of Article Nine of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Everybody has a right to express their views. The right to free speech. Free press. But anybody who uses the medium must be guided by the code of ethics. So you need to preach a lot of self-regulation, so that even in the newsrooms the media houses themselves will do this kind of self regulation.
I mean, we still have civil libel. As much as you have the right to write or publish, you are libel to being dragged to the courts if you damage somebody’s reputation. And there’s lots of examples in the past 20 years where journalists or publications have been fined. And sometimes very astronomical compared to their revenue. So those can be checks.
jhr: A common complaint against the commission is that it doesn’t have any power, that it doesn’t have any teeth. What does the commission need in order to bite?
Kabral: Well you see you have to look at what the act says. Or what the constitution says. As I hinted, in the act, in the constitution, there is nothing like a set of sanctions. If you take any sporting activity like soccer, if you foul a player, in the 18-yard box, it’s a penalty kick, outside it’s a free kick. So there should be clear and concise sanctions that are known by the operators and known by the commission, so when somebody offends, you apply the rules and regulations. In this case, it’s not clear. The constitution is a very liberal one. The act I think it’s more or less like the first amendment in the US where it is more weighted in favour of free speech and free expression than criminalization of speech or of press.
jhr: The perception of the media landscape here is that it’s very biased, that the ownership tends to lean towards one political party over another. What do you make of the media landscape in Ghana?
Kabral: Multi-party politics inherently has this element of politicalization and partisanship. And I think it’s not only in Ghana. In the UK, if you pick the Observer or the Guardian, it reflects a certain side of the political spectrum. If you choose the Times or Daily Mail, you are going towards the right. The US, the same situation exists where some newspaper are seen as very liberal like the New York Times or Washington Post. And you can have those that are seen to be on the right. So it is not that strange that we have the same kind of polarization in the country.
But I think that what the media shows is a reflection of where Ghana is today. We are so politicized that almost every issue of our existence is seen through political perspectives. And the media reflects that kind of spectrum. Where I think the media can do better is even when you are being partisan, I believe you have to be guided by the ethics of the profession – accuracy, objectivity and fairness. Where you don’t for the sake of your political persuasion, you see something as red when it is green. Maybe that is the bane of our journalism that we’ve been dragged into the whole political tension in the country. But we should be setting the agenda.
This interview has been condensed and edited.