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The Media and Our Democracy

By Sandow Seidu Kpebu

4/22/2012 4:52:31 PM -

The media in a democratic dispensation is the most powerful institution for checks and balances. In modern context it is even powerful than the executive and the judiciary, when viewed from the perspective of the masses.

In recent times however, the media in developing countries especially Ghana, is coming across as powerless and sycophantic in our democratic environment. Some media houses have been reduced to propaganda machines, thereby reneging on their core functions.

The media as an institution is responsible for checking the government and its agencies, the judiciary, public officials, civil society groups and the general public. The primary function of educating, informing and entertaining is to ensure cohesion, co-existence and national integration with the end product being development, national unity, peace and happiness.

In fact the media is a very important institution for the protection of civil liberties and human rights. In order to promote this fundamental function, article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". This declaration is unambiguous as it considers the media as the voice of the public and the disadvantaged in society.

However, there is a complex problem to the independence of the media, and as an institution that is supposed to check on the abuse of power by the government and its analogous institutions; and also by politicians and influential people in society.

This problem arises when politicians establish media outlets for themselves and use it for their own interest, thus the core role as watchdogs is narrowed; in an election they can use it to shape public opinion to their advantage because the media is an effective tool during elections.

What is more, the media is not supposed to covertly or overtly be directed and controlled by private individuals or government for their interests. It must be one that is open, with editorial independence that serves the public interests.

It has to be transparent in its reporting in the context of elections, in the functioning of diverse political parties. The preferences and prejudices however, lead some media houses to covering up matters of public and national importance.

For there to be free and fair elections, the media has to give equal access to all political candidates to sell themselves and their policies. It is also supposed to educate the public to make informed choices in an election.

The most important responsibility of the media in a democracy is to ensure that elected representatives uphold their oath of office by carrying out the wishes of the electorate. When the media is seen to be on the side of the elected or opposition, it breads mistrust, suspicions, rightly or wrongly, and leads to credibility problems.

There are some communications experts who believe that an 'antagonistic relationship' between the government and the media will be a recipe and healthy element for a functioning democracy. However, if the media deliberately pushes the government onto the defensive and the opposition on the offensive, it will not augur well for our democracy.

The British media will go to any length to expose the government and corrupt officials. An example is the "cash for honours" scandal which rocked the boat for the Labour government.

When former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was seen as not being media friendly. But when became Prime Minister, he rushed to the media at the least opportunity. He was using the media to project his image, though it was difficult for him, he was full of smiles for the cameras. That is the power of the media.

One may ask why the British media is vibrant. The answer is very simple; they protect the public and ensure elected members uphold ethics of their offices. In return, the British public has given protective and control powers to the media; a mutual benefit isn't it?

The media therefore mediates between the state and civil society. The British media like all human institutions has its shortcomings; but the public overlooks it because of the trust the people have in it.

It is sad to say that the Ghanaian media cannot be seen in the same light. I was a proud Ghanaian when a couple of years ago my communications lecturer at a University in London sited the Ghanaian media as the most vibrant in West Africa. What has therefore gone wrong?

Another important function that is sometimes overlooked is the checks on the judiciary which enables suitable legal environment and fairness in the justice system. By reporting court proceedings, journalists are not only informing the public but checking on the judiciary. The presence of the media in a court room is supposed to restrain judges from circumventing the legal system.

They know if they do, their actions will be exposed to the public. It is upon this basis the media should be seen as the most powerful institution in modern times only second to the people's power.

Our finest media personnel, and there are a lot of them, are rather pushed to the background without their voices being heard anymore.

When the media compromises its neutrality and objectivity, the public becomes vulnerable to political tricks. Or is it a case of what Eric Cantona (Manchester United legend) said at the end of a press conference that "when seagulls follow a trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea".

It is a major concern that in Ghana the media is grouped into two warring factions tearing each other apart. What is the sense in having pro-government and opposition journalists who will not co-operate with one another?

How then do you employ best practices to enhance the media industry and the development of the country? Get this clear, you can be in your respective groups, but don't be enemies but work as a team to help the public win the war on poverty and underdevelopment.

My humble advice to the Ghanaian media is that after a war, there is no democracy, no peace, no freedom and therefore no media. It is about time journalists and media practitioners realigned themselves to be in tuned with global best practices. Let's censor politicians whose actions are a threat to peace and stability in Ghana.

For all you know these politicians have their visas and tickets ready to fly out of the country if there is chaos in the country. Must we therefore allow them to destroy the only country we have?

How can we even enjoy in someone else's country as refugees? In times like this it is not about who is right or wrong, as long as the consideration is in the national interest.

Every media house has a corporate policy but it should be society and human centred. The Rupert Murdocks and the BBCs all have their policies, but that should in no way be detrimental to public good.

P.S.: So Two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three. Only Love the Beloved Republic deserves that. E.M. Foster: Two Cheers for Democracy. (1951)

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Disclaimer: "The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. The contents of this article are of sole responsibility of the author(s). Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article." © Sandow Seidu Kpebu.