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Rules of Engagement: The National Media Commission, the Media and Election 2012

By GNA

(A GNA feature by Mohammed Nurudeen Issahaq)
Accra, July 30, GNA -The crux of the National Media Policy developed by the National Media Commission (NMC) in 1999 is hinged on the premise that the media, both private and state-owned, exist to serve the welfare of all Ghanaians. It regards all media and media services as a public trust and, therefore, holds the public interest paramount in all circumstances. The issue of public interest becomes even more pertinent in the case of the State-owned media (Ghana News Agency, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, Graphic Communications Group and New Times Corporation) for the simple reason that they are funded, either wholly or in part, with the tax-payer's money and are accountable to the people of Ghana.

Right from the beginning of this year, the NMC has been busy engaging top brass in the State-owned media on the crucial task of helping to create a level playing field towards the December 7 general election. The Commission has been emphasizing the importance of granting equal opportunities to all political parties and candidates to disseminate their ideas by giving them equal access to the state-owned media, as contained in Article 55(11) of the Constitution: “The state shall provide fair opportunity to all political parties to present their programmes to the public by ensuring equal access to the state-owned media”. Article 55 (12) goes on further to say that “All presidential candidates shall be given the same amount of time and space on the state-owned media to present their programmes to the people.”

In the space of a fortnight the NMC held two workshops which brought together members of Governing Boards and Chief Executives of state-owned media in connection with the upcoming elections. One of them which was held in collaboration with the British High Commission dealt with the handling of political advertising on election day. Why the media should step up vigilance so that political actors do not pull a fast one on the public by campaigning subtly at the eleventh hour under the guise of sending out “Thank You” messages to chiefs and party supporters. Of particular emphasis here is the Electoral Commission's convention which directs that all political campaign activities should cease 24 hours to the poll.

Preceding that workshop was another one on the theme, “Ensuring Free, Fair and Peaceful Elections 2012: The Role and responsibility of the media”, Obviously by the chosen theme, the NMC seeks to underline the fact that the media have a collective duty to ensure that the nation comes out of the December polls a more peaceful, more stable and stronger Ghana than it is today.

But why target the media? Because arguably, the importance of the media of mass communication to the survival of democracy, especially with the basic concept of a representative system of government, cannot be underestimated. The people need to be fully and accurately informed to enable them to choose their governors or representatives in Parliament wisely. There is therefore a crucial link between the media and parliamentary democracy, the dissemination of information to the people being the common denominator – adequate, accurate, unbiased and fairly presented information.

It stands to reason, then, that the NMC's rationale for targeting the state-owned media primarily derives from the fact that they are the ones that are more obliged to serve the overall public interest by avoiding one-sided reporting/programming – be it on religion, gender, politics, or ethnicity. They are the ones that should lead by example through a demonstration of professionalism for their counterparts in the private media to follow.

Ground Rules:
The forum was also used to review the guidelines document for fair and equitable coverage of political parties by state-owned media, which was brought up for discussion. Then, on June 25, 2012 the NMC with support from STAR-GHANA, held another workshop for the validation of the guidelines document by editors and CEOs of the State-owned media. It would be useful at this juncture to take a look at some highlights of the document for the benefit of readers.

First of all, the kind of language used by journalists in election reporting should not suggest preference for any political party or candidate. Nor is it the business of state-owned media institutions and their journalists to endorse candidates/parties. Drawing attention to the critical issue of conflict of interest, the guidelines document explains that conflict of interest occurs when a public official attempts to promote, or actually promotes, private or personal interest for himself or for some other person which results in interference with the performance of the person's duties, or denial of the constitutional rights of others.

To avoid any conflict of interest, therefore, journalists should neither solicit nor accept gifts and favours (tangible or intangible) from political parties and candidates. They should refrain from engaging in any activity that has the potential to give preferential treatment to any political party or candidate. It enjoins the state-owned media to endeavour to attend press conferences of all political parties and to accord the same degree of prominence to press releases from all political parties. “Where state-owned media grant an interview to a presidential or parliamentary candidate or a political party, the same opportunity should be extended to other candidates or parties when requested”.

On free air time, the document reminds state-owned broadcast media of their duty to give each presidential candidate five minutes free of charge, on rotational basis, to present their parties' views/opinions on topical issues of national relevance. To facilitate this, the broadcast media should make available to each presidential candidate a presentation studio for one hour for the recording of such statements. Regional FM stations should also extend this privilege to political parties and local parliamentary candidates who should be offered free five-minute time slots on rotational basis during morning shows to put their campaign messages across. It enjoins journalists to respect confidentiality and to maintain their professional integrity by refraining from passing on information obtained in their line of duty to any other political party or candidate to the detriment of another party or candidate.

Arguing that the placement of a story communicates its importance, the guidelines indicate that newspaper editors should seek to strike a balance in the selection of pages and columns of the newspaper, instead of giving certain parties/candidates prominent pages and relegating others to less prominent pages. “This danger is real as there is already an unfortunate but dominant practice in the state-owned media that is founded on the unstated rule that Government news is invariably the most important news and therefore deserving of front-page or headline news coverage”, observed Mr Akoto Ampaw, legal practitioner and member of the NMC in a presentation at the session. He argued that in an election year, an excessive focus on 'government news' could indirectly make the political playing field highly unequal to the advantage of the party in government and to the detriment of those in opposition.

The guidelines document further cautions the mainstream media to exercise care about the extent to which they re-write wire service stories such as those received from the News Agencies, so as not to change the context and meaning of those stories. It also advises state-owned media to be cautious about taking stories from so called 'citizen journalists' and other on-line sources whose credibility cannot be ascertained. Presenting the guidelines document to workshop participants were Mr. Edward Ameyibor, a former President of the Ghana Journalists Association and Alhaji Haruna Atta, Editor of the Accra Mail and member of the NMC, both of whom represented the committee that drafted the review document.

Matters arising:
There was the notion among some participants that much as these efforts by the NMC are necessary to ensure the prevalence of equity and fair play in the elections, the real issue of concern should rather be the general conduct or performance of the media in its totality. The last minute advertising aspect alone, they maintained, was a rather remote occurrence which did not deserve so much prominence.

Others were also of the view that efforts such as those being embarked upon by the NMC to maintain sanity in the media should rather be directed to the private media, especially the local FM radio stations since they are the worst offenders when it comes to breaches of the GJA code of conduct, and since they are run by personnel most of whom may not have had the benefit of professional training in the field of journalism.

Closely related to the foregoing was the call on the NMC to strengthen its monitoring mechanism in the regions and districts to ensure compliance with the guidelines on electoral reportage by the media in those parts of the country. Mr George Sarpong, Executive Secretary of the NMC indicated that even though monitoring was an important aspect of the exercise, the determining factor was the availability of funds. “As and when the Commission obtains the requisite support we shall set the monitoring mechanism in motion in all the regions.”

Another big issue was the allotting of airtime for political advertising. How can the NMC ensure that the well resourced major political parties do not crowd out the less endowed minority parties in the buying of radio and television airtime or print space, since the media organizations are profit-driven (the highest bidder). Again, Lawyer Akoto Ampaw made an intervention here, and cautioned the State-owned media against the tendency to hide behind the laisez fare principle to perpetrate unfair competition between the haves and have-nots. Rather, they should craft in-house rules that would set reasonable and generally acceptable limits as to how far even the most affluent party can go in buying advertising time/space.

Participants decided that the Commission should come out with standard rules on political advertising that would be binding on all media houses/outlets in the country. It should not just end there, but should be followed with prescribed sanctions against media organisations that would go contrary to laid down regulations.

Equally interesting was the observation that in the editorial departments of state-owned media houses, the staff are divided along political partisan lines. The general position was that journalists who chose to work in the state media were in all circumstances constitutionally and ethically bound to uphold their professional neutrality, and to refrain from allowing their partisanship or political preferences to influence the performance of their official duties. Either that or they resign. On this specific issue, Ambassador Kabral Blay Amihere, NMC Chairman, charged Chief Executives of state-owned media to rise up to the occasion by ensuring that the media under their watch respect their obligations under the Constitution. “They are obliged under their terms of employment to prevent the sliding of the state-owned media into politically partisan mouthpieces”, he said.

The forum also suggested the NMC should arrange a common platform for the media, the various registered political parties and officials of the Electoral Commission, who constitute the major stakeholders in the electoral process. Ambassador Kabral did indicate that the Commission had drawn up a comprehensive programme to hold similar meetings with all stakeholder groups, and to extend its interactive sessions to the regions outside Accra. “It is part of our constitutional mandate to improve upon professionalism and performance of the media nationwide”, he said, adding however that the Commission's ability to fulfill this mandate was subject to the availability of funds. This brought to the fore the issue of resource allocation to the NMC and the need for Government to empower the Commission financially to enable it to live up to the tasks it has been assigned to perform.

The attention of the state-owned media in particular, was also drawn to the critical issue of abuse of incumbency, and the need for journalists to clearly distinguish between genuine, everyday government activities and what might be a ruling party's political campaign under the guise of government business/programmes. It is particularly important for them (State media) not to lose sight of the fact that they do not exist to exclusively serve the parochial interest of the government of the day, but to uphold the supreme interest of the people of Ghana.

This concern becomes even more pertinent when viewed against the background of the European Union Observer Mission Report on the 2008 elections which indicted the state-owned media for failing to abide by their constitutional obligation: “…The state-owned television and radio broadcasters failed to provide equal or equitable coverage of the candidates or their parties in line with constitutional provisions”, said the report, which also blamed the state print media for concentrating much of their coverage on the two major parties (the NDC and NPP) to the disadvantage of the minority political parties.

The private media which are perceived by many as the 'primary suspects' in this whole assignment, do not operate on a separate realm of their own and ought to recognize that they are bound by the spirit and letter of the universal code of ethics of journalism and the basic principle of fairness. They are therefore expected to refrain from showing bias and to extend equal opportunity to all political parties.

Now, consider this question that generated a huge debate on the flour: The Constitution enjoins the state-owned media to accord the President press coverage at all times; and also there is the Electoral Commission's convention which directs that all campaign activities should come to a close 24 hours before voting commences. If on the eve of polls the President of the Republic, who is also flag-bearer of a contesting political party, decides to give a live broadcast to the nation on radio and television, what should the state-owned media do – blackout the President, or uphold what has been prescribed by the Constitution? That is food for thought for all, especially the legal-minded.

All said, it has to be acknowledged that the quest for a free, fair and successful election is a shared responsibility on the part of all stakeholders – the electorate, contesting political parties, the EC and the Fourth Estate. Each has an important role to play, and the seriousness/commitment with which they approach their respective responsibilities would determine the outcome of the poll. Ultimately, it is the duty of every true citizen to ensure that this country wakes up on the morning of December 8, 2012 to a serene and peaceful atmosphere with everyone accepting the outcome of the poll and with whichever candidate/party that loses conceding honourably and in good faith.

“For those of us to whom history has assigned a constitutional duty … it is a collective responsibility in which every stakeholder should play his or her part to ensure a responsible and accountable media and, above all, a free, fair and peaceful election in 2012 and beyond.” – The words of Ambassador Kabral Blay Amihere which also provide an end-note to this piece.

GNA

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