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07.08.2020 Feature Article

Morality And Law In The Practice Of Journalism: A Relook At Ethnocentric Atavism In Ghana

Morality And Law In The Practice Of Journalism: A Relook At Ethnocentric Atavism In Ghana
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Journalism is a great profession. It is the profession that connects the other organs of government – the legislature, judiciary, and executive. This is precisely because journalists do one of the things that make us human – our possession of intelligible vocal power.

When we communicate, people get to know about it because of journalists. Communication is so important in all human societies, as they all began as oral societies. Without communication, ideas would not be birthed, there will be no invention, and there will be no governance.

The importance of communication is central to defining our sociality. This is why people who hardly talk (no disrespect to persons with some form of disability) are considered the ugliest, even if they possess charming aesthetic qualities. The Baganda of Uganda says that “An ugly, talkative person, is better than a beautiful person who is reserved.”

Among the Akan of Ghana and other ethnic groups, persons who are always silent are dreaded. This is because it is assumed they could be harbouring evil thought. It is also because if one has good thoughts, why is one then quiet? It is based on this that the Akan say that one’s head is full of darkness if one does not speak.

As human societies advance in culture and governance, it becomes imperative to have channels that communicate rules and regulations. It is also important to pass on information about governmentality to citizens.

In pre-industrial societies, different approaches were used to communicate. These included symbols, music, drums, proverbs, and arts. Through these channels, information was circulated to the governed. It also ensured that a two-way communication model was established between the rulers and the ruled.

In addition to all this, some societies had a special person trained to broadcast power. Among the Akan and other groups, these persons were called akyeame. Different etymologies have been deployed to explain the word. This includes the expression “okyea asem no ma no men” to wit, “he is able to refine the statement to satisfy the ear.”

This precisely because it is clear that the akyeame were responsible for refining the language of communication (speech) between the rulers and the ruled. In some cases, the akyeame had additional function which was to shield the ruler from malevolent spirits.

In our modern governance, we have individuals – men and women – who are trained to do a sort of work similar to the akyeame. These are journalists. They are responsible for writing and reporting. Like the akyeame, through their work as reporters and writers, journalists help in the broadcasting of power and dissemination of information.

Given the central role journalists play in shaping governance, by mediating the interactions between the political elites and citizens, journalists are usually the subject of attack by dictators. Dictators mostly do have surreptitious approaches to “cowing” journalists into submission. As a sequel to this, they resort to the brutality of persons and criminalisation of journalists (free speech).

The world has a tall list of records of dictators who destroyed lives and barred all forms of opposition. But because journalists usually stand in the way of dictators, they become the object of attacks. In Ghana, we have witnessed many instances where some political elites sought to gag the rights of journalists.

Ghana had a criminal libel, which was considered anachronistic to modern journalism, embedded in freedom of expression. The law seen as inimical to press freedom sat in a long history of the colonial administrators seeking to limit freedom of expression. The colonial government’s efforts at controlling freedom of expression was consolidated in the first Criminal Code in 1892, which was subsequently amended in 1934.

Fortunately, in 2001, the government of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), under the leadership of H.E. John Agyekum Kufuor repealed that law. This gave journalists a significant freedom to practice their profession. It also significantly freed the National Media Commission, an independent body insulated from government interference. More specifically, it freed journalists from needless censorship.

But the repealing of the criminal libel law does not necessarily translate into effective freedom for journalists. In many cases, the regimes of the NPP and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) have seen some retrogression in granting freedom of expression to journalists.

This notwithstanding, some of us have concerns about the manner some journalists go about with their duties. We struggle to understand why some journalists are not able to blend morality and law in the performance of their duty.

Journalists are expected to report and write about issues without recourse to fear or favour. They are also to enforce objectivity, as they repudiate favouritism. While this is not always the case, due to the existential reality of confirmation biases, journalists are to ensure some degree of fairness in their duty.

But it appears as if most of our journalists straddle law and morality. On the one hand, they are required by their ethics of their profession (law) to report the case as it is. But they are also to apply their conscience to find out whether what the law requires them to do will serve the interest of Ghana. This is particularly crucial, especially at a time when some form of “primitive” ethnocentrism is threatening our fragile national unity and democracy.

There is a longstanding debate over the correlation between law and morality. This debates morphed into what is known in legal studies as the Hart-Fuller debate. Hart argued that laws are no more than what societies formally promulgate. He, therefore, separated morality from law. Fuller, on the other hand, argued that laws must conform to fundamental principles embodied by natural law.

Can law and morality be fused as one? Should an individual be governed by the law or morality, or both? Can one have a moral justification to disobey a law? What should govern the life of an individual - law or morality? This debate has tested the minds of legal philosophers for decades.

But the two eminent scholars, Hart and Fuller, have made important statements that are worthy of consideration. Hart observed that, “law may be law but too evil to be obeyed.” Fuller also observed that “If law is not fused with morality it ‘may become dangerous’.” These two statements signify the need to have a balance between law and morality, framed around one’s agency.

In resolving the perceived incompatibility between law and morality, Harold J. Berman in Justice Law and argument, observed that traditionally, studies dedicated to the relations between law and morality insisted, from a Kantian orientation, upon the following distinctions: “law governs external behaviour, morality emphasizes intention law establishes a correction between rights and obligations, morality prescribes duties which do not bring forth subjective right; law establishes obligations sanctioned by power, morality escapes organized sanctions.”

While the distinction between law and morality could be arid, I argue that the two are the same, but looked at from different perspectives. Morality is believed to hinge on God, whereas (positive) law is based on society's invention. Broadly, the debate is over God – theocentric and man – anthropocentric as the sources of morality and law, respectively.

The same debate animated the discussion in African philosophy over the source of morality: is it religion? Society? Conscience? It is difficult to rigidly separate the three sources of morality. This is because religion – if we broadly define it to include atheism – is encompassing. Historically, religion and politics had often been fused together until the nineteenth century.

I, therefore, argue that whether law or morality, they are all shaped by values and beliefs that a group of people share. For example, there may be a law permitting abortion or proscribing it. But that law is based on the worldviews of a group people over the source of life and when life begins. Either way, law and morals are united in the fact that they are informed by beliefs and values. Separating the two is to obfuscate the importance of beliefs and worldviews in shaping law.

Extrapolating this to the discussion on law, morality and journalism, I struggle to understand how some of our journalists operate. Some of them, in the name of following the law or ethics of their professions, report all cases as it is. According to these journalists, it is not their responsibility to refine the words of the people they are reporting.

It is here that I sincerely think journalists must apply morality. In the Akan idiom, it is said that “it is a wise person who is sent on an errand to deliver information, not a person with long legs." This proverb indicates that it is not just about reporting, but wisely reporting a piece of news.

There are many instances where some journalists have failed to apply morality to their profession. But in the of ethnocentric atavism, I will limit myself to Kobina Tahir Hammond’s alleged comment on ethnocentrism. In June-July 2020, K.T. Hammond, the New Patriotic Party Member of Parliament (MP), representing Adansi-Asokwa constituency of the Ashanti Region of Ghana, was reported to have questioned the citizenship of some of the people of the Volta Region.

By all standards, everyone knows that reporting such a case, even if it is true, had/has the potential of ruining the peace of Ghana – the collective good. This is because the timing of the report was wrong. Not only that, the journalist did not do due diligence before publishing his story. As Ghana was thrown into a near pandemonium state, following the publishing of the news, I asked myself: couldn't the journalist have applied morality to his work?

Definitely, as a journalist, your job is to report it as it is. But if "as it is" is detrimental to nation-building, a journalist is expected to apply morality. This is precisely because the law may necessitate the reportage of such a piece of news, but is it moral? This question is imperative because the law deals with general issues while morality deals with specific issues.

In other words, the law may not answer every question about what one should do or say at every moment, but morality could be so detailed that one is forced to personalise the implication of one’s action. For example, in reporting on K.T. Hammond’s alleged ethnocentric comment, the journalist could have asked himself, “Is it moral for me to report the story?” instead of “Is it lawful to report it?”

With such questions in mind, a journalist would look beyond the law to immerse himself in the moral implications of his action. This means that while it may be lawful to report the comment by the MP, such an act could be too evil to do, since it may lead to greater harm. It would have also brought out the agency that the journalist is a human being with a conscience.

From this perspective, the question then would be: “was it lawful and professional for the journalist to report the alleged comment?” the answer is yes. But was it moral? The answer is no. To answer this question on the part of a journalist, he could move away from the law, which generalises to engage morality which individualises.

So, instead of asking the question “what shall we do?” to reflect the profession of journalism, he could have asked himself, “what shall I do?” This would have compelled the journalist to look beyond the law to carefully weigh the implication of his reportage.

It is against the fact that we straddle law and morality daily that the Apostle Paul rightly made the following important statement about law and morality. He framed this as follows: "Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible, but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (I Corinthians 10:23-24).

Paul's observation clearly articulates the Christian view of human beings. In Christianity, human beings are neither gods nor animals. They are created, moral beings with an agency that is expressed in responsibility and duties. Individuals are expected to critically reflect on their actions, whether there is a law permitting it or prohibiting it. The law may permit what is morally reprehensible.

The individual is to personalise all issues. This implies that while the law may sanction a practice, the individual should weigh it against his agency and moral conscience. This is precisely because the law is not neutral. The law reflects the moral views of the elite. The law is a codification of the moral views of a group of people. This makes it imperative for individuals to weigh the law against their personal values.

More critical is Paul’s categorical statement that, “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others” (I Corinthians 10:24). This statement is significant for human society. This means that since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), every human being is selfish. The idea of altruism for the sake of it or “do good for the sake of it” is simply idealistic.

In the real sense of life, every human being acts on selfishness. This is not to say that selfishness is entirely bad. In fact, from the perspective of evolution, organisms survive because of selfishness, not altruism. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is based on the idea that it is selfishness (not strength) that keeps a certain race from extinction, not altruism.

It is, therefore, true that in life, we all put ourselves at the centre when we are saying something, acting or deciding. Whether in politics, business, family life (marriage) or religious activities, we are usually driven by selfishness. So, a journalist may be moved by his own selfishness to report or not to report a case. The reason may be fame, wealth, and public acceptance.

Even so, it is the larger dangers associated with selfishness that Paul informs us that we should go beyond the boundaries of the law to do good. This, as I have said, is because the law itself is based on the values of the elite. Marxist legal scholars argue, for example, that the law is always meant to serve the interest of the bourgeoises, not the proletariat.

Journalists should, therefore, always allow their moral values to judge their profession, not necessarily the law governing their profession. This, as I have said, is because journalism is central to all forms of governance. Their duty helps in the democratisation of all human societies since the relay information that is critical for governance.

It is based on this that I relate the work of a journalist to the akyeame. The akyeame are expected to report as it is. But they are to apply morality. If someone says something that is very offensive and can lead to unrest, it is the duty of the akyeame to refine the statement without violating the core of the message.

This is always difficult, but it is the reason akyeame office is not passed on biologically. Persons who are akyeame must demonstrate rare wisdom and proficiency in language and cultural nuances before they are offered the office. This is because their statements could make or unmake the peace of society. It is also to say that both the akyeame and journalists overlap with the public enactment of power.

In all this, do I seek to exonerate the alleged ethnocentric comment? Certainly, no. Instead, I am emphasising the role of the journalist in walking the tightrope of law and morality. Since the journalist broadcasts power, the duty is on the him/her to exercise a moral conscience in what is reported.

To end, let me restate that morality constitutes the linchpin of all human relations and the exercise of volition. This is to the extent that the late Kwame Gyekye, one of the eminent Ghanaian professors of philosophy, observed that among the Akan when one does anything untoward, it was one’s conscience that was appealed to not the law or religion. This is roughly framed as follows: “So, given what you have done, how does your conscience speak to you?”

As human beings with some degree of agency, we should, therefore, allow our moral conscience to guide us. If you are a Christian journalist or communicator, always ask yourself in the course of duty, “Does reporting this story glorify the Lord?” (cf. I Corinthians 10:31).


Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra

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