06.08.2003 Feature Article

Who makes the news in a democracy?

Who makes the news in a democracy?
06.08.2003 LISTEN

Is it the government, the opposition or the press? The role of the media in an emerging democracy has been topical in recent months. The debates have been interesting. Some newspaper editors have been accused of making the headlines in the news with exaggerations, under-researched stories and blatant gossip items. When these unsubstantiated stories and stories without solid foundation have concerned government politicians and officials, the press has been accused of mischief and not looking after the national interest.

The moralist argument has been about the need for the press to be responsible and professional in the way they carry out their duties. Some purists have gone as far as to say that the press must not only be accredited, but that a professional standard, achieved only after long years of training, must be set, before a professional journalist must be permitted to ply their trade.

One would normally expect the press to check and recheck a story and even offer the subject of 'interesting news' an opportunity for rebuttal before publication, but the press would not really be able to check every story, and minor exaggerations such as my being described as a CPP stalwart in London, which is I am not, will continue especially if no malice is imputed.

Some of the stories though may cast the nation in bad light and may be intended to either discredit the government or sow seeds of discord amongst Ghanaians.

In an emerging democracy the role of the press is so important that it is difficult to determine whether they are being responsible or not just by the stories they publish that may prove to be inaccurate. The major problem remains, who determines what is in the national interest? The press cannot be expected to be objective and highlight the similarities between the parties rather than the differences. We do not wish for a government of national unity, we want an opposition that has bite and takes seriously its duty to criticise whatever the government in power does. But the opposition is also expected to show to the people real alternative opportunities that are available to our nation.

The whole point about our democracy is that the opposition needs to point out how they can deliver better governance to the people and the more they can differentiate themselves from this failing government, the better it will be for democracy.

The more the opposition makes the news the better it will be for the deepening of democracy that this government claims it wants. Most governments are happy when the newspapers are full of praise for them, but the responsibility of the press is not to be the propaganda machinery of the government. The press needs to be subjective and develop their own view point; that is what the people want and that is what the people deserve in a democracy.

The press may sometimes be offensive, but so long as the good sedition and libel laws that we have in Ghana are not infringed, it is unlikely that the press will do much harm.

There are many reasons why people will set up newspapers or operate in the media. For some it may be to further a political interest, for others it may be the search for truth or to inform the readership. The media will however always reflect the sentiments and the views of its readership and not the other way round. Any newspaper that continues to push dud stories will soon find that their circulation will fall and their readership will desert them.

The owners of the press are after all in business to make money and will not unduly seek to tow a line that their readers detest. The Ghanaian press has come a very long way since the days when the government had a tight control over the state press and when there were fewer private publications informing the people.

The Ghanaian press has made a greater contribution to democracy than the present government wants to give them credit for. I remember that in the early nineties, during the military regime, it was the press that, in the absence of any opposition, represented the people and mounted campaign after campaign of opposition against the government. This is the same press that agitated for a civilian regime, and started exposing the abuses of the military regime.

This is the same press that suffered under the now dismantled draconian laws against the freedom of the press. This is the same press that at great pain of suffering from the military government stood firm. A mentor of mine pointed out to me in the early nineties that in the absence of an organised opposition, the press had a duty to be irresponsible because they represented the last safeguard of public will. So what has changed now? Little has really changed in the way that the press has conducted itself. If anything at all they are now a lot more responsible than in those days of the early nineties when there was a great need to break the culture of silence.

But what has changed is that we now have a government and an opposition that are not making the news. This government that promised us good governance, to date this remains only talk and we are yet to see the manifestation into policies. Instead of independent judicial enquiries into allegations of corruption and abuse of office, we are only given enquiries that are bound to whitewash these issues. We have been presented with a circus of a National Reconciliation Commission that is getting more ridiculous as events continue.

We are told that the president is a listening president, but maybe he is only listening to the people around him and not to the country as a whole. The press and the people may come to believe that Zero Tolerance now means turning a blind eye when the miscreant is from your own party.

We are also told that there is going to be an Office of Accountability, accountable to the president. We all wait eagerly to see whether this office will be any more effective at rooting out corruption in our system. The government leads on slogans - Golden Age of Business, Minister for the Beautification of the Capital City, Office of Accountability; Homecoming Summit and Skills Banks, all these sound nice on paper but frankly slogans are not what we need in Ghana now. We have had slogans galore in days of old; Work and Happiness; Operation Feed Yourself and so on and so forth. These have not worked.

The government thinks it can work better by creating new structures, but structures without substance is of no effect in a developing country such as ours. New State Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Special Assistants, advisers with ill-defined roles will only make adverse news and give the impression that the government does not know what it wants to do.

Chasing money for the sheer sake of it, whether it is bad or dubious money, borrowed money, selling off the national assets or begged for, is not the way make positive news.

The government has even started infecting our chiefs and traditional authorities with the disease of begging from foreigners and yet the government wants to clear beggars from our streets.

Presidential initiatives and rehabilitation of old industries set up by the vision of the CPP, will also not work. They will be seen as attempts to create jobs for the boys and girls or as exploitation of labour and yet is the same phalange that criticise the Workers Brigade.

Sadly the government is not making the news and this is a real shame because this is a government that prides itself with having the most effective communicators and spokespersons. Could it be that what the government is saying is that uninspiring? But if the government is failing to make the news, the opposition is even faring worse.

The opposition has lost its focus. Those who have defected to the winning side have already done so and are contemplating their future. There are others who continue to hang on to the politics of the past. Talking about the great past when they did things that they felt benefited the people. These good things were however overshadowed by the bad things that they did so the people no longer find them credible.

Instead of new policies that will propel the nation into a first class economy all we hear from the opposition is talk about who is in what camp, squabbles about who will lead and who must follow, an obsession with what they felt were their achievements and a misguided focus on what they think the nation wants - uncalled for showmanship.

The opportunity for the transformation of the main opposition party into a party that would roll out policies has been sacrificed on the altar of personality politics. For some reason the opposition does not realise that politics is not only about parties and personalities, but it is about principles, philosophies, policies, promotion and propaganda. Whilst they focus their attention on their personalities we are left in the dark about their policies.

So the responsibility for making the news has now fallen to our newspapers. If the government attempts too hard to whip them inline, it is democracy that will suffer. Even the mere talk of responsible journalism raises the spectre of an attempt to muzzle the press.

But I have every confidence in the present government that we will not see the day again when journalist are afraid for their livelihood and for their lives.

A free press has always been a prerequisite for a thriving democracy. In the case of Ghana, a free press has helped to usher in real democracy, it must be left alone to help maintain, deepen and sustain democracy. The press must be applauded and not condemned, we can afford to turn a blind eye to their exaggerations and their sensationalism; it is the salt of journalism. Ade Sawyerr (London) is a management consultant. He focuses on enterprise, community development, and employment strategies for ethnic minority people in the UK. He passes occasional comment on developmental issues in Africa and can be reached at [email protected] Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.