27.05.2004 Feature Article

Checking the Checkers

Checking the Checkers
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Once upon a time, there was a culture of silence in the Republic called Ghana. It petrified the most daring of critics as the fear of 'disappearing under the cover of darkness' loomed larger than life itself thereby ensuring that those whose actions should have been open to public scrutiny had both their way and say without let or hindrance. By dint of the national referendum of April 28, 1992, today we are maturing in our maturity as far as democratic governance is concerned. With three successful elections and smooth handovers, Ghana continues to maintain its credentials as an oasis of stability in a sea of strife, conflict and insecurity.

There is no gainsaying that pluralism would not have been possible without the input of the media. The mushrooming of all sorts of information outlets in both the electronic and print media bears ample testimony to the effort at promoting a meaningful culture that would in turn underpin debate, reinforce accountability and hopefully lead to suggestions for the improvement of the lot of our ever so loving people. Within this context, journalists were expected to play the leading role especially as the drought years of towing the official line had stifled investigative initiative. But have we arrived at the point where we can really assert that journalists are meaningfully contributing to national development?

Who is a Journalist?

This question is a rather sensitive albeit easy one that should have passed without comment. Simply put, a journalist is one trained as such. He/she is provided with the requisite skills, knowledge and capacities to sift through nonsense and inform the broad spectrum of interests within the polity of issues that have contemporary significance. This also includes educating and entertaining the people where possible. The case of Ghana however makes interesting reading when set against the backdrop of the simple definition of who or what a journalist is in this write up. Yours truly takes this position from the fact that with the liberalization of the airwaves in particular and restoration of democratic rule in general, all sorts of people immediately donned the garb of journalists and arrogated to themselves the right to decide who or what mattered for public consumption, never mind that they had little or no training at all for the rather sensitive nature of the profession.

I happened to have been one of those who found themselves doubling as such due to sheer coincidence and perhaps a good command of the national lingua franca and yet, I have always believed that journalism was for journalists so that what people like us were doing was to fill in the gaps till our institutions had produced enough skilled people to take up the jobs for which we always knew we were not adequately prepared. This is why it was truly refreshing for us when people like William Nyarko or Kwaku Sakyi-Addo won the Journalist of the Year title for their professional work as a result of years of honing and skill sharpening in their respective fields (investigative writing and broadcasting respectively) thereby ensuring that those of us "stop-gap" self-imposed journalists either made our ways to the Ghana Institute of Journalism to master the art or simply finding our way out of the increasingly challenging and dangerous terrain for which we were not adequately trained.

An Emerging Danger?

Nevertheless, some of our generation of non-trained media practitioners remained long enough to have gained a semblance of credibility as a result of a number of factors including constant sound bites of their voices, appearances in adverts, some films and other public activities. These self-appointed journalists have neither gone through the motions of apprising themselves of new trends in media practice (and this is not to mention that they still lack knowledge of the basic requirements) and have erroneously thought that educating themselves in other fields such as law, business or attending crash courses makes them journalists. Based upon these and many other self-improvement activities not related in any way to journalism, my dear colleagues have arrogated to themselves the rights to take on and discuss issues for which they have not the faintest idea but still, by virtue of their proximity to the airwaves or print media, they spew allegations and outright garbage couched as the gospel truth to the masses who unfortunately lack the capacity or wherewithal to challenge the veracity of such effusions.

We cannot build a prosperous nation that way. I am aware that many a hard-won reputation has been besmirched by these self-appointed journalists, perhaps out of ignorance but there is a looming danger that political preferences, personal idiosyncrasies and functional literacy may land not just stations and printing houses in trouble but more importantly, underpin national instability. We are all privy to what radio in particular unleashed in Rwanda.

A contributing factor to this emerging danger is the actions of the Ghana Journalist Association (GJA) in recent times by which non-trained journalists have been awarded the prestigious and coveted price for reasons that defy logic. It would be futile at this stage to draw a comparison between the Medical Council awarding the surgeon of the year price to a political economist simply because he/she happens to make the medical profession proud by attracting investments into Korle Bu. I don't think Professors Akosah and Frimpong-Boateng or their esteemed friends would stoop that low. That being stated, the GJA has contributed to the emergence of modern day tin gods who have now arrogated to themselves the right to put into the public domain information that is not thoroughly checked, notwithstanding the fact that some of this information could be a threat to both national cohesion and stability and ultimately damage the attainment of our national goals. In any serious organization, such acts would not be countenanced in any way whatsoever; reputation after all has an integral relationship with credibility so that being in admiration of a person's voice or the style of writing of another cannot be a sound basis for the conferral of the prestigious title. The result of this 'wrongful act' has been none other then a reinforcement of the notion that formal journalistic training is no real requirement for taking up the sensitive job of a practice in the media. If the legal profession is weeding out pretenders who bring legal practice into disrepute, what is stopping the GJA from doing same in their equally important profession?

While at it, the impression that the National Media Commission (NMC) would deal with these lapses appears to be a non-starter because to think that a commission can thoroughly address lapses stemming from a lack of training is perhaps stretching it too far. No one can force radio stations or publishing houses for that matter to employ those they need. In the same vein, it is the sole prerogative of the NMC to ensure that not only standards are maintained as stipulated in Art 167 (b) but more importantly that its quasi-judicial functions are geared towards weeding out elements that make media practice questionable and dangerous as far as the national interest is concerned.

National Interest and Media Practice

National interest is of course a subjective idea depending on what sort of political, economic or social garb a person wears. However, certain common threads run through any such definition as 'the promotion of our collective well being' implies. That being so, it is the duty of the media and by extension journalists to avail the public with informed analysis of both the national interests as may be defined at any point in time and the measures by which they are to be promoted. What is going on presently about the so-called CCNTI loan and the sheer quantum of uninformed garbage being spewed by those who should know better is at best a sad reflection of what journalism should not be. Yes debate must be encouraged to clear all doubts about the implications of doing business with relatively new sources; yes we must hold government accountable for the international agreements it enters into especially since it does that on behalf of us all; yes we must question the credibility of partners and agreements that sound too good to be true in this era of globalization but NO! We must not use up precious time spewing forth such silly allegations about whether the office of the lender is a hencoop or a Penthouse.

Ghanaians have always had this tendency of admiring form so much so that we lose sight of the substance of what is really relevant. Those who run successful businesses these days do not even bother about what size or sort of office they transact business from. Are we not witnesses to people sitting in some secluded corners with a simple internet connection employing and facilitating businesses that produce millions of dollars by the hour? Except of course Ghanaians still want to see the legendary big man in a big office, puffing a life-size cigar and bellowing out orders while holding up an international caller on his state-of-the art mobile phone. From such people, we would not care two hoots if they bring us a loan of $50; after all, his cigar lighter alone could easily pay the fees of a JSS pupil for a year. No wonder some people want to be presidents in this beloved country of ours just because they can flaunt some loose change to the admiration of those who should know better.

With the increasing level of global interaction and the speed with which hot money flows around the world today, little attention is paid to the establishment of plush and grandiose offices as used to be the case in the past. In fact the serious business entities prefer a rather modest office with a very small staff: why else are all these adverts filled with "the applicant must be prepared to work long hours with little or no supervision and be prepared to move across borders at short notice?" International finance does not mark time in cedi house type of structures waiting for developing countries like Ghana to come and check the furnishings in their waiting lounges before appending their sovereign seals to agreements. The media must not fuel these decrepit notions when our developmental efforts stand to falter by our procrastinatory attitudes fueled by nothing else than gargantuan misunderstandings of how global finance emerges, where it transits and in which place it chooses to make a berthing.

Possible Solutions

The above is not to detract from the fact that there are legitimate questions to be asked about the sources of some of the loans developing countries like ours attempt to access. However, the idea that our only credible sources are the same Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank & IMF) defeats our purpose and undermines our national aspirations based on the fact that we are the same people who complain about the stringent and heart-wrenching conditionalities they attached to the very paltry sums they send our way. If they are the very people causing job losses and the like as my social-democratic friends are wont to say, why on earth should we not diversify and seek alternative sources of funding? Are we having these problems because Ghana (and for that matter the NPP government) is about to do something rare in the history of developing countries as far as raising development funds are concerned? Are there interests, both national and external that are scheming to prevent the provision of the loan because it would cut off their 'source of bread and butter' and simultaneously give the sovereign Republic of Ghana the ability to present a development program based on local initiative and not at the behest of those interests? Who is worried about our increasingly friendly ties with China and Chinese business especially when construction and other sectors are experiencing a massive boost through our association with Chinese interests?

Those who have access to the dissemination of information, be they trained or untrained media practitioners would do themselves and the nation a lot of good if they focus on these issues and redirect the debate about our development effort from issues relating to form to one of substance. It is not the intention of yours truly to pontificate about the need to educate oneself in journalism; that is a matter of individual choice and initiative and whether one likes it or not, the time is surely drawing near when those lacking training would be found really wanting, what with a new breed of intellectually endowed people breaking new grounds in all fields of human endeavour. Even my good friend Akora Sakyi-Addo with all his experience and training in the best of journalistic institutions worldwide had the rather unpleasant experience of having the late K.N Arkaah answer his question with another {sic} "can't you ask me anything better than that"! I shudder to think what some people would respond to that if and when a George Soros rambles on about investment in Ghana or why people are interested in how his office looks like when signing cheques for the Soros Foundation. Perhaps he would deftly ask us the questioner to direct such questions to the cigar puffing braggadocios doubling as journalists and presidential aspirants in contemporary Ghana!

All is not lost though as I am aware that there is a group of economic journalists or reporters working assiduously in these fields. Perhaps their remit could be broadened and experiences of the likes of Lloyd Evans shared with up and coming prospects. This would go a long way in infusing a sense of direction and hopefully underpin informed debates about matters relating to the sourcing of funds for development and the challenges faced by developing states as far as these issues are concerned. Playing to the gallery by repeatedly churning out speculative outbursts that do nothing but massage the petit egos of those lacking in depth knowledge of global finance does the ultimate harm of reinforcing the impression that a state of knowledgeable people like Ghana still does not know how to operate within the parameters of globalization. That, I submit, is a worrisome development that must be confronted in an uncompromising and resolute way if we are to benefit from global flows and alternative sources of funding, at least to complement the pitiful sums flung at us from the so-called plush offices across the 19th Street, NW here in Washington DC. It may be our only way towards regaining the loss of sovereignty that has been so deftly inserted in the conditionality clauses attached to the loans taken from the Bretton Woods institutions and which have interestingly enough been quietly overlooked in the interests of?...Your guess is as good as mine!

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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