The avowed aim of Ghanaian journalists to
accomplish their role as the Fourth Estate of the Realm is in keeping with
their zeal to ensure the survival of democratic rule in Ghana.
In fact, battle of media practitioners to assert themselves as key players in the political and socio-economic development of this country is as old as colonial rule.
With the advent of multi-party democracy in 1992 and a change in the media landscape, the media's efforts at advancing Ghana's infant democracy in addition to their traditional role of informing, educating and entertaining the people have been overwhelming.
The proliferation of radio stations, in particular, some of which broadcast in local Ghanaian languages is making a significant impact on participatory democracy, especially in the cities and urban communities.
In spite of these tremendous strides, the work of journalists has come under serious scrutiny and become a subject of varied comments.
It is needless to state that the media is a human institution and is fallible and therefore its practitioners cannot dodge the issue of responsibility and accountability.
In an effort to counter these criticisms and live up to the challenges of our time, there is the need for Ghanaian journalists to constantly upgrade themselves by expanding their scope of knowledge and getting exposed to international programmes. This way, they would be able to broaden their frontiers of experience and be equipped with modern journalistic tools.
The media are obliged to discharge their duties without infringing upon
the rights of the citizenry, and to improve their responses to disasters, emergencies and avoid over-sensationalism, censorship and bias.
The media are also expected to shift from over-indulgence in political issues and focus more on health care, the environment, international trade
and labour, conflict resolution, social vices, crime, youth unemployment and other topical issues.
James Wofensohn, former President of the World Bank, in a speech to the World Press Freedom Committee in Washington, D.C. in 1999, indicated his expectations of the media.
“A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute care of equitable development because if you cannot extricate poor people, if they do not have the right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.”
The 1992 Constitution of Ghana and the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law guarantee media freedom and therefore journalists have the duty to exercise this freedom with responsibility, even though one cannot completely rule out errors and excesses from time to time.
The Ghanaian media, especially the television (TV) stations, are being criticized for corrupting the conscience of the people by portraying obscenity, pornography, violence, and crime.
The media are also grappling with complaints of intrusion into people's privacy, libel, slander, omissions or commissions, outrageous behaviour and unprofessional conduct.
At times, in an attempt to be first to break news, the media make mistakes, violating the rights of individuals. But Walter Isaacson, Managing Editor of Time Magazine, once cautioned journalists: “In the end, you are going to be judged on whether you got it right, not just on whether you got it first...”
The Ghanaian media would also have to overcome the problems of lack of logistics support, low job satisfaction, and poor relationship between them and their employers. There is also the other problem of mistrust among journalists themselves, particularly between private and public media, as well as between journalists and the public.
But equally important is the need for journalists to abide by their code
of ethics which enjoins them to uphold high professional standards and avoid needless confrontation, legal and costly battles with the public.
The Australian Council of Professions provides a guide to what is expected of professionals, including journalists.
The Council states: “A profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and uphold themselves to, and are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognized body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to exercise this knowledge and these skills in the interest of others.”
The Council's input would perhaps help in determining who a journalist is in this country, an issue that has long been lingering in the minds of some concerned Ghanaians.
As part of a growing trend in the developing world, media organizations or councils are encouraging responsible journalism that must go in tandem with press freedom.
Ghana has not been left out in this arrangement. The Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) constitutes the main umbrella organisation representing journalists in both the private and state-owned media.
The GJA has adopted a code of ethics for journalists to promote professionalism and accountability and therefore enjoins journalists to ensure accuracy, fairness, and objectivity in the discharge of their duties.
The National Media Commission (NMC) is charged to promote and ensure the freedom and independence of the media of mass communication to insulate the media against undue governmental control or intervention.
The commission investigates complaints and settles disputes between complainants and journalists but, unfortunately, it has no power to enforce its decisions or orders.
Its actions are thus limited to recommending retraction of stories and publications of rejoinders or apologies to victims of media attacks.
Obviously, there exist bodies and measures to regulate the activities of the media. But they would have to strengthen their self-censorship or control mechanisms to ensure conformity to high journalistic standards.
Ghana can learn a few lessons from other countries that have more effective self-regulatory mechanisms for the media.
One of the most liberal examples of media self-regulation is South Africa which set up a system in 1997, based on the Swedish model, the oldest and one of the most respected in Europe.
The media self-regulation in that country consists of a press ombudsman and an appeal panel set up in 1997 by journalists and publishers associations.
The panel is composed of publishers, journalists and members of the public who are in the majority and funded by the newspaper publishers associations.
Its powers are limited to publishing reprimands and corrections which the ombudsman or the panel considers necessary. Complaints against the press are made first with the ombudsman who will try to settle the matter.
If this fails, the complaint becomes a formal one and the complainant can appeal against the ombudsman's decision to an appeals panel. At each stage, discussions between the conflicting parties are held.
South Africa also has the Broadcasting Monitoring and Complaints Committee made up of four members from the legal profession and the media chaired by a working or retired judge.
The committee reports to the independent Broadcasting Authority, an audiovisual regulatory body set up by law in 1993.
The law provides for rectifications (broadcast on radio and TV), paid for by the guilty party, injunction, fines and temporary or permanent revocation of broadcasting licenses.
The committee examines violations of the codes of conduct for news and advertising which are part of the law and also violations of the terms of the license-holders contracts.
The Broadcasting Complaints Commission, set up in 1993 by the National Broadcasters Association, is an independent regulatory body grouping private and community radio stations as well as South Africa Broadcasting Corporation, the public service media entity. Its powers are limited to publication of its decisions.
It receives complaints from the public about violations of radio and television codes of conduct it has drawn up and resorts to mediation before giving its verdict.
One of the legacies Ghana inherited from British colonial rule is a vibrant media. It would, therefore, be easy for the Ghanaian media to adopt innovative practices of the British media.
The British media has established the Editors' Code of Practice to assist in enhancing and reinforcing British's system of self-regulation of the press.
The code designed for journalists and students and the public contains case-law of Press Complaints Committee which has since 1991 adjudicated in alleged breaches of the code and serves as a guide to media practitioners.
A spotlight on the Ghanaian media portrays their role as a counterbalancing force to either retard or advance the progress of individuals, communities and the country
Certainly, the Ghanaian media, despite a few setbacks, are gradually evolving as a formidable partner with civil society and the various arms of government to build a strong, democratic and viable nation.
Feature: By Clemence Okumah