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26.03.2012 Feature Article

Can the Ghanaian media ever be fair and balanced?

Can the Ghanaian media ever be fair and balanced?
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The fundamental question all journalists and non-journalists should be asking following the boycott of the NDC government to appear on the multi-media plat-forms is “can the Ghanaian media ever be FAIR and BALANCED”?

Thus, boycotting Joy FM and its affiliates, the government catalogued a string of incident laden biases culminating its decision to stay away from all media networks operating on the banner of the multi-media company in what it viewed as bias and unprofessional on the part of journalists.

As it is expected, the government's decision attracted a lot of public discussions and a large majority of people including media watchers, media practitioners, lawyers, politicians and civil society organizations criticized the govt for taking such an undemocratic action and trying to return the country to dark days when the clamp-down on the press was the order of the day-----dissenting views were not countenanced at all.

In joining the chorus to criticize the NDC govt's action, Mr. Kojo Asante, Programme Officer of Centre for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) seemed to have a strong word for the govt on its directive to cease any interaction with multi-media group and described it illegal, strange and undemocratic.

Prof Kwame Karikari, Executive Director of Media Foundation for West Africa described the govt's position as a mark of intolerance, dangerous and embarrassing to govt and Ghanaians at large. Among other things, he said that the govt action also undermines perception that Ghana has free press.

A private legal practitioner, Kwame Akuffo, also described the govt decision as the one crippled at birth. He said that singling out multi-media journalists as gate crashers contravenes the constitutional provision of equal access to information. He quoted articles 12 to 33/5 of the fourth republican constitution to buttress his assertion.

Speaking on Peace FM “Kokrokoo”, Randy Abbey, host of Metro'sTV Good Morning Ghana Programme, minced no words in chiding the govt's action, contending that the multi-media group has been relatively fair to the NDC govt. he cited programmes such as Enkosi sen on Asempa FM and Majoity Caucus on Multi-TV in which the NDC govt has benefited tremendously in propagating its better Ghana agenda.

Mr. Andrew Awuni, the former presidential spokesperson in the then kufour led-administration, speaking on the Citi FM maintained that while counseling the govt to reconsider its action, the govt directive is in direct conflict of what is stipulated in the country's constitution. “It is against the letter and spirit of our constitution and other legislations including the Right to Information Bill,” he stressed.

The last but not least, the flagbearer of the new patriotic party(NPP) , Nana Akufo-Addo, is quoted as saying that the govt decision is a astonishing development and a clear contravention of freedom of speech.

All these sentiments expressed by all meaning Ghanaians are quite understandable, considering the turbulent time the Ghanaian media underwent, especially during the post-independence and military rule. That was in the days when media was the under control of the state and under the influence of the powers-that-be, the state media always skewed its news contents to favour the govt policies and programmes.

Even the founder of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who was one time aficionado of free press, fell out with the media when he instituted draconian (anti-press) laws to stifle free speech and by extension the media from the opposition quarter.

From the country's media history, it has been apparently clear that the posture of the (state) media is largely determined by the government of the day.

I may be too young by then but I can remember the days of Rawlings' Revolution: suppressive terrain of the media practice, inhumane treatment of media practitioners including publishers and journalists were well-documented.

Despite the oppressive landscape that existed for the print media to operate, some newspapers—the free press, the observer, the insight, the chronicles etc ---I can not recall all but a few----defied the odds, offering alternative platforms for Ghanaians to ventilate their opinions and views on issues affecting the country.

The observer newspaper in particular was published by a Ghanaian living abroad and was, therefore, seen as a dissident paper because of its editorial views, hitting hard on the then rawlings'smilitary junta. It was a miracle that however hard the Rawlings regime tried to crack down on the paper, it was unsuccessful. And yet the each edition of paper was smuggled into the country. At a point, the distributors and vendors had to sell the newspaper under the cover of darkness -----it was not sold in the open.

This paper and others were not in the good book of the PNDC regime. Every now and then, there was a complete clamp-down on media houses and for that matter journalists' lives came under a threat for their editorial views and comments. In fact, journalists were penalized, punished and above all jailed for doing their job.

It is worth noting that the unfettered free press being enjoyed by all sections of Ghanaian society today is due to the sacrifices made by Messers John Kugbenu, Tommy Thompson, Eben Quainoo and others---I can not mention all those who once blazed a rail in the field of journalism in the country.

Not forgetting Kwesi Pratt Jnr., Kweku Baako and Haruna-Atta whose indefatigable campaign for press freedom and civil rights of Ghanaians succeeded in no small measure in expanding the frontiers of the Ghanaian media.

For Kwesi Pratt Jnr., his journalistic do-and–die approach tended to incur wrath and displeasure of the PNDC govt and he had been thrown into prisons more than any other journalist because of what he strongly believed in and even defended to the point of death. As his stock in trade, he always ventured into forbidden areas most journalists feared going into in the first place.

As for Kweku Baako and Haruna-Atta, they were punished for publishing a defamatory material, in the eye of the law---intended to impugn the reputation of the first lady, Mrs Rawlings. So the criminal libel law found them guilty and they were thrown into jail, Akuse and Nsawam prisons, for umpteen months.

Obviously, the character of the media did not change much, even in the constitutional rule. As it is said, the repressive govt begets repressive press. It was kept alive with the constant gagging of the press houses and dissenting voices but it came in different shapes and colours. In what is known in the Ghanaian media terminology,”the era of shitism” where press houses were smashed with human excreta by the hirelings (agents) of the govt, but the press still remained as solid as a rock of gladiator.

These horrific incidents and many others were done to the press with the intention to muzzling the free speech of expression.

With this snippet of background information concerning the country's chequered media past, one would appreciate the kind of public hue and cry that has greeted the govt boycott of the multi-media platforms in the proper context.

Back to the earlier question: Can the Ghanaian media ever be fair and balanced? Before I proceed further to share my point of view on that, let us look at the rules of the game. Journalist profession of all professions has a code of ethics by which it must be guided in the line of its sacred duty. Ghana Journalists Association (GJA)'s professional code of ethics: Article 1(People's Right to True Information) clearly spells out,” the duty of every journalist to write and report the truth, bearing in mind his /her duty to serve the public. The public have the right to unbiased, accurate, balanced and comprehensive information as well as express themselves through the media.” Let mark out the operative words as far as the right to information is concerned. Unbiased, accurate, balanced and comprehensive. These words are nice adjectives and yet are relative. Giving an opportunity to listen to both sides of the story can be said to be balanced. But giving one party more air time to speak to an issue than the other party can not be said to be balanced but unfair in the true sense of the word! For me, there is nothing like fair coverage of an event as far as the journalists and their media houses are concerned. Take journalists for example, they are influenced by a number of factors including educational qualifications, life experiences, personal prejudices, environment, lifestyles, social, economic and political standing and others when it comes to writing or creating report or news.

For instance, journalists may be wake from the wrong side of their bed, believe it or not, this may affect him /her by the way and manner he/she goes about collecting and disseminating information to the public. Yes, someone may argue that it is unprofessional on the part of journalists to allow their domestic issues to influence their work. And you are 100 % right! Though professionally, he/she is not supposed to do so, the human aspect can not be ruled out entirely. It is natural! It is inevitable!

I concur that journalists may try as much as possible to remain unaffected by the happenings around them, but there is an iota of prejudice (human element) that he/she can not do anything about.

Journalists are not super beings. They are human beings and, therefore, have strengths and weaknesses like any other homo sapiens. They also live in the society and report whatever goes on there. Another example is, there is an outbreak of strange disease at the children block of the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital and two reporters are assigned by different media houses to cover the story, a number of factors or a combination of factors will come into play depending on the angle each reporter decides to take the story from. If one reporter whose relation or friend once lost his ward at the hospital would influence the contents of his report/news more than the other without such an experience to report, such is one of the challenges journalists face in their chosen profession.

It is true that journalists and press houses may come close to achieving accurate, balanced and comprehensive coverage of news but with unbiased report/news, it is extremely difficult to arrive at. Fairness is not absolute. What is fair to one person may not necessarily be fair to other person. No matter how hard a journalist endeavours to be fair, there will be a tinge of bias in the story he or she covers. Take Ghanaian newspapers today, one does not need to be told that which ones are pro-govt and which ones are anti-govt.

So long as journalists are confronted with their personal biases and their work is also influenced by what is called in-house style or policy, there is nothing called unbiased report/news. So long as journalists shed off their neutral scales and quickly adopt to the ideology of media owners and operators , there is nothing like unbiased report/news. So long as the media houses select news content, choice of words and others to suit their editorial policies, there is nothing called unbiased report/news.

To conclude, it is high time the government appointees and communication team learnt that every report/news contains some modicum of bias in it. There is nothing like unbiased report/ news and they will never get it, for it only exists in books.

George Oko Mensah
George Oko Mensah, © 2012

The author has 9 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: GeorgeOkoMensah

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