These are defining moments for the media in Ghana. In a crucial election season littered with violence, hate speech and political vitriol, the media's capacity to take the commanding heights in the shaping of public discourse as we approach the December 7 polls would go a long way to salvage this nation from descending into the abyss.
Media practitioners, political parties, security agencies and civil society are all important stakeholders in the effort to consolidate democratic rule in our country.
Being creatures of law and by extension the constitution we all play varied and also complementary roles in the development and in the entrenchment of democracy in all its forms and manifestations.
The media particularly have a very unique role to play in this scheme of things. As the fourth estate of the realm behind the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, the media's main preoccupation under the present constitutional arrangement is to keep government and all public office holders on their toes and by extension making them accountable to the people of Ghana. This is part of the media's social contract with the people.
The media's social contract lays out the legal framework and also defines its roles and responsibilities under the constitution of Ghana. The 1992 Constitution has clothed the media with powers to perform watchdog functions over all the institutions of state and to ensure that the actions and inactions of these institutions conform to the spirit and letter of the constitution. It is also to ensure that the acts of omission and commission of the institutions of state do not work against the collective interests of the citizenry.
The collective interests of the citizens of our great country as captured in the 1992 Constitution is for the media to use their platforms to promote national cohesion and national unity at all material times. And this calls for a lot of professionalism and circumspection on the part of the media.
When the media fails to be circumspect and throws professionalism out of the window by allowing all manner of characters to use their platforms to promote purely partisan, parochial interests, the same society that offered the social contract would be obliged to either roll back the privileges it has given to the media or terminate the contract altogether.
The same applies to political parties in this country. If political parties deviate from their social contract of serving the interest of the electorate at all times the electorate have an obligation to withdraw their mandate to rule over them.
The issue of Hon. Kennedy Agyapong and the controversy it stirred did not surprise a lot of us. Indeed media watchers in this country had expected this explosive turn of events a long time ago and for good reason too.
This expectation was borne out of the obvious evidence available. Across the media landscape content during prime or peak hours were largely political in nature. And in the deafening absence of professional moderation of these politically charged programmes, political actors hijacked media platforms and turned public discourse into slanging battles, insults and personality clashes.
This has been the format and it was a ticking bomb waiting to explode. When aberrations like these are not checked by the respective media owners either in consultation with recognized state institutions like the National Media Commission and the National Communications Authority, what happened at Oman FM Friday last week is bound to reoccur. Touch wood!!!
Going forward we expect both the media to rise up to its constitutional duties, which is to promote national cohesion and unity by using its platforms for the discussion of issues that resonate with the people for the betterment of the citizens of this country.
We are tired of waking up every morning to the discordant voices of political actors parading as analysts and reviewing the news of the day. If these guys would spend their time on primetime radio and Television to engage in slanging battles instead of helping set and shape the agenda for national development then we are better of listening to others who are inclined to do the latter.
Ideally newspaper analysis is mostly done by media professionals especially in other countries. In Ghana the opposite happens to be the case. Politicians have so dominated these media platforms to the extent that discussions on national issues have been upstaged by partisan elocution. I think this convention of making politicians regular fixtures on our prime time news analysis programmes must be discouraged and discontinued.
In their place, we must encourage media professionals to do the analysis for the obvious reason that they understand the issues better and can explain the story and the nuances behind the news better than a political actor who has been sent to the studio to articulate a position that promotes the parochial interests of his or her party. I think this is a debate we must have if we want to put a sock on intemperate speech on our airwaves.
As members of the media, we are at liberty to hobnob and to fraternize with our friends in the political class. Indeed for most of us the politicians were classmates in the secondary and even in the universities and so the relationship goes a long way. But to be able to serve this nation well I subscribe to the dictum that there must necessarily be an adversarial relationship between the media and the political class.
This should be the character of the relationship between the media and politicians if we as media professionals are going to be able to deliver on our contract as the watchdog over the activities of politicians, public office holders and all institutions that play a role in the governance of this country. And it takes a lot of professionalism and total commitment to accomplish this.
Don't get me wrong I am not interested in alienating politicians or breaking contact with them because that would be suicidal. However I think the media needs to adopt a certain posture that communicates a more professional approach to our work and a deeper understanding of our social contract. A posturing that speaks ever so loud about the media's rise from slumber to state of alertness towards performing its duty to the electorate.
They can be our friends but the moment they come into our studios or seek to use our respective platforms the bonhomie ends right there. The era of giving politicians easy passes should stop today. This new posture should take no hostages. If politicians decide not to focus on issues they should not be allowed to use our media platforms pure and simple.
Truth be told, sometimes politicians act like petulant brats who require a diaper change. For some reason they have conned themselves into thinking that having the wherewithal and the ability to pull massive crowds is license to misbehave in this country.
Left to some political actors this nation could implode and they would not be bothered. Instead of focusing on delivering on the bread and butter issues affecting the Ghanaian electorate, politicians are now using media platforms to engage in hate speech and fomenting ethnic war.
The media remains the veritable weapon available to steer this nation clear from the precipice especially in this country where politicians across the divide make unguarded statements and use intemperate speech without suffering any repercussions. If there's anytime this nation needed its sons and daughters in the media to salvage her from imminent danger it is now.
By Paa Kwesi Plange ([email protected])
*The writer is a freelance journalist, an author and the Executive Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting Ghana. He lives is the Ghanaian capital of Accra.