The media during the colonial era suffered attempts meant to silence the nationalists turned journalists. Due to the vibrancy of the independent media, the colonial authorities put in measures to cripple the media. In 1893, the Newspaper Registration Ordinance was enacted. Later in 1934, the Criminal Code Amendment Ordinance, also known as the Sedition Ordinance, was enacted. Some communication scholars have described these laws as “repressive”. In the early 1950s, the Sedition Ordinance was used to jail nationalists, such as Kwame Nkrumah, who practiced journalism.
Post-colonial Ghana media
The early post-colonial leadership in the country, right from the onset, waged war against the media, thus spelling doom for the once vibrant independent press of the Gold Coast. Kwame Nkrumah, who had used his newspaper, Evening News, to fight the colonial government, later as President felt the media was too important to be left in the hands of the private operators.
Guided by a leftist socialist ideology, as communications scholars like Clement E Asante put it, Nkrumah felt the need to put the press firmly under state control. He therefore established the Guinea Press under which he introduced the state-owned Ghanaian Times in 1958. According to Prof Gadzekpo, “...together with the state-acquired Graphic and Mirror, existing party newspapers, such as his own Accra Evening News, and newly launched ones such as the Daily Gazette and Sunday Punch, the newspaper scene became state dominated by the time Nkrumah was overthrown in a military coup.”
In the broadcast media, which already was state-controlled, Nkrumah increased its facilities across the country, investing in an assembly factory to produce radio and television sets. Unlike the colonial government, he used radio and television for national integration, expanding its reach throughout the country, encouraging indigenous content and language use.
According to Ansu-Kyeremeh and Karikari, in their paper “Media Ghana: Ghanaian Media Overview, Practitioners and Institutions”, the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation also established an external radio broadcast service in Arabic, French, Kiswahili and Portuguese, which carried messages of encouragement and support to other African countries fighting for freedom in the 1960s.
That notwithstanding, Nkrumah ensured that programming was centralised and controlled from Accra. Prof Gadzepko describes Nkrumah’s press legacy as one that bequeathed to the nation a fairly developed media system, but one which was concentrated in the hands of government, encouraging deference to authority and discouraging Western-style confrontational journalism.
Busia and Limann eras
Between February 24 1966, when Nkrumah was overthrown in a military coup, and 1992 when Ghana returned to civilian rule, five military regimes ruled the country. The period was interspersed by two civilian regimes, though short-lived. The Second Republican government of the Progress Party, led by Dr Kofi Abrefa Busia, for instance, lasted two and a half years. The third constitutional government of Dr Hilla Limann barely lasted two years.
Busia’s regime saw a repeal of the newspaper licensing law put in place by the Nkrumah government. The administration, however, maintained changes to the top management of state-owned newspapers. Within the period, a libel suit against a private newspaper editor, according to communication scholars, marred the administration’s liberal press credentials.
Like the Busia regime, the Limann regime also opened up the press briefly. But the short-lived nature of the government truncated any lasting impact on “the professional, psychological and material conditions of the media,” according to Prof Gadzekpo.
The military era
The media suffered the worse form of coercion with dominance by the state during the era of the military governments that ruled Ghana for about two decades.
The period was marked by arbitrary arrests, imprisonments and intimidation of journalists, in both private and state-owned media, and also general job insecurity, as private newspapers tried to stay in business under circumstances of political repression and economic depression.
Prof Gadzekpo describes the PNDC era (1981–1993), in particular, as a hostile period for the media in Ghana. She states that, having declared a revolution, the military junta attempted to refocus news media on helping in the process of national development and integration. Changes were made to both content and management of state media. Editors were dismissed and replaced at random; content was often censored; and laws on defamation and newspaper licensing were re-instituted. The private press came under particular pressure, with some being attacked by angry supporters of the revolution, closed down and their journalists and editors jailed, or hounded into exile.
Enfeebled and decimated, the only “viable” newspapers in Ghana were state-owned, sports or entertainment-oriented newspapers, or lottery news sheets. State media journalists were little more than de-facto civil servants whose editors and managers were appointed by government and played to their tune. Journalists felt beholden to government, rather than citizens, and the style of coverage of officialdom remained the prevailing news culture.
Poor economic conditions and service conditions of journalists also severely compromised the ethics of the profession. “Patronage and brown envelop” journalism became accepted practice. Under such conditions, journalistic practice became unattractive to the brightest and the best.
According to the Political Editor of the Daily Statesman, Mr Christian Randolph Lartey, writers had to sometimes hide their identity when writing. He recounts how journalists had to use different pseudonyms to survive in the industry.
Media under civilian rule
As part of the transition to democratic rule, restrictions placed on the press were lifted.
Private newspapers began to re-emerge. Freedom of expression and media protections found their way into the new Fourth Republican Constitution. The National Media Commission (NMC) was instituted and charged with insulating state media from governmental control and ensuring high journalistic quality.
Newspapers thus mushroomed overnight, just the same way they quickly disappeared.
Kojo Yankah, a Deputy Minister of Information at the time, in his paper “Language, and mass media and democracy in Ghana”, as cited by Prof Gadzekpo, asserted that in January 1993, his ministry recorded as many as 36 private weeklies on the newsstands; a year later the number had been reduced to an average of 23, some of which were irregular.
Some of the new newspapers, like the early newspapers in the colonial era, produced ground-breaking investigative pieces that demystified government and which endeared them to the public and the political opposition.
Executive under scrutiny
Sections of the private press constituted themselves into a de-facto parliamentary opposition, scrutinising the executive, mounting a challenge to government bills and policies, and in many instances amplifying the voice of the opposition party. This followed the boycott of parliamentary elections by the main opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) in 1992.
Like the colonial era, many of the private newspapers were owned by journalists who had been unable to ply their profession under the military regime, politicians and/or persons closely aligned to political power.
Some communication scholars say journalism, therefore, was directed by partisan considerations and political agendas, and not necessarily at serving a larger public interest. Private newspapers, commonly referred to as “opposition papers,” enjoyed public legitimacy as a counterbalance to state-owned media. State media, in contrast, remained mouthpiece of government and officialdom.
While the state-owned media continued to be filled with the unchallenged pronouncements of officialdom, the private press developed a penchant for investigating political scandals and raking up alleged misdeeds of the past military government (PNDC), many of whose members had remained in power despite Ghana’s return to democracy.
Communication scholar Kumado says newspaper content fell far short of serious professional standards, often exhibiting disturbing ethical breaches, including the outright fabrication of stories by some newspapers against Cabinet members and public officials.
Commonwealth observers for the 1992 election noted in their report that the privately-owned media abandoned any serious attempt to address the issues and chose instead to indulge in “wanton mud-slinging, the likes of which none would have thought possible.” It described the newspapers as “obviously partisan” and “dangerously vituperative,” with articles “attacking political opponents ferociously and accusing presidential candidates of weak morals, spying, smuggling, lying, thuggery, and fraud.”
“The legacy of the immediate past thus resulted in a cottage industry of overtly political and professional weak private newspapers as well as untransformed state-owned newspapers who still felt beholden to government despite all the measures aimed at strengthening their independence,” Gadzekpo noted.
To be continued next week…
The author is the General Secretary of the Graduate Students Association of Ghana (GRASAG National) and a Masters of Arts (Communication Studies) student of the Department of Communication Studies, University of Ghana.