“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Thomas Jefferson, Third US President.
Ghana is today practicing what has been described as democracy since 1992. While it has been largely ineffective in ensuring some of the most important ingredients such as accountability and good governance that a democracy is largely expected to, it has brought about social stability, peaceful transfer of power and a semblance of shifting the decision to decide political leadership into the hands of citizens.
The 1992 Constitution which ushered in the Fourth Republic, in its 29th year has been noted to be flawed, and needing amendment, but it still remains the main legal document available for the running of the governance system.
Many Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians contributed to establish this system of governance. Journalism played its role too, as the country was coming from a history of brutal military regimes that stifled free press and expression. In very difficult times in the 80s and 90s, journalists put their lives on the line to shine light on the political class often at great cost to themselves. Collectively, and in some cases, individually, they have contributed to seeing an end to military rule and bringing about democratic governance.
The role of free, independent, and critical journalism, therefore, cannot be overemphasized in a free society that is pursuing development – that is seeking to bridge inequality gaps, provide quality affordable healthcare, education to its citizens, peace, security, create enabling environments for individuals and groups to thrive in entrepreneurship, job and wealth creation.
Powerful people, including advertisers, call owners of newspapers, radio or TV stations and websites and tell them not to publish stories, not to broadcast documentaries, reports or investigations.
In the overall scheme of things in modern Ghana, journalism has been at the forefront leading the charge for some of the transformation that the country has achieved – in healthcare, child rights, gender issues, human rights, environmental improvement, and peace in some troubled communities. There are also instances of failure for journalism, indeed, it has not always succeeded and has been in some cases, causes of problems. But the inherent good of critical journalism cannot be downplayed. It is therefore disturbing that, in today’s Ghana there is an orchestrated plan in place to kill independent critical journalism. The unresolved murder of Ahmed Hussein-Suale, is a clear example of the strongest signal to have been sent to warn critical journalists of the consequences of their work. The overall lackadaisical attitude of the State in acting to resolve the murder is even the more worrying. There is also the unresolved issue of the brutal attack on Latif Iddrisu in front of the Police Headquarters that left him with a broken neck.
Then there are stories of journalists being arrested and assaulted by some members of the military, police, national security operatives and tortured for publishing editorials about some senior national security officials. Such acts by State operatives send the signal that the State isn’t happy with journalists holding elected, appointed and powerful people to account – something only critical journalism does and not puff writing and reporting.
The arrest and torture of Caleb Kudah by State operatives and the attempted arrest of Zoe Abu-Baidoo are still fresh in our minds.
But there are more insipid acts done in the background with the intent to silence critical journalists. Powerful people, including advertisers, call owners of newspapers, radio or TV stations and websites and tell them not to publish stories, not to broadcast documentaries, reports or investigations. Some owners are sometimes asked to curtail the ability of critical reporters to do their job or fire them. Others have also been removed from newsrooms and posted elsewhere within the organisations where they wouldn’t need their journalism skills.
In one instance, a TV station owner was called and asked to take a show off air because it was “portraying the government in bad light.” The owner obliged and took off the show. The show wasn’t even critical of government, it was a show giving voices to rural people to tell their stories, their truths.
In another instance a journalist who broadcast a story, which had gone through the editorial chain of the newsroom and was approved, was sued for defamation. The employers left the reporter by himself to go to court. He was left on his own to defend the case in court, he eventually lost the case and was fined. Left alone in the lurch, the reporter had to also find the money to pay the fine.
Such acts by State operatives send the signal that the State isn’t happy with journalists holding elected, appointed and powerful people to account – something only critical journalism does and not puff writing and reporting.
I remember while I worked at a radio station years ago, I led the newsroom to break a story about a scandal of monumental proportions in the country, even though I didn’t work in that department. While the story was still on air, the manager of the station called and asked that the live interview should be cut – and it was. I was later to be told that the manager said, if I wanted to do professional journalism, I should go and set up my own radio station, because that station wasn’t set up to do professional journalism.
About three years ago, I was bringing together some journalists from different organisations to consider the possibility of a collaboration. One of the reporters said, his organisation would not allow the kind of investigation we are to embark on to be used. Another told said his media organisation wouldn’t allow him to work on the project if a particular media organisation was involved.
The make-up of owners of radio and TV stations in Ghana leaves so much to be desired. They are mostly owned by businessmen and politicians, who seem to be working together to promote and project themselves and not do critical journalism. During a training programme for journalists in one of the regions, one of the participants said the owner of a station he worked on, who is a traditional ruler, had warned that no one should carry any story on chieftaincy on his radio station.
The consistent, open and sometimes sneaky, subtle attacks on journalists and media organisations are often meant to tell courageous journalists who are shining light on corruption, illegalities, criminal conduct, poor governance and holding the powerful to account that ‘we will come after you’, and we won’t allow you to do critical reporting.
There have been sustained attacks on some journalists like Anas Aremeyaw Anas, Mannaseh Azure Awuni, Edward Adeti, and Erastus Asare Donkor. These journalists have one thing in common, they do critical, accountability journalism that exposes corruption, graft and criminality by the high and mighty, and some connected individuals.
The attacks on journalists are so prevalent that when the building housing the offices of Ghana Business News got burnt down by fire last November, a number of people in Ghana and around the world asked if it wasn’t arson. There hasn’t been any indication to suggest that. But that people would suspect that, is itself telling on a country that is seen as a shining light for democratic governance and press freedom in Africa.
While there are growing attempts to silence critical journalists and cripple critical journalism by using all forms of attacks, these perpetrators are also projecting and promoting their own forms of ‘acceptable journalism and journalists.’ They are investing heavily in some individuals and news houses to do their brand of journalism – which largely centers on personality projection, and reporting insignificant things like donations, speeches and talk shows that focus on sensationalism and mundane things, including unnecessary and unfounded allegations against political opponents and some so-called facts.
There is increasing pressure on news editors, managers and media owners not to carry certain stories that have been ethically and professional done with all the subjects given the right to reply. The threats to withdraw and withdrawal of advertising have also been used to whip some news organisations into line. In other instances, frivolous lawsuits have been used to kill stories before they could be published. They have succeeded in some cases. With these kinds of pressure, some reporters without being told, think twice before they embark on doing certain stories.
It is not for nothing that the 1992 Constitution gave a lot of time and space to media freedom – the extremely important role of journalism in building an equitable, fair and just democratic society cannot be taken for granted.
It is high time, that lovers of democracy and free press stood up to be counted by supporting critical journalism – because if it dies, our democracy dies, and with it, our freedoms die.
By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi
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