As quality of democracy declines, press freedom declines – A presentation

Emmanuel K Dogbevi

World Press Freedom Day was celebrated around the world on May 3, 2023. But the US Embassy in Accra stretched the celebration for a week, culminating in a media seminar in collaboration with the University of Cape Coast and the Ghana Journalists Association in the Central Regional. 

During the seminar I made a presentation on independent journalism which I share with you.

Presentation by Emmanuel K. Dogbevi,
Executive Director, NewsBridge Africa, Managing Editor, Ghana Business News

Good morning. All protocols observed.

I would like to thank the US Embassy for inviting me to speak at this important event marking World Press Freedom Day. For me, press freedom is significant in many ways and non-negotiable – as a publisher, editor, reporter and trainer.

And I would like to start by quoting parts of what Ginny Elliot, the Public Affairs Officer of the US Embassy in Ghana said at the World Press Freedom Day in Accra.

“A free press is one of the most vital ingredients for any functioning democracy.  For this reason, the Founding Fathers of the United States ensured that freedom of expression was the very first guarantee of our constitution.

It’s also why the media are often referred to as the Fourth Estate.  There may be three branches of government in democracies like the United States and Ghana – but where would we be if there were not objective journalists and investigative reporters to hold our elected leaders accountable? And who are free to represent a range of viewpoints on behalf of all citizens,” she says.

And adds, “Journalism provides us all a platform for informed discussion across a range of issues – including governance and corruption, environmental challenges, gender equality, youth engagement and peacebuilding. Only when journalists are at liberty to monitor, investigate and criticize policies and actions can good governance exist.”

No democracy in the true sense and form would survive anywhere without free expression and independent journalism.

Ghana has been practicing multiparty democracy now for more than 30 years. That is a long time, but it’s also short, and therefore, it would be difficult to say it is long enough for the basic fruits of democratic systems to begin to fully flourish, and while short, it is conceivable to say if it is on a sound footing, the important characteristics of a democratic society should begin to strongly show promise. There is a popular Ghanaian saying put this way; “If the game would be interesting, it begins in the morning.”

In recent times, democratic societies around the world have deteriorated and the gains that have been made in press freedom and expression have been declining.

The recently published Global Press Freedom Index by the Reporters without Borders (RSF) shows worrying indicators of hostility towards journalists across the world.

The situation is so bad that the standard bearer for democracy and press freedom, the United States of America, ranked 45 on a list of 180 countries, has fallen three places.

According to the Index, US respondents were negative about the environment for journalists (especially the legal framework at the local level, and widespread violence) despite the Biden administration’s efforts. The murders of two journalists (the Las Vegas Review Journal’s Jeff German in September 2022, and Spectrum News 13’s Dylan Lyons in February  2023) had a negative impact on the country’s ranking. 

It is not all bad news, because Brazil rose 18 places to rank 92, as a result of the departure of Jair Bolsonaro, whose presidential term was marked by extreme hostility towards journalists, and Lula da Silva’s election, heralding an improvement. In Asia, changes in governments also improved the environment for the media and accounted for such significant rises in the Index as Australia’s (up 12 at 27th) and Malaysia’s (up 40 at 73rd).

The situation in Ghana, for journalists has however continued to worsen. In the 2022 Index, Ghana had slide 30 spots to rank at 60. It continued that fall to rank two spots at 62 in the 2023 Index released on May 3, 2023.

It is notable that the loudest proponents of a free and democratic system in Ghana, the people who are the direct material and financial beneficiaries of democracy, the politicians and other state agencies like the police and military, are the biggest attackers of journalists. The State of the Ghanaian Media 2023 Report published not long ago by the College of Education, University of Ghana, which I must add was funded by the US Embassy was clear on the groups that are leading perpetrators of violence against journalists – these are politicians and their assigns and the police.

Fact is, the Ghanaian political system in its current form, would crumble if it is constantly confronted by citizens. Citizens who simply challenge its decisions and actions through the expression of free speech and critical independent journalism. It would buckle because it’s highly incompetent and inefficient, does not function strictly on any underlying ideology or philosophical foundation. It has largely been overrun and taken over by people with no proper political grounding or commitment to the larger community or national interests, except the love for power, money and a profoundly twisted sense of self-importance. The Ghanaian political class as well as their assigns, that also do not hesitate to use law enforcement agencies to shut down journalists at the least opportunity, also spare no moment to use journalists to further their parochial interests, often political and personal, with little relevance to the public good.

The level of impunity and lawlessness exhibited by political office holders, are counter to the ideals of free and democratic societies. And it is the fear of losing all these self-arrogated, undemocratic behaviours that have made them uncomfortable with the decent idea of independent journalism.

The political class, elected and appointed, in spite of parroting a cacophonous chorus glorifying the ethos of democratic practices, has become hostile to the exercise of free speech and practitioners of independent journalism. The system, having mastered the art of misgovernance from which it benefits, has also become impervious to progress and change, despite promising same.

The role of independent journalism in holding power to account, questioning the decisions of powerful people and businesses, exposing bad decisions, corruption, abuse of power and office, bringing to light hidden facts that the public has the right to know is the fuel on which the bus of democracy runs. Without it, democracy would grind to a halt and the consequences could be dire.

But it’s sad to say, independent journalism, ethical journalism that holds supreme the greater public interest has continued to come under immense pressure. Journalists who make it a point to do their work without fear or favour are constantly being made to pay a price for doing right to society.

It is near impossible to do independent journalism in Ghana today, as there is zero public funding for independent journalism. As most news organisations depend very largely on advertising revenue to remain sustainable, advertisers have become powerful and now determine what is news.

A major and important newspaper in Ghana collapsed when its biggest advertiser pulled out advertising because the newspaper reported a court case brought against it in a shareholding dispute.

Editors are often called and threatened with pulling out of advertising if they do not stop their reporters from investigating certain individuals or businesses. Editors get phone calls asking them to take down stories from their websites. They have sometimes been denied accreditation to even cover state events because they have published facts that people in public office didn’t want published.

Important journalism is expensive. Especially, investigative journalism costs a lot of money to do. But with funding for critical reporting not available in Ghana, most independent journalists like me have to look outside the country for the financing to do our work. And when that happens, we are labeled as agents of external forces, set to destabilize our countries.

Despite the difficulties, the overwhelming impacts of independent journalism are very well known – the reports covering the levels of environmental degradation resulting from illegal logging, the galamsey menace, human rights abuse, corruption, embezzlement and mismanagment of public funds and abuse of office and power.

Let me conclude by saying, independent journalism is necessary in not only oiling the wheels of our democracy, it is also what would preserve our society and spur economic growth. Because when there is no where to hide, the bad guys can’t function and the good guys would be emboldened to continue to do right, and the entire society would benefit.

But independent journalism can only survive and thrive to serve its role if citizens step up to defend, protect and support those who practice it.

Thank you for your time.

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