How free is Ghana’s media?

How free is Ghana's media How free is Ghana's media

Ghana's president Nana Akufo-Addo stood before representatives of the world's news media at a sparkling awards dinner on the evening of May 3, 2018.

They had come together in the Ghanaian capital Accra to mark World Press Freedom Day. The West African nation was the number one African nation on the World Press Freedom Index that year.

"I will say again that I much prefer the noisy, boisterous, sometimes scurrilous media of today, to the monotonous, praise-singing, sycophantic one of yesteryear," President Akufo-Addo told those assembled for the Press Freedom awards dinner.

Barely hours after this speech, a member of the president's political party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP), assaulted a journalist at the party's headquarters.

The NPP would not condemn the event and the government would not comment until journalists and media outlets threatened to stop covering NPP events. The government's handling of this incident reflects the disconnect between Ghana's free media status and the reality of journalistic safety.

Ever since freedom of the media was enshrined in Chapter 12 of the nation's 1992 constitution, it has flourished. Today, you will find a vibrant media environment where journalists expose corruption, highlight incompetence and crime, and demand a measure of accountability from the powerful.

At a local governance level, elected and appointed officials are kept on their toes by community members who call and text into radio programs. In many ways, private media – especially radio – has become a tool of democratic participation for large sections of the population.

But beneath this veneer of freedom, there are still challenges.

In the two years since that awards dinner, investigative reporter Ahmed Suale was shot and killed in broad daylight in Accra. He had been a lead investigator for Tiger Eye Private Investigations.

His best known work had come six months before his death: a film exposing corruption in Ghanaian football that led to the dissolution of the Ghana Football Association. Kennedy Agyapong, an MP, revealed Suale's identity on TV and called on his supporters to attack him.

A year after the murder, Modern Ghana editor Emmanuel Ajarfor Abugri and reporter Emmanuel Yeboah Britwum were abducted from their offices and detained by national security officials who searched their phones and laptops in an attempt to determine the source of a story about the national security boss.

By 2019, the Media Foundation for West Africa recorded over 31 attacks on 40 journalists over an 18-month period.

We know from the example of other countries that unchecked violence against journalists emboldens attackers and undermines freedom of the media.

The NPP may pride itself on being the party that repealed the Criminal Libel Law, freeing Ghanaians from what the President Akufo-Addo called "unnecessary self-censorship". Yet journalists continue to be attacked both on- and offline, often by supporters of dominant political parties and agents of the state. These attacks have often gone un-investigated and unpunished.

Like so many freedoms, Ghana's press freedoms are fragile and not guaranteed if we do not pay attention to these key, growing detractors.

Intimidation and threat In conversations with my Ghanaian colleagues, some expressed fear of reporting on certain issues and groups. Others said they have had to overlook certain stories or seek permission from state agencies.

Fear of intimidation or physical harm informs which stories they tell. More broadly, it has affected their capacity to do their work and provide the public with reliable information.

"I do worry occasionally about my safety as a journalist because I am not aware of any clear-cut policies by either my media house or the government to offer any protection to journalists," said one journalist, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. What deepened their fear the most, they said, is that "sometimes the government itself and some state agencies, like the police and military, can be used to intimidate journalists".

Recalling an incident with a story about the Ghana Armed Forces, they continued: "Sources in the army called to warn me of possible violent attacks against me if I broke the story. I broke the story anyway, but not [until] I received a verbal assurance from the director of Public Affairs of the Ghana Armed Forces about my safety. I was scared about making the publication due to our history with the military. [Since then], I always seek assurances from any concerned security agency about my safety before publishing a story about them."

Stifled sources Journalists are not the only group who censor themselves due to the threat of violence, harassment or intimidation: Experts, business owners, and public sector workers such as teachers, nurses, and university lecturers often decline to speak to journalists for fear of victimization and possible job loss. Business owners and other private sector people have lost contracts as a result of speaking to the press, while public sector workers face transfers and other sanctions.

Consequently, the same group of privileged voices are trotted out to shape national conversations in the Ghanaian media: mostly men, often partisan, and from the educated and political class.

In fact, a Media Foundation for West Africa report found that "male discussants consistently dominated radio discussions" with as much as 83% share of voice. Large sections of the population – women, persons living with disabilities, and people living outside the capital – are excluded and their concerns are not prioritised.

This lack of plurality means Ghanaian mainstream media is dominated by a narrow set of ideas (often pro-business, neoliberal and capitalist). Even discussions and stories about marginalised groups are dominated by political class and elites (increasingly the lawyer class).

Instead of faithful and independent accounts of events and issues, stories are reduced to he-said/he-said arguments between the two major parties. Journalists are unable to provide the full context of specific stories when those affected are too afraid to go on record – particularly concerning high-profile stories.

For example, Ghanaians still don't know what motivated the government to cancel a power agreement which in turn lost the country a $190 million US government grant.

The inability of journalists to verify leaked documents and the unwillingness of some media companies to use verifiable information meant this story, like many scandals, was reduced to political entertainment.

In cases where investigations are conducted, they are often superficial and don't include names and details of people involved. In the worst cases, journalists wait for members of the elite class to tell them what issues to adopt.

During the banking crisis of 2017 and 2018 (when seven indigenous banks collapsed), despite reports and evidence suggesting criminal conduct, journalists were hesitant to describe what happened as criminal until some elite lawyers made the pronouncement. Typically, less powerful offenders are swiftly labelled as thugs.

Impact of media ownership One third of all media outlets in the country are owned by politicians or people affiliated with the dominant political parties, according to the Media Ownership Monitor Ghana. And much of the content they produce – particularly news and current affairs – is partisan.

It is easy to see where these companies sit on the political spectrum by analysing their content.

An overview of ownership of five of the most-read newspapers, accounting for nearly 80% of daily readership, illustrates how dire the situation is.

Source: By Nana Ama Agyemang Asante