One morning on Ring Road, Frank Tubua Okuadjo stopped at a newspaper stand and scanned the headlines. As a young, educated Ghanaian, he thinks about media objectivity and considers it important.
“I don’t want it to be political,” he said.
He pointed to various titles on the stand and ticked them off as supporters of different parties. Partisanship in the press is obvious, he said.
Kofi Hanson, another reader at the stand, agreed.
“The Daily Graphic writes more about things of the government than any other things,” he said. “Some of the papers talk for the government, and others talk for the other parties. Every paper tries to make a good image of their parties. Generally, I like the papers to write something that concerns the nation, not the other parties.”
Press freedom is enshrined in international law, as well as in Ghana’s constitution. Nationally, the media has established a code of ethics by which to conduct itself. The Ghana Journalists Association Code of Ethics behooves media to deliver fair and unbiased news to readers like Hanson and Okuadjo.
Ownership and accountability
There’s a general consensus that most media houses in Ghana are owned by politicians or former politicians, and the perception is that journalists who work for these outlets are often required to tow the political line.
Fred Oware, first national vice chairman of the NPP, has one foot in the political arena, and the other in media, as owner of Choice FM.
“It may very well be that a lot of the media houses either are owned or affiliated one way through the ownership structure with some political parties,” he said. “I do not contest that. But to make a general statement that the people who work there are either coerced, influenced or expected – that might be a perception that people easily lend themselves to.”
Freddy Blay is a for MP and owner of DAILY GUIDE. He was a Member of Parliament for Ellembele in the Western Region and was once the First Deputy Speaker of Parliament. He shrugs off criticism that media is a political tool.
“It’s a myth,” he said. “It’s not true. I challenge that. I contest that.”
In the case of state-owned media, the relationship is more pronounced. Government maintains close contact with editors, briefing them on its policies and, as reported in the Daily Guide yesterday, occasionally reprimanding them for unflattering press.
“(President John Atta Mills) will call the media and tell them what the government has been able to do or intends to do,” said Yaw Boateng Gyan, national organizer with National Democratic Congress (NDC). “We were thinking that this could be done quarterly. But looking at the schedule of the president, that’s not possible. So we do it every six months.”
Rather than coerce reporters to conform to a political position, said Oware, owners simply hire practitioners who are already sympathetic to a particular platform.
“I do not think that there’s a deliberate effort on the part of owners – I mean I can speak for myself – making a point that they will go and influence editorial policies.”
Gyan agreed. He said the media in Ghana is enormously polarized and that it makes more sense to recruit reporters and editors from inside the political fold, rather than crossing party lines.
“If I am a leading member of a political party and want a practitioner; I would go for someone who shares the same ideology with me, so that is exactly what is happening,” he said. “You won’t see any NDC man going in for an NPP man to come and work for him because there would be conflict of ideas.”
For his part, Blay claimed to be more interested in generating revenue and contributing to national develpoment than influencing editorial direction. He said DAILY GUIDE once referred to him as a Robert Mugabe type character, a sleight he shook off.
“Some issues, I disagree with them,” he said of his editorial staff. “If what you write sells, I’m happy with it.
Business side of media
All three acknowledge that media houses tend to favour different areas of the political spectrum. But despite the polarized environment, owners are more concerned with the bottom line. Whatever sells – partisanship, sensationalism, bias – will continue to be produced.
Whereas Blay is focused on sales, the profit motive is more complicated for Oware. He suggested a link between profit and partisan promotion.
“If I were even an investor in a media house, and I have some political interest, my overall interest would be to project the image of my party,” he said. “That in itself, you would not find anything wrong with it, because as an investor that is naturally the way I’d look at my profits.”
According to Blay, business considerations trickle down into the newsroom and have a positive effect on ethics and morale. In an industry where soli payments are common, high selling papers can have a positive impact on ethics. Increased revenue provides the financial base for media houses to adequately compensate staff. In that case, journalists would no longer rely on supplementing their income through back channels.
“At the end of the day, you must pay the people who work at the paper,” he said. “You must make profit so you can pay the people, so they will do their job well.”
Blay also said a paper’s legitimacy can be determined by how established its business is. Offices, advertising, and staff indicate financial transactions from sources likely outside the political realm. The newspapers Blay decried as flyers, he said, are probably funded with political cash.
“How many do they sell? Are they surviving? Where are their offices? How many do they employ? Some of them may not even have offices. You call that a paper?
“How do they survive? Political money.”
Gyan openly acknowledged the NDC’s involvement in funding media, but said it happens right across the board.
“I can confidently say that some of the political parties, including my own political party, are behind some of the papers, are even financing some of these papers to put these things out there,” he said.
Ethics and objectivity
The Ghana Journalists Association Code of Ethics is composed of 17 articles that set ethical and professional guidelines for journalists. They cover everything from dealing with grief stricken sources to plagiarism. In particular, Article 17 warns against sensationalism, while Article 1, subsection 2, reinforces the public’s right to unbiased information.
“The media is going beyond some bounds of propriety,” said Oware, “delving into people’s private lives instead of sticking to the issues, sometimes deliberately or accidentally straining to areas where it does not help anybody but rather adds to the confusion.”
Often, the impact goes beyond mere confusion.
“Let’s admit it,” he said. “The media industry is a weapon. It’s a sharp, political weapon.”
Gyan said he was dealt a blow by that weapon in the wake of the NDC’s Sunyani leadership congress. He rejected the idea that his party is violent, an accusation he said comes regularly from DAILY GUIDE. He also took issue with the way the congress was framed, as a fractious exercise in disunity.
“You have some media houses in this country that are just taking sides,” he said. “No matter what the party does, positive reportage, you won’t get it.”
Up at the ownership level, in the offices of Blay or Oware, the idea of media ethics doesn’t have a lot of traction. It’s not that they are opposed to ethical conventions, but rather that they see them as a practitioner’s concern.
“I’m an owner,” said Blay. “You are a professional. They are two very different roles we play. I’m not an editor. I come to see what’s up, whether people are stealing and what is being produced. I’m more interested in the adverts and whether they will come. When you talk about ethics, it’s your profession, not mine.”
Oware built on that sentiment, saying a journalist’s integrity is his or her own. Reputation is sacred, he said, and a solid reputation will persevere through a change in government.
“Individual media men ought to strive to make a name for their individual selves,” he said. “That they are impartial, principled and that they would stick with the truth.”
“It’s an issue of development.”
In many ways, the free press in Ghana is only 20 years old. In the decades leading up to 1992, when the Republic was declared and the new constitution unveiled, freedom of the press was not a reality.
“Until then, you had one broadcasting station, one television station, and two or three newspapers in the country,” said Oware. “When the ban on these activities was lifted, you had, naturally, politicians championing the cause of press freedom in the country.”
He said the presence of politicians in media is a logical result of that championship.
Blay said DAILY GUIDE was started in the 1980s, under the banner of SPORTS GUIDE. He framed it primarily as a business venture, an attempt to cash in on the lucrative world of athleticism. At the same time, there was one page of politics buried in the paper, something that occasionally caused problems for the publishers.
“I’ve been in jail at least a year,” he said.
Literacy and education are also major factors in media development. A literate, learned public will demand more from its media. According to the CIA World Factbook, literacy rates in Ghana have actually gone down in recent years. At the turn of the millennium, the national literacy rate was 64.5 per cent. It spiked in 2003-06, coming in at 74.8 per cent. In 2011, it’s 57.9 per cent.
But Ghana’s economy is on the rise. National and per capita GDP have been steadily increasing in recent years, and the World Bank forecasts Ghana’s economy as the fastest growing in sub-Saharan Africa.
“When the country’s economy improves,” said Blay, “I think there is a future for companies to advertise in the paper, for entertainers to read the paper, for businessmen to know what’s going on, for people to read the cartoons and love it.”
In the interim, media houses, especially practitioners, are in charge of their own destinies.
“I want the media practitioners to be neutral,” said Gyan.
By William Yaw Owusu, Charles Takyi-Boadu, Jamila Akweley Okertchiri &Isaac Osei