Monday, March 5, 2007.
Fifty years of Ghanaian independence
· Role of journalists in a free society
By: YAW BOADU-AYEBOAFOH
MR. George Chaplin, a Honolulu newspaper editor, has noted that “if people learn to take charge of change and guide it well, all of humanity is the beneficiary”. If we fail, we invite disaster. What an exciting and wonderful challenge to our intelligence and our compassion; and so our dedication to the proposition that the betterment of the individual is the noblest of all dreams.
The effective discharge of media responsibility commences with the generation of interest, knowledge and understanding. People need to have access to view, opinions and facts as well as the opportunity to express their own view points.
The media provides the basis for empowering and enabling the people to express their views and opinions and to participate in the process of governance, conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peace-building. Those in the media, must therefore, see the provision of information as a public service and must always act for the public good.
In all human endeavour, fundamental decisions have to be made, which demand participation, because they have implications. But, whether such decisions are informed, uniformed or ill-informed, depend on the extent to which information is available and the freedom with which decisions are made. The media help to open up issue since transparency makes for self-defence and the expression of choice.
If individuals are to play their roles effectively and efficiently in society, then they must be adequately informed with sufficient facts upon which to base rational judgements and decisions. Freedom of the media in the widest sense then represents the collective enlargement of the freedom of the expression of all citizens. It is a fundamental right.
With the liberal media environment in the country, the pluralism of sources has ensured meaningfully than ever before in national discourse. Through radio/television, phone-ins, ordinary citizens are able to engage their leaders in open debates and discussions.
The media have helped to empower our people as has never been known in our history and these have helped to expand the frontiers of freedom and reduced secrecy in governance and public service.
John Knight, owner of a major newspaper chain and President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors noted in 1946 that “had not the Nazi and Fascist forces in Germany and Italy seized and dominated the press in all communication facilities at the start, the growth of these poisonous dictatorships might as well have been prevented and the introduction of national thought in the direction of hatred and mistrust might have been impossible”.
Another influential American publisher, Palmer Hyot, declared immediately after the Second World War that he believed the world could not stand another war, but that the world nonetheless would head for war, unless immediate steps were taken to promote free media and remarked that “a civilization that is not free cannot endure”.
In that respect, the 1992 Constitution provides elaborately for media freedom in addition to the general fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, association and movement. With the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law, the Ghanaian media scene is one of the most promotive and facilitative of journalistic independence.
But it has always not been so. The history of the media is replete with incidents of persecution and prosecution, some of which unfortunately find solace in some of our cultural beliefs and philosophies. Statements such as “you do not give ammunition, to your enemy to shoot at you” or “the stump that could imperil the eye is uprooted, not cut” and even lyrics such as “wonka ma menka, ode asem nnam” to wit, say your mind and let me say mine brings trouble” indirectly encourage the clamp down on media freedom although we still have faith that “two heads are better than one”.
Thus, although I am not an enthusiastic student of history, a few examples about mistreatment of the media could suffice. Under colonial rule, an example which readily comes to mind is the prosecution of Wallace Johnson, who wrote an article and questioned whether the African has a god.
During the First Republic, there was the case of Timothy Bankole, who was deported from Ghana to his native Sierra Leone, for writing an article which asked “after independence, what next”? In the Second Republic, the contract of the Editor of the Daily Graphic, was not renewed ostensibly because he challenged the basis of the government policy of dialogue with apartheid South Africa.
Even under the Third Republic, which was touted as the most media-free until 2001 when the Criminal Libel and Seditious Libel Laws were repealed, and during which period the Acting Editor of the Daily Graphic openly challenged the President’s decision to confirm her appointment, the story is told of how a reporter accompanying an official delegation was dropped and sent home for writing to question the size of the delegation.
As for the periods of military regimes, journalism was endangered and journalists lived in perpetual awe. Some were even jailed for writing even about cocoa production.
What happened under the National Democratic Congress (NDC) administration may be fresh in the minds of many, particularly what has become notoriously known as “the shit bombing” where some newspaper offices were “besieged” by human excreta and the abominable act was lauded by some key government functionaries, as well as the infamous and diabolic statement by the Forces Sergeant Major, WO1 Isaac Frimpong, Red Light, that “if there was freedom of expression then there should be freedom of assassination” to silence journalists opposed to the government.
Until the new Patriotic Party (NPP) repealed the Criminal Libel and Seditious Libel Laws in 2001, and the entry of “nolle prosequi” to freeze prosecutions under the law, the courts were choked with prosecutions for media “infractions” although Article 162 (4) provides clearly that “Editors and publishers of newspapers and other institutions of the mass media shall not be subject to control or interference by government, nor shall they be penalized or harassed for their editorial opinions and views, or the content of their publications”.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court held that there was no contradiction between the law and the Constitution, perhaps emboldening the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General at the time to proclaim that the law would be repealed over his dead body. Nevertheless, at the Commonwealth Press Union Editors Forum in Sydney, Australia in 2005, Ghana was highly commended for taking the progressive path of repealing the Criminal Libel Law.
Indeed, the laws affecting the media began in 1894 with the Newspaper Registration Ordinance. This was followed by the Book and Newspaper Registration1897. In 1961 the Book and News paper Registration Act was passed requesting copies of all publications to be submitted to the government within a month of publication.
The major jolt to news freedom came with the passage of the Newspaper Licensing Act 1963 (Act 73), which required that no newspaper could be registered or published without a prior licence granted by the Minister of Information under regulations made by him through Legislative Instrument LI 1296/63, with accompanying penalties.
Act 73 was repealed under the Progress Party administration through the Newspaper Licensing (Repeal) Act 1970 (Act 319). However, the National Redemption Council restored the law under NRCD 161 which empowered the Commissioner of Information to issue, suspend or revoke newspaper licenses. NRCD 161 and its enabling instrument, LI 810 were repealed by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. AFRCD 41 dated September 21, 1979. There was thus no requirement for licensing until March 1989, when the Provisional National Defence Council reintroduced Licensing with PNDC 211. This law was however, repealed on the eve of the operation of the 1992 Constitution from January 7, 2003 by PNDCL 299.
Under the First Republic, the government did not appreciate a liberal media environment. Indeed, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in expressing anguish about liberal press noted among other things that “the journalist is forced into arranging news and information to fit the outlook of his journal. He finds himself rejecting or distorting facts that do not coincide with the outlook and interest of his employers or the medium’s advertisers.
Under the pressure of competition for advertising revenue, trivialities are blown up, the vulgar emphasized, ethics forgotten, the important trimmed to the class outlook. Enmites are fanned and peace is perverted, the search is for sensation and the justification of an unjust system in which truth or the journalist must become the casualty.
Of course, Timothy Bankole had to be the casualty when it mattered to the government.
Prof. Paul Ansah underlined such warped expectations from the media when he submitted that “the press in a developing country is expected to help forge a sense of national unity, identity and integration and to mobilize the people for development. Many leaders in developing countries also consider that it is their responsibility to provide information to citizens as a social service in the same way as they provide other services such as education, health and recreation facilities”.
This view seems to be shared by former President Jerry John Rawlings who stated on January 18, 1982 that “the press is a public press, part of the mechanism of state power, and it is funded by the tax payers, which in Ghana means the poor masses. In the past, the press had been used against these very people. We now want to be sure that the press will constitute an expression of the people’s freedom and not their oppression”.
In many respects in the past, most of the media tended to act in ways which suggested that government statements were always right. Statements which affect the integrity of public officials or private individuals, once the statement was from government, the victims were often not allowed to redeem their images and this foundsolace and comfort under the common law defence of privilege in civil suits for defamation.
Equally, in the past statements from the government and pro-government supporters received adequate coverage than those from the minority groups or anti-government campaigners. In one instance, the Alliance for Change, wrote to the boards of the state-owned media to complain about deliberate attempts of ignoring its views on national issues while in its opinion less popular groups such as the June Fourth Movement which was supportive of the government got much publicity.
Indeed, it took the Supreme Court to direct that the constitutional requirement for equal and balanced coverage of activities of political parties applied to all political parties, not just the ruling party. This followed a suit filed by the NPP against the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation for refusing to broadcast its seminar to educate supporters on the government budget after the National Democratic Congress had been given extended coverage to educate party supporters on the government budget at the time.
Today, there is no way that any state-owned media would deliberately shun coverage of a group merely because it does not support government.
Until 1996, the electronic media was virtually closed and limited to the GBC, which began operations in 1935 as Station ZOY, used to prop up the colonial administration.
Articles 162 (3) of the 1992 Constitution provides that “there shall be no impediments to the establishment of private press or media, and in particular there shall be no law requiring any person to obtain a licence as a prerequisite to the establishment or operation of a newspaper, journal or other media for mass communication”.
The question then was whether like print, one could establish radio or television station without applying for a licence to use a frequency.
On May 14, 1994, a group, the Independent Media Corporation of Ghana (IMCG), led by Dr. Charles Yves Wereko-Brobby set out to test the government by applying for the registration of a frequency, 96.2 MHz to operate Radio Eye. On September 5, 1994, the group sent a reminder to the Frequency Board on their request. The response was that a freeze had been placed on frequency allocation pending the establishment of the National Communications Authority.
The IMCG sent another letter on September 23, to remind the board about allocations if had made and expressed shock about the sudden turn of event. The IMDG further lodged a compliant with the National Media Commission over attempts by the Frequency Board to deny it a basic right. The board quickly wrote back to the IMCG that its application was under consideration.
Thereafter, nothing happened until November 19, when Accra residents woke up to hear a new radio station, Radio Eye, broadcasting and its audience grew in leaps. However, the Frequency Board wrote to warn the IMCG that since it had usurped the frequency, there was no guarantee of protection or safety. Then on December 4, 1994, about two weeks into the operations 25 heavily armed policemen stormed and raided the premises of Radio Eye at about 10.45 a.m., dismantled and confiscated its equipment which were carried away.
Board and management members of IMCG were hauled before the courts and prosecuted under SMCD 1977 (SMCD 41), the Frequency Registration and Control Law, which provided that “anyone who operates a radio station and uses frequency without written consent of the board infringes the law and is liable on conviction to a fine of ¢1,000 or 12 months imprisonment”.
While one High Court directed that the equipment be returned to enable the IMCG to apply for a frequency, another High Court directed the contrary. The IMCG took the matter to the Supreme Court and it is a matter of deep regret that the court never ruled on the suit although the NCA used that as an alibi to deny the IMCG licence to operate.
However, that single act of defiance by the IMCG, compelled the government to speed up the process of liberating the airwaves, to the extent that to date, there are more than 120 FM Stations, with the GBC alone operating 11 of them.
The Ghanaian media and journalists are thus serving as bulwarks against corruption and oppression, as defenders of the fundamental rights of the people and the safeguard for the rule of law. These are the only means to give meaning and function to democracy and journalism in a free society.
We are working to promote the liberty of the people even if some of us are wayward and irresponsible. For now, we can say boldly with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, that no matter how powerful the government or politicians, once we operate freely, we can hold them to account.
As he stated of the British Prime Minister and Parliament, not matter how awesome, they cannot subdue a free press. So then we can also say that “Give me but the liberty of the press. And I will give the Minister a servile and corrupt House of Commons. I will give him full swing of the patronage of office, I will give him the whole host of ministerial influence. I will give him all the power that place can confer upon him to purchase submission and overcome resistance. I will go forth to him undismayed. I will attack the mighty fabric of the mightier engine. I will shake down from its height corruption and bury it beneath the ruins of the abuse it was meant to shelter”.
These are the convictions that informed great statesmen of America to profess that they were more ready to live in countries with free media but without governments than those with governments but without free media.
Despite whatever excesses of the media, Ghanaians feel more comfortable and assured in Ghana today than at any time in our national history since independence.
Daily Graphic - Monday, March 5, 2007 Page: 9