Taking The Gown To Town: Reflections Of A Scholar-Activist On Media in Ghana’s Democratic Journey
Heads of Department
Members of Convocation
My friends from the media and civil society
Akoras here assembled
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen
A very good evening to you all, including those who have joined us virtually
Let me start by expressing gratitude to the University of Ghana where I started my academic journey close to 30 years ago. UG has nurtured and challenged me to chart the intellectual path that I hope to illuminate in this lecture. I feel privileged to have been afforded this special opportunity to look back on my contribution to the academic and larger Ghanaian society and to assess the role the media, my primary preoccupation, has played in the country’s democratic journey
Outline of Lecture
As the title of my lecture suggests I position myself as a scholar-activist and so I will start by establishing
Madame Chair, the term scholar-activist is a fluid and flexible idea that has been conceptualized differently by scholars. It broadly describes academics situated in universities who consciously seek to make a difference through their work either through stronger engagement within their communities or by challenging the status quo within the academy.
As a media and communication scholar, as a journalism teacher and as a trained journalist working in a developing nation context, I consider myself particularly well-positioned to play a scholar-activist role by making the knowledge I produce more meaningful outside academia, and sometimes speaking truth to power.
To co-opt the words of Oslender & Reiter (2015) I seek to do so, “not by looking out of the window,” but at times “venture[ing] into the messy reality of concrete people and their communities.”
My research agenda, which focuses on the nexus between media and issues such as gender, governance and what I lump together as developmental imperatives, has enabled me to enjoy meaningful collaborations with many scholars outside my discipline as well as with groups and activists interested in social justice and development.
My research and classroom experiences have also benefited greatly from my close association with civil society organisations, whose missions include promoting and deepening democracy, and good governance. I am a founding member and currently Vice-Chair of the Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) and have been involved in election observation and training programmes both domestically and at the African regional level. I was also a founding member and later Chair of the Ghana Integrity Initiative. And currently, I serve on the governing council of Star-Ghana Foundation, whose main agenda at the moment is to foster active citizenship in Ghana.
I am also a patron of the Alliance for women in Media (AWMA), a member of the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) and a close ally of the Ghana Community Radio Network (GCRN). These associations, and the media advocacy and capacity-building projects I have been involved in over the years, have afforded me particular insights into the capabilities and challenges in the media space.
I am also privileged to chair the board of Panos West Africa (PIWA), a media-focused NGO based in Dakar, to serve on the board of West Africa Democracy Radio, and on the board of The Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development [CJID], based in Nigeria. Again, these experiences have given me a wider perspective on media development on the continent and provided opportunities for other forms of engagement outside the university.
Madame Chair, as an unapologetic feminist, one of my major preoccupations has been addressing gender inequality through my research and teaching and in my advocacy endeavours. In 1993, I co-founded and edited a women’s magazine called AWO, which drew inspiration from Kate Abam’s pioneering Obaa Sima magazine, in an attempt to address the side-lining of serious issues relating to women in mainstream media. I have deepened my knowledge of gender issues through working closely with organisations such as the Gender Advocacy and Documentation Centre, the Coalition against domestic violence, the Women’s Manifesto coalition and Netright.
Madame Chair, it is these contours of scholarship and activism that have led me to reflex more carefully about the interconnections between what we do in the proverbial ivory tower and the realities on the ground. And it is from this privileged position that I seek to situate the media and their contribution to democratic consolidation in Ghana.
The Media and Democracy Link
Madam chair, I do not seek to dilate on the state of democracy in Ghana, I will leave that to the political scientists. But I would like to state that the link between democracy and media is well established in media scholarship and often touted by proponents of liberal democracy.
When in 2009 US President Barrack Obama addressed the Parliament of Ghana, he highlighted the importance of building stronger institutions to bolster democracy in Africa, maintaining that an independent press, and institutions such as strong parliaments, honest police forces, independent judges, a vibrant private sector and civil society, are what “give life to democracy.”
The view that a well-functioning press nurtures democracy is also reflected in the notion of the media as a fourth estate that complements and simultaneously acts as a check on the three arms of government – the executive, legislature and judiciary. As the maxim underscoring the symbiotic relationship between democracy and media holds, where there is democracy there must necessarily be free media, and where there is free media, the political system being practiced is bound to be democratic.
The complexities of the societies we live in today are such that the media, broadly defined to include what we now call legacy media (newspapers, radio and television), and internet-based or digital media, have assumed centrality in our lives.
As citizens, we rely on media to facilitate information flow to enable us to make decisions about who should govern us and to scrutinize and hold accountable those who hold power in trust us. Information is the oxygen of democracy and what keeps it alive.
Madame Chair, the media also play an influential role in constantly setting the agenda for what we think about simply by selecting and placing before us what they consider worthy of public attention and in the process conferring legitimacy on certain issues while ignoring others.
The potent mediating effect of journalism, not only of the current but of the past, is another reason the media matter. By recording events as they occur and documenting facts, journalism, as the axiom states, provides “the first rough draft of history.” It is important that that draft be accurate.
Finally, I must warn that the media is important because it is an instrument of social control that can be manipulated by both authoritarian and democratic regimes.
The Ghanaian Media Ecosystem
Ghana has enjoyed close to 30 years of uninterrupted democratic governance fostered by a constitution which contains principles and institutional arrangements aimed at guiding democratic practice, including a chapter (12) devoted solely to the media. The media ecosystem has been radically transformed from the de facto state monopolistic system it was in the 1980s, to one of the most liberal media environments on the continent. For the past five years, the country has ranked ahead of established democracies such as the U.S. and U.K. in the World Press Freedom Index as published by Reporters without Borders (RSF). Out of 180 countries, Ghana ranked 26th in 2017, 23rd in 2018, 27th in 2019, and 30th in both 2020 and 2021. Despite the drop in the last few years, which must certainly be of concern, in general, Ghanaian media are free to operate.
There is a proliferation of media outlets throughout the country – some 489 radio stations are currently operational in all 16 regions of the country, and 110 television stations are on air. In addition, there are about 135 newspapers published with varying degrees of regularity, and hundreds more online publications (MFWA, 2018).
The spread of local language radio across the country has been especially empowering as it has allowed many more Ghanaians to benefit from and participate in public discussions. Radio has also brought previously marginalised local languages into the public sphere and encouraged the production of programmes better suited to the needs of the communities in which they are situated.
Energising this seemingly pluralistic media environment is the ever-increasing availability of online and social media through mobile devices that make it possible to readily access news and information. These new forms of media have impacted the traditional media, and what is produced and consumed as news, in positive and negative ways.
Diagnosing the state of health of the Ghanaian media
Madame Chair, the strong evidence I have just outlined of a vibrant ecosystem, fails, however, to reveal the state of health of the Ghanaian media and their capacity to live up to their democratic ideals.
To begin with, we must question whether proliferation has fostered pluralism, for the two words do not mean the same thing.
In interrogating media performance, we must scrutinize both their achievements as well as failures, and explore the ways in which they have facilitated or undermined democratic progress in the fourth republic.
But as a starting point, we must also examine whether in the first place the media operate in an environment which is conducive to them functioning effectively.
I acknowledge that the media is not a monolith; there are variations in media practice and performance that we must keep in mind, while at the same time accepting a generalized appraisal of the industry.
I am particularly interested in interrogating media performance through five lenses, four of which are offered by media scholars Christians, Glasser, McQuail, and my friends Nordenstreng and White (2009), who sought to establish journalism’s role in democratic societies by identifying four normative roles media play. I have included a fifth role because of its particular relevance to the African context and will expand on these in my reflections on media performance.
I will also lean on the methodological approaches of a variety of media performance frameworks such as the UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators (MDIs), and the African Media Barometer.
I am mindful of arguments by African media scholars that some of the normative roles prescribed for the media come from assumptions of western democratic ideals that hardly consider African realities. My friend Professor Francis Nyamnjoh, for example, has argued that although the rhetoric of liberal democracy is espoused in Africa because the larger societies themselves are not that democratic, the media have difficulty pursuing a democratic agenda. For these reasons, says Nyanmjoh, African leaders and media practitioners conform to “a Jekyll-and Hyde democracy” (2005: 21) in which principles are accepted but not conformed to in practice.
Ecological Factors Affecting Media Performance
Madame Chair, media systems reflect the political, economic, and social order in which they are situated. Before we can evaluate the media’s democratic credentials, it is necessary to examine the ecological factors that affect their performance.
On the surface, the fundamentals underpinning democratic governance appear ideal. The legislative and policy frameworks governing the media are amongst some of the most progressive on the continent. The Constitution protects free expression, media freedoms and independence (Article 21: 1), and guarantees easy establishment and access to media. The constitution also protects media owners and publishers from governmental interference and establishes the National Media Commission (NMC) to, amongst other things, “insulate the state-owned media in particular, from governmental control.”
At the same time, the Constitution expects the media to discharge certain responsibilities in line with democratic principles, thus, for example, it stipulates that state-owned media must “afford fair opportunities and facilities for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions” (Article 163). It also enjoins the media to “uphold the principles, provisions and objectives of the Constitution”, and to “uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people of Ghana.”
Some of these constitutional provisions have been tested in court. For example, court rulings on state media have affirmed their independence from governmental control through the manner of appointment of the boards and the heads of such institutions. The courts in NPP versus GBC also affirmed the right of oppositional voices to access state media. And In 2015 they ruled that censorship of the media through content regulation that was proposed by the NMC was unconstitutional.
The legal regime for media was also improved when in 2000, criminal libel and sedition were repealed by a unanimous vote in Parliament.
More recently in 2019, after several years of lobbying by advocates, the Right to Information Act (Act 989) was passed giving all citizens, not just the media, the right to obtain information, documents or data from governmental institutions without being compelled to provide reasons.
A number of rulings by the RTI Commission, favourable to petitioners seeking information from governmental and public institutions, have affirmed this right. For example, in July 2021, the RTI Commission ruled that the Minerals Commission’s demand of $1000 fee to provide information to an online newspaper, the Fourth Estate, was against their right to public information and ordered instead that the publication pay only GHC1.90 pesewas.
‘Similarly, the Commission intervened in an RTI application by a journalist requesting information on the budgetary allocations given to the Ghana Police Service. The police had refused to honour the request. Following the petition to the RTI, the Commission wrote to the Ghana Police, asking them to release the requested information and subsequently fined them GH¢50,000 in February 2022 for refusing to comply (www.allafrica.com)
Still, Madame Chair, the lack of any broadcasting legislation is a glaring lacuna in the country’s regulatory system, which critics argue is mostly responsible for excesses in the broadcast space. In April 2021, two teenagers in Kasoa were alleged to have been influenced by content on television to kill an 11-year-old boy for ritual purposes. The incident renewed calls for stronger regulation of broadcast content, with the government responding by reactivating a draft broadcast bill which had been on the back burner for years and promising to immediately put the bill before Parliament. One year on, we are still waiting.
The failure of successive governments to enact a broadcast code, compounded by a lack of transparency in how frequencies are allocated by the (NCA), has contributed to the political capture of Ghanaian media and skewed authorization in favour of commercial station applicants, to the detriment of other tiers of broadcasting, particularly the community radio sector.
Critics charge also that the scramble for, and allocation of frequencies to political operatives, has resulted in a high saturation of radio stations in big cities and made the viability of the radio business challenging.
Supervision of the airwaves remains unsettled between the NMC and NCA. Largely perceived as a dog with a bark, but no bite, the NMC on which I have served on two different occasions, has struggled to truly live up to its constitutional mandate of “taking all appropriate measures to ensure the establishment and maintenance of the highest journalistic standards in the mass media.” The Commission, through its complaints settlement committee, arbitrates grievances against the media, but it has no sanctioning powers of its own to keep errant journalists or media organisations in check.
Madame Chair, media production and content are closely linked to ownership. Theoretical positions on the political economy of the media hold that ownership shapes the kinds of information provided by news media, and influences media independence, governance, and free speech (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). It is fair to say that in Ghana lack of transparency in media ownership, coupled with proprietorial interference, has had a negative influence on the work of the media.
Another negative factor has been attacks on journalists and serious threats to free speech, media freedoms and the safety of journalists. Watchdog groups such as Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) and CDD-Ghana, warn of a deterioration in the civic space in which the media operate. MFWA has documented several violations against the media by state and non-state actors. Examples of violations include instances where police or soldiers have detained, assaulted or threatened journalists or media crew, while they were covering stories. The brutal police assault on JOY-FM’s Latif Iddrisu, is a case in point. Equally indicting is the still-unsolved murder in 2019 of Ahmed Hussein-Suale, who worked with investigative journalist Anas Amereyaw Anas A more recent example of another egregious attack happened at Radio Ada, a community radio station that has been challenging the lack of transparency and accountability in the privatization of salt lagoons and advocating for better governance in the extraction of Ada’s natural resource – salt.
Physical, verbal and psychological attacks and reprisals against journalists, or even the fear of violence, has a chilling effect on journalism practice. They encourage self-censorship by journalists, as well as their sources (Asante, Reuters).
The media are also under attack from economic forces and many newsrooms are struggling to survive. A variety of factors – fierce competition from digital media, poor capitalization, an over-crowded media space, fragmented audiences, etc. – have led to a decline in sources of revenue for legacy media. This already precarious condition has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in constricting revenue sources even further and led to job losses across the media industry.
The result of all these is not just an inability for the media industry to attract the brightest and best needed for quality journalism to thrive; it provides a convenient excuse for unprofessional behaviour such as soli or brown envelope, and for easy co-optation of journalists by political and business actors.
To quote Former Citi-FM journalist Nana Ama Agyemang-Asante (–), “combine low pay with high risk, and the outlook becomes bleak. How many business journalists would be willing to investigate and report the corrupt or harmful dealings of a company when they have been taking soli from them for years? …How many political journalists would be able to expose corruption or scandals involving politicians who contributed to their rent? Or be critical of the political party that funded their education?”
Critique of Media in democratic practice in Ghana
Madame Chair, critics of the media, some of whom are at the same time their staunchest allies, have levelled a litany of accusations against them. The media in Ghana have been accused of being partisan, polarised factionalised, unprofessional and unethical
Some of these criticisms date back to the beginning of Ghana’s democratic journey when an unfettered media was considered more tolerable than a chained one. The concerns then, as now, include sloppiness in reporting, lack of verification to establish facts, peddling of falsehood, biased reporting, uninformed opinionating masqueraded as fact, weak research and analytical capacity, sensationalism aimed at boosting sales and cheque-book journalism. Of particular concern to my feminist sensibilities also has been gendered coverage, including the perpetuation of gender stereotypes and sexist attitudes that prop up patriarchal norms within a society, and inattention to issues of concern to women.
Little wonder surveys such as the Afrobarometer indicate a decline in trust and popular support for media in Ghana, similar to what was found in other African countries.
Madame Chair, although strong allegations have been levelled against the media and public trust in them seems to be wavering, there is plenty of evidence to show that the media have played and continue to play very positive roles within Ghanaian society. I hope to make this clear when I examine how they have discharged their normative functions as set out by Christians, et. al, namely: the monitorial role, radical role, facilitative role and collaborative role. I will also discuss their performance in the role referred to as the cultural glue role.
Madame Chair, the monitorial role requires journalists to perform a number of functions.
1. To play a surveillance role by monitoring the environment, and providing relevant information to people on what is happening around them, on trends and threats. It also demands that they collect feedback on public responses to, for example, government policies.
The media’s performance on this score has been mixed. They have done reasonably well in providing critical information to the public on a wide range of issues, and deserve commendation for special reports that spotlight non-functioning systems, e.g. poor infrastructure, security, and service provision. On a routine basis, the media also provide us with information on key governance institutions such as Parliament, the Presidency and District Assemblies (DAs). The media have also been especially effective during key democratic moments like elections, by informing voters about parties, programmes, candidates and issues, and providing civic education about the electoral system and arrangements. They also do well-monitoring voting processes and reporting on election results, exposing electoral irregularities and generally bringing transparency to electoral contests.
However, the quality of information and even the type of information they provide can be superficial, sometimes not what we need to help us make informed decisions. Audience surveys have suggested to citizens what information on issues such as health, education, environment and sanitation, etc. but most often it is partisan politics which dominates the airwaves. Climate change has been described as an existential threat, but you won’t know that if you consumed Ghanaian media. Much too often, journalists do not use their analytical skills in reporting on systemic structural failures. Agyemang-Asante, for example, has accused them of failing to predict the banking crisis of 2017. The reason may be what Broadcast journalist Bernard Avle, offered in a CDD Kronti ne Akwamu lecture he delivered in 2020; the fact that some key media houses were owned by banks, some of which were amongst the ones that failed.
Tied to the monitorial role is the often-invoked watchdog role of the media that demands them to act as a check on the abuse of power, bring transparency to public life and seek accountability, not only from political and public officials, but from non‐state actors such as businesses, non-governmental organisations, and religious bodies as well
There are many examples where the media have been influential in exacting accountability, and pressuring politicians and other duty bearers to provide information to justify actions and policies. Investigative reporters such as Anas Amereyaw Anas, Manneseh Azure, Kwetey Nettey, Francesca Enchill, etc. have exposed corruption in institutions like the Ghana procurement authority, the health ministry in the recent Sputnik vaccines scandal, the erstwhile Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA), the Ghana Youth Employment and Entrepreneurial Development Agency (GYEEDA), private businesses and even in the Judiciary.
The Socratic notion of democracy rests on two important principles – equality and freedom. The radical role draws from that and calls for the media to strive for equality and justice and the elimination of concentrations of social power within society so that all, especially the socially marginalized, can be included in all societal decisions. As Nancy Fraser suggests, people ought to think the media speak for them.
The radical role, therefore, calls for the media to proactively advocate for the respect of human rights and rule of law, which are enshrined in our constitution and be in a position to question power including, traditional authority, on actions that are incompatible with democratic practice. This social justice role also includes agitating for market reforms to address imbalances in wealth
A cursory assessment would suggest the media have shown some commitment to equality and freedom and not shied away from demanding equal access to social services or for things to be done according to the rule of law. Journalists have exposed the abuse of the human rights of citizens by security forces, and victimization of people in the workplace.
Media coverage has also demonstrated support for ethnic inclusiveness and gender and economic empowerment. News reports have highlighted the social exclusion of people living with disabilities; the stigmatization of people living with HIV Aids and earlier on in the pandemic, stigma against those who had caught COVID-19 disease.
But as my colleagues Abena Yeboah-Banin, Ivy Fofie and I found out in research conducted in collaboration with AWMA, as an industry, the media itself does not demonstrate gender equality. Our research showed that in the first place, the media business is almost entirely male; only a couple of women own media organisations. There are also few women in decision making positions such as on the boards of media companies or in top management positions. We also found that newsrooms can be inhospitable spaces for women to work for a number of reasons, including the failure to sanction sexual harassment or enact policies to deter such unacceptable behaviour.
Madame Chair, in the midst of plenty, rural communities are still under-served by the media. They have only rudimentary communication systems like community address systems (COMPAC) at their disposal because many rural areas are not considered financially viable for media investments. And even though the media have improved coverage of disabilities over the years, some newsrooms are simply inaccessible to physically challenged persons because no lifts have been provided for ease of mobility and no arrangements in place for visually or hearing impaired persons participate in programs.
Most perniciously, the media, particularly social media, have acted as accelerants of hate against certain social groups, notable in recent times, members of the LGBTQ+ community. Journalists have betrayed their own biases against sexual minorities by stereotyping and denigrating them in their coverage, by failing to give them adequate opportunity to defend their rights, and generally failing to challenge those who seek to trample on their human rights. It has been disappointing to see how reluctant the media have been to call out traditional authorities who threaten to ban citizens perceived as LGBTQ+ from their towns and villages. I of course have had direct experience of these injustices as a member of a group of 18 persons who sent a memorandum to Parliament against the proposed anti-homosexuality bill. Not only have we been verbally lynched in social media, at times the attack has been carefully orchestrated by legacy media practitioners.
Our mostly Christian newsrooms, especially those located in southern Ghana, also perpetuate forms of inequality against other religions, particularly our own traditional religions, as they either neglect to cover them or adopt a negative tone towards them in their reports. One of the complaints we received when I served on the NMC was from traditional religion adherents who wanted us to restrain a radio station in Dzodze from constantly vilifying their religion.
It bears remining that no matter a journalist’s religious convictions, ethnic loyalties or political views, they have an obligation to educate the public that part of living in a democracy is to tolerate views and values that may go against their own.
Participatory democracy is underpinned by the notion of an active dialogical public sphere, shaped by a variety of actors whose opinions and attitudes guide governance (Habermas? Rutherford?) The facilitative role required of the media is therefore rooted in expectations that the media would provide an inclusive public space for pluralistic debate, and civic engagement in public affairs so that the collective wisdom of society would inform governance.
Implicit in the facilitative role is also a mobilising role requiring the media to rally and encourage public learning and participation, in, for example, political processes such as elections.
In Ghana civic participation in public affairs has been greatly facilitated by the multiplicity of spaces now available for citizens to comment on social and governance issues. The very nature of social media, which allows for people to express themselves without traditional gatekeepers has meant marginalized voices, as well as minority, even unpopular, viewpoints, can be accommodated in public discourse. Social media has proven a useful tool for social mobilization around a range of issues, also, especially through hashtag campaigns. In addition, the legacy media have facilitated access to CSOs, social movements, interest groups and individuals, to pressure social change and reforms.
Madame Chair, although Ghana’s mediascape appears rich because of the plethora of media available, in reality, there is little diversity in the character and content on offer, whether in the local language or English language. As Agyemang-Asante points out “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 the political class and elites (increasingly the lawyer class).”
It is a constitutional obligation for the media to cover and moderate dissenting views, but they rarely accommodate radical views that challenge the social order and are sometimes too quick to acquiesce to state excuses that the quashing of certain dissenting voices is justified in the national interest.
The gendered nature of the media and lack of diversity of voices is exemplified in the lack of women as expert sources in the news, and the tendency towards manels, that is media panels that are mostly composed of men. A MFWA monitoring report on the level of involvement and participation of women in public discourse on radio in Ghana showed 83 per cent of the time it is male voices that are heard on discussion programmes (MFWA, 2013). The study found also that only 11% of expert sources interviewed on radio and television in Ghana are woman. The media’s discriminatory tendencies towards women is confirmed in a more recent study where it was found that on mixed panels, male panelists were given more time to speak and treated with more respect than women. The study also found that men’s knowledge was not questioned as much as women’s knowledge when they appeared in the media (Nana Ama..).
Newsroom practices continue to ignore women’s societal constraints in the design of news programmes. When for example, the media invite women to appear on shows at short notice or come on late night shows, they fail to consider that in Ghana’s conservative society, women sometimes face difficulties accommodating professional and household roles without advance notice. Furthermore, societal attitudes towards outspoken women can also discourage many from participating in talk programmes, particularly shows that are needlessly confrontational.
The collaborative role prescribed for the media is often perceived as contentious and suggestive of collusion between media and the state. This is partly because journalistic independence is seen in liberal democratic practice as being upheld when the relationship between journalists and the power elite is adversarial rather than friendly. But those who support this role, counter that the media must be used to promote state interests that coincide with the interest of the public. In developing countries such as Ghana collaboration between the media and state institutions is desirable for developmental purposes, for example, during natural disasters, public health campaigns, and when the state is faced with threats from external enemies.
As my mentor, Kwame Karikari (2021) observed, “traditional media have in totality, helped national development through social mobilization in times of need such as during national emergencies and the COVID-19 fight.”
I must caution, however, that the media ought to avoid becoming government apologists by striking a careful balance between their collaborative role and their watchdog role (Pye, 1963).
Cultural glue role:
The final role of the media I will discuss today risks being perceived as contrary to journalistic neutrality as well. The Cultural Glue Role was not identified in the typology of roles advanced by Christians et. al. and is hardly included in discussions on the media’s normative roles in a democratic society. It is, however, worth considering in the context of Africa, given the danger of polarization along ethnic and religious lines, resulting from the historical composition of African nation-states by Western powers.
This role perceives the media as vital in the preservation and propagation of the culture of a people and assigns it the responsibility of preserving tradition and promoting a common cultural heritage in the interest of future generations (Nahak, 2018). In post-colonial Ghana, one of the tasks of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) was to promote a common national identity, while protecting and preserving the cultural diversities of people. The state broadcaster did it by constantly playing national songs, showing different local cultures and broadcasting news in various local languages as a way of projecting Ghana’s identity as a multicultural, but unified country.
By acting as a cultural unifier that brings people of diverse ethnicities together and highlighting the common norms and values that define them as unique people, the media can promote tolerance and co-existence and play a constructive role during conflicts. In Ghana where there are low-intensity communal conflicts and a propensity for violence during electoral contestations, a deliberate forging of unity is crucial for democratic survival.
We have seen how media messages stoked ethnic divisions in countries such as Rwanda and Kenya. Comparatively, the Ghanaian media have acted responsibly in circumstances that potentially could have exacerbated tensions within society. An example of this is how the media covered the crisis in Dagbon immediately after the murder of the Ya Na.
The cultural glue role of media can also act as a push back against the foisting of beliefs and values from the global north on the global south. This often happens through the flow of cultural goods like news and information and popular media (films and music).
We live in an intensely globalized world where Western imperialism is difficult to counter. The media in Ghana have a particularly important duty to consciously produce local content to stem western domination in the media we consume. Many media organisations, particularly television, however, find it easier and cheaper to fill air time with imported programmes, sometimes dubbed in local languages, rather than to invest in local programmes that better reflect Ghanaian national identities and cultural life.
Lack of investment in covering our own is also mirrored in how poorly the media covers neighbouring countries. We look to BBC to tell us what is happening in “the small West African country of Togo.”
So, what is the way forward?
Madame chair, there are still lots of other burning questions relating to the media and Ghana’s democratic journey. The issues raised here are part of a continuum of critical conversations that we must keep on having as we struggle to consolidate Ghana’s democracy.
Ghanaian journalists work in challenging circumstances and lack the resources to provide the kinds of robust coverage necessary to fulfil some of the normative roles I have just discussed. But as I have shown, journalism practice is Ghana demonstrates a lot of potentials.
Mainly because of the checkered political history of Ghana, the media is still young in terms of democratic practice. Many journalists are inexperienced, lack the requisite knowledge of the areas they cover and do not have a strong sense of history.
As a key pillar of democracy, however, the media sector is too important to fail. It needs a bailout on several fronts:
First, the environment in which media operate must be improved. No matter the laws in place journalists must feel safe and confident to do their job without fear of attacks. Whether state or non-state actors, those who violate media rights ought to be held accountable and sanctioned. It is the only way to reduce impunity.
Secondly, there is need for introspection on the part of the media and genuine attempts to address the litany of complaints that diminish people’s trust in them. Without popular support for civic freedoms, there is the risk that authoritarian-minded governments will place further restrictions aimed at weakening the media’s ability to hold them accountable.
Thirdly, if the media are expected to be guardians of democracy, they themselves must deepen their commitment to democratic ideals. Media development organisations, media activists and scholars, must consciously seek to engage those in the media chain – from owners to cub reporters – to develop a stronger understanding of why the media must work in the public interest, and in support of democratic consolidation.
Fourthly, there have been many attempts by organisations within and outside academia to build the capacity of media practitioners. The media industry itself must invest more in building the capacity of its employees. There are few investigative journalists in Ghana, for example, and most media organisations are unwilling to allocate resources for investigative journalism or sustained coverage of issues of high salience.
Capacity building must also include building skills to cover specialized topics like the environment, science and technology, which affect people in such profound ways. These trainings must also aim at helping to build a more equitable society, by addressing gendered media content, and encouraging the media to enhance coverage of the marginalized and socially excluded.
Efforts to improve media professional standards of ethics must also be strengthened to ward off hostile external regulation. This means media companies and media associations such as GJA, GCRN and GIBA (Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association) must encourage self-regulation and hold their employees and members more accountable when they contravene professional and ethical norms.
Finally, I acknowledge that some of the media reforms I am suggesting will need financial resources. Media businesses are already under strain but they must look for new business models and find more innovative ways of survival. The Ghanaian media are not alone in this predicament. Branko Brkic, editor in chief of the South African newspaper, Daily Maverick, was reported as advocating for a major philanthropic infusion of about $1 billion a year to support journalism around the world. Brkic was quoted as arguing that “Fixing quality media is the cheapest way to fix society.”
Madame Chair I endorse that view. The old model where commercial advertising is the primary source of media funding is obviously atrophied. Other sustainability types of funding, from private philanthropy to public subsidies, must be explored.
Madame Chair, we must remember that the media are a public good and must be supported to survive, if for nothing else in the interest of democracy. To quote Professor Alfred Opubor, who was one of the foremost communication scholars on our continent, and a man with whom I had the privilege of serving on the PIWA board, “In the midst of freedom, there may still be chains” (Opubor, 2005, p. 16).
Madame Chair, distinguished ladies and gentlemen I am done with my presentation.
Madame Chair, my academic journey has been long, sometimes tedious but fulfilling and along the way there have been many colleagues, friends and relatives that have made the journey much easier than it would otherwise have been.
I cannot mention all of you by name but hope you know I appreciate you all. I would like to acknowledge however a few people who have played significant roles in nurturing my academic career – Dr Lynne Brydon, Prof Kwame Karikari, Prof Leslie Steeves, Professor Gyimah Boadi, Her Ladyship Professor Henrietta Mensa-Bonsu, Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi
I would also like to thank my colleagues and staff at the Department of Communication Studies and the School of Information and Communication. In particular my sincere thanks go to Drs. Gilbert Tieetah, Dr. Abena Yeboah-Banin and Dr. Theodora Dame, who were my sounding board when I was preparing this lecture. I also want to thank Kwame Klevor, and my PhD students Daniel Adjei and Diana Sebbie, who assisted me in various ways during preparation towards this inaugural lecture.
Madame Chair, finally, my scholarly journey could not have been possible without the support of my family. My father Fred Gadzekpo who left this earth before he could see me mount this stage, even though he had whispered to my friend and big sister professor, to make sure I followed in her footsteps. We sometimes butted heads on gender norms, but one thing was for sure, he believed in equal opportunity for males and females and ensured I was well educated and supported to realise my academic potential.
I heart filled with gratitude and love goes to my mother, who is here at this lecture, the wing behind my wings who was always willing to step in anytime I needed help with my daughter, particularly when I was completing my PhD.
My three siblings Frank, Keli and Sese and cousin Folley have always been my anchor and always got my back. Thank you for being part of this journey. I would also like to acknowledge my sisters-in-law Lynn and Faake, who pitched in more times than I can count when I needed help.
Nubuke, my daughter, my handbag, who endured many absences from me from the moment she was born because she dared to come in the middle of my PhD, my other daughter Paulina, nieces and nephews – Amy, Sedi, Eli, Mawuena, Mifa, Thomas, Chelsea, Armando, Fredrica, and Janet – you are part of the reason we could do this. I say thank you to you too.