When The Media Go To Bed With A Government In Search Of Legitimacy (Final)
Date published: January 30, 2013
By Amos Safo
In the first part of this article published by The Chronicle three weeks ago, I concluded that anywhere dictatorship and human rights abuses become entrenched, governments often start with the destruction of press freedom and freedom of expression – Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, etc, are classic examples.
I also added that judging from the conduct of the 2012 elections, the disputed results, and the role of some influential media in pronouncing the skewed results , we might have began our slide down those days when news was ‘only what government wanted to be heard.’
In my opinion, this kind of censorship has nothing to do with draconian press laws, but this time the ‘soft control of the media’ by perhaps buying off ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘agenda setters’ at the influential media houses.
As you might be aware of cases of press censorship and abuse of power in the above countries, it is not out of place to argue that the abuse of the power
occurred because the media were in the service of the tyrants in those countries. Tyrants and dictators have long known that controlling the information that people receive is a very effective way of controlling the people themselves.
The survival of truly independent media
It is an accepted theory in media studies that the survival of a truly free and independent media cannot be divorced from the establishment of the social and political institutions of good governance, as part of an integrated approach to nation building.
This explains why everybody-the government, the opposition, the clergy, the academia, the Bar and the Bench and journalists themselves must ensure that the media are truly independent and insulated from government control ; for the government in power today, will be in opposition tomorrow. It is only the media that will remain the fulcrum of our democracy. To realize this role, the media must be free from the threat of political interference.
But what is happening in Ghana currently does not suggest that the media are free from political interference. It is baffling to note that all media (especially the electronic media) can totally agree on any issue such as a heated election results. As a journalist myself, I have always been in agreement that the media’s democratic role would be fulfilled by journalists’ adherence to the professional ethic of objectivity in reporting the facts of public affairs, such as results of an election.
Objectivity, argues McNair ( 2003), implies a clear journalistic distancing from opinions expressed in political debates and a determination not to confuse the expression of the opinion with the reporting of fact. Was that what happened in the reporting of the 2012 elections? Why did the gatekeepers and agenda setters fail to question the results?
If they did, the country would have been saved the impending legal feud with its potential ramifications for country. It is not just Dr. Afari Gyan and his electoral officials who planned and executed a flawed election, but journalists who failed to read between the lines.
Indeed, the agenda-setting function of the media is argued by many analysts to be their main contribution to the political process McCombs (1981). Despite the maneuvering by politicians, the media have the right to set their own agendas as providers of objective news, highlighting some issues and ignoring others, for reasons which are often beyond the capacity of politicians to influence. Never should the media allow politicians to influence the results of an election. It is what the electorate decides that should be guarded and protected by the media, not what the Electoral Commission and politicians want to be heard. And the media and journalists must always remember that they exist to protect the national interest. That is why they have the inalienable right as the fourth estate of the realm.
Why the media matter In October 2005, the first global gathering of the media assistance sector took place in Amman, Jordan, under the patronage of King Abdullah II. The inaugural Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) drew together over 425 representatives of media assistance organisations from 97 countries. Supported by a range of agencies and foundations including DFID, and the Ford and Knight Foundations, the GFMD also attracted high-level representation from the UN and the World Bank. The forum concluded, for instance that the media must operate in ways that ensure that people are able to access information and to express their own opinions and priorities in the public arena. The forum recognized that balanced discourse during and after elections are crucial public issues that can mend or tear countries apart. In that regard, the forum recommended that media should be strengthened for the sole reason of counterbalancing extremism. It pointed out that independent media systems that are inclusive and responsive to diversity play a key role in preventing the exclusion of voices that breed extremism. “Healthy public spheres can host a wide range of views which can dilute intolerance. Policy makers should increase support for media assistance programmes to widen access for moderate voices and balanced discourse”, the forum noted. More than forty years ago, in 1962, the United Nations’ Secretary-General, U Thant, warned that an explosion of violence could occur as a result of the sense of injustice felt by those living in poverty and despair in a world of plenty. In the case of Ghana, it is not poverty (since we have the wherewithal to reduce poverty), but injustice at the highest institutional level (Electoral Commission) that could tear this country apart. All around Africa, we have seen how the media can become a substitute for democratic political expression, with media talk shows serving as a facsimile (some might say a caricature) of genuine political debate. The record of ‘Radio Rwanda’ in nursing a conflict that killed close to one million people is well documented. I visited Rwanda in 2006 and saw the skulls of the victims of hate in the Genocide Museum. I fully support the idea that journalists should be by rewarded by society (not government) for being bold and objective; for it insulates society from political abuse, no matter which government is in power. Equally important is that journalists should be punished for fanning flames of intolerance; otherwise the media can become a disastrous alternative to responsible politics. It must be pointed out that independent and credible media is essential to the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and essential to development. The people and countries with access to information have far more chance of enjoying the fruits of development than those without. Freedom to seek, receive, impart, and use credible information is vital for peaceful co-existence and nation building.
Conclusion In short, what I have tried to argue is that never should Ghanaians allow the media to be subordinated to the interests of a group of political, economic, military and cultural elite, and ‘the national security state’, which control the flow of information. It is dangerous to our democracy, so all stakeholders, especially the private sector that advertise in the media and the audience that patronize the media should speak with one voice and ask the media to be responsible and objective. When the media fail to be objective, when the media fail to tell the government that what it is doing is wrong, the media is only helping the government to dig its own grave, and with that helping to stoke the embers of conflict and social degeneration. When the media become apologetically pliant to interest groups, the powerful in society, those controlling the coercive forces of state will always have their way.
Watson, J. (2003). Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process. 2nd Ed. London McNair, B. (2003). An Introduction to Political Communication. Routledge. London, p.26.
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