Freedom of Speech and Responsible Reportage in the Ghanaian Media


    J.J Rousseau, the French philosopher, said long ago that man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. A reflection on this saying informs us that freedom has more responsibilities than being in servitude or bondage.
    At least, a slave has no burden of planning or making decisions but the master has. Freedom of speech does not mean unfettered or unlimited freedom. It rather means responsible use of freedom or else we descend into a Hobbesian state of utter anarchy, chaos and the operation of the jungle law of the survival of the fittest with leviathan or powerful state juggernaut taking sway to gag dissenting views. Freedom of speech means exercising our freedom with self restraint, self censorship, self regulation, temperance and acting in a professional and ethical manner within the confines of the law and within accepted professional norms and conventions.
    Someone also once said that your freedom ends where someone else’s nose begins. The duty or remit of the media is to educate, inform entertain, advocate, admonish and inspire us with patriotic fervor and zeal. It is not within the ethics of the media to engage in telling lies or feeding the public with speculative and specious journalism. It is also immoral for journalists to use their privileged or vantage position to fan the embers of national discord or poison the national political chalice and thereby encourage sentiments of tribalism, divisionism, rancour, sectarianism, ultra partisanship and jingoism.
    Sad to state, some of our media practitioners have abandoned professionalism and have taken stands in the political arena, brazenly displaying their political orientations and leanings. Some of them have blatantly been championing the cause of their favoured political parties and patrons. One might conclude that these media houses have their palms greased and their pockets lined by their patrons. Real professionals should be apolitical, non-partisan, neutral, independent, impartial and astute so that they can win the trust of the public and serve them faithfully and effectively. Furthermore, professionals need to be open-minded, objective and permanent to serve any elected government of the day faithfully.
    By this behaviour, they ensure the continuity of the ship of state. On the contrary, sad to say, some of our journalists unashamedly are practising stomach-direction journalism and are like willows in the wind with no moral compunction or spines in their backs. They are like yoyo in the wind. Some of them seek cheap popularity by playing to the gallery and writing things which they know are palpable lies and propaganda. Do such cheap journalists pause to think of the irreparable harm they are causing the body politic? There are times when you begin to wonder whether these wayward journalists took lessons in professionalism or ethics or whether they are licensed and articled.
    I am not a trained journalist yet as a teacher of communication skills, English, management and economics, I know as professionals, journalists are called upon to play by the mores of their calling. It is important to point out to our journalists that when confronted by a dilemma, they have to rise like the helicopter factor, far above the dilemmas so that they have a holistic and detached view in order to write on issues factually, candidly and in a balanced and unbiased manner. The public have the right to know what they are supposed to know.
    However, some issues bother on state security and journalists have to be circumspect about what to divulge and what not to. Journalists need also to avoid being trapped by self love or narcissism which can be their motive for pursuing personal agendas rather than the public interest. In the hierarchy of state, first comes the monarchy or executive arm. Then second in succession is the nobility or landed gentry. Third in place is the clergy and fourth in place are the commoners, laity and the Fourth Estate, journalists (Edmund Burke 1729 – 1797).
    Thus the glorified state of the Fourth Estate needs at all times to be maintained and held sacrosanct and inviolable. Respect begets respect. Journalists first have to respect themselves and the rights of others before they can expect the law of reciprocal action to complete its cycle. It is sad to see a few black sheep villifying the noble profession of the scribe. We all know that the profession of journalism is fraught with many risks and temptations. So are all other professions.
    For example, teachers run the high risk of poverty because they hardly have time to themselves to better their lot as they are eternally improving the lot of their wards and tutees. Journalists who are in the fields face high risks of accidents, arrest and torture and dying in the battle theatre, long working hours, among others. Some time ago, during the Gulf War or Desert Storm in the early 90’s, we watched on CNN how the veteran journalist, Christiana Amanpour, went behind the US invading forces in Kuwait to report live from the war theatre.
    Luckily, she survived the high risks and instantly became a global hero and CNN icon. Jerry-Springer, Ben Dotse Malor, Ofeibea Quist Arcton, Kobla Dumor, Larry King, Sshaka Sali, Ophrah Winfrey and Bridget Kandle, among others, have made a name in their fields of expertise. In countries such as Russia, Iraq, Somalia, Gambia, Iran and some of the failed states, press freedom is a luxury and journalists are hard put to it doing their jobs. Despite the risks, working in the media has also its high points such as interviewing heads of state and celebrities, being invited to state banquets and luncheons, covering international conferences and sporting events, among others. Journalists have a maxim that if the story is positive, then it is no news.
    Therefore they have a penchant for reporting the bizarre, weird, gory, ghoulish and outlandish tit-bits. Yet we need more reports on success stories and development news to keep up our spirits and to remind us of the efforts being made by our elected representatives in discharging our mandate via the social contract. We need to know how our hard earned money, in the form of taxes, is being spent. We need to be constantly briefed about the goings-on in and outside our country. With unfettered access to the internet, journalism is taking a new turn.
    With internet chartrooms, blogs and cell phone messaging and calling, journalism is now not the exclusive preserve of a select class. We all can input in the information dissemination process and everyone with a laptop or cell phone is a journalist or paparazzi in his or her own right. We now have amateur professionals. The audience has become better informed, au fait, savvy and sophisticated in their needs and tastes.
    They are much travelled and better connected. In this regard, it is important for journalists to be a step ahead and on top of their game. Hardcopy magazines and newspapers will soon be phased out. So also will be radios and TVs, as the current 3G kids do not love reading, except from their laptops or cell phones. This is a sad state because we are going to have functionally literate illiterates who may not be as critical as the old school. In the US Constitution, Article 2, Section 3 states:-
    ‘He (read as The President) shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union…….’ Thus this part of the US Constitution clearly states that there are state matters that only the president or his appointees can pontificate on at specific specified times.
    In Ghana today, we find a run-of-the-mill journalist writing speculatively on a delicate issue which he knows next to nothing about and he or she goes talking on air unintelligible cacophony, jarring our ears with half truths, falsehoods and specious speculations. There are certain state issues in certain domains which should not be discussed in the public arena or domain. They are like a pending court case which is sub judice. Rather, we find our incorrigible and obstreperous journalists prying and poking into issues they have no business to talk or write about. Can we see more self restraint in the New Year?
    Check the behaviour of journalists in the advanced countries such as UK or USA. All the journalists are first and foremost patriotic and they will not wash the country’s dirty linen in public. Issues which are delicate and border on state security include international treaties, defence expenditure, exchange of prisoners, foreign relations, foreign policy, presidential pardons, nuclear programmes, cabinet reshuffle, among others. These are under presidential prerogative, including some covert operations.
    Our journalists need to broaden their perspectives in disciplines such as economics, development studies, political science, law, sociology, philosophy, global studies, international relations and diplomacy, strategic studies, environmental studies, gender studies, planning, finance, business management, among others. If anything, they should follow protocol by going through the channels such as relying on press releases with embargo dates, press attaches, personal assistants, party spokespersons, among others.
    Journalists should be circumspect and know where to tread because the long arm of the law can catch up with them also. In the long run, nemesis catches up with them where they bite more than they chew. We all know that it is not within the remit of journalists to harass people and try to use unethical means to force information out of them or to try to invade their privacy. For example, the work of the paparazzi is well documented and infamous.
    Some Ghanaian media houses, especially the FM Stations, have become spouts for insults and unwarranted political machinations, engaging in character assassinations, innuendos, libel, larceny, treason, felony, among others. The media people should respect intellectual property rights, data confidentiality and the right to privacy, copyright law, among others. Editors and news managers have to determine the propriety of their news contents before they go to press. They should be proactive in order to avoid the high cost of damage control or collateral damage. Their image is at stake. Media owners have to ensure that they employ staff of high pedigree and calibre so that they guarantee professionalism and reduce the risk of failure or causing a faux pas.
    Editors do not need to side with government always on national issues as they are supposed to provide critique and amplify the views and aspirations of the public, making them loud and clear to the policy makers. Neither should they be seen as public enemies numero une nor should they be seen as cogs in the wheel of progress. The media should be everybody’s friend and nobody’s enemy. In their reporting, they are expected to be fair, firm, friendly, fearless and circumspect. They should set their own performance standards and criteria and have a set of value clarifications which will guide their modus operandi. They should adhere to and abide by the maxim of audi alterem parterm or listen to the other party so that they always present both sides of a story or argument and leave the public to draw their own unbiased conclusions from the facts presented.
    In this way they, as messengers of the message, will be seen as instrumentalities or vehicles and they will not be judged harshly. I may suggest that editors and senior staff should all have a minimum of a masters degree and if possible, doctorates. Media staff have to be encouraged by their employers to obtain advanced training or go on sabbatical leave to be attached to media houses in the advanced countries.
    They could work closely with institutions such as the Frederic Ebert Foundation, ILO, International Council of Journalists and the reputable universities such as Columbia University, Kennedy School of Government (KSG) at Harvard, among others. Journalists should read voraciously and avidly to broaden their horizons. They should conduct a lot of research before they go to press. In Ghana in particular, it is frustrating and nauseating to hear some anchor legs on the numerous FM stations blowing hot air and making provocative statements which may border on insults, treason, innuendos and libel.
    Some of them, sorry to say, behave like castrated goons with no eye for decorum or political correctness. Ethically, they should assume high moral ground and, like Caesar’s wife, be above board and reproach. They should resist the temptation of pursuing their own personal agendas, using the media platform. That constitutes abuse of office and not being fair to their stakeholders who may include their employers, reading, viewing and listening public and other information and users.
    Journalists should not be over zealous to rush to press with any unverified cock and bull story. They should not be petty and naïve in their behavior because the cost of damage control is incalculable. Their news scoops ought to be authenticated and collaborated by at least one independent source. I advise the Ghanaian tabloids to avoid sensational leaders as most often the leaders do not tally or match with what is written beneath them.
    Such sensational leaders are misleading and may be seen as ploys or commercial sales gimmicks. Some of the FM Stations and tabloids have descended so low, engaging in lowbrow journalism, derogatively dubbed gutter journalism or journalese or yellow journalism. What newspapers need to do is to get news items from syndicated pool sources such as AFP, Reuters, Associated Press, GNA, CNN, among others. In this way, they can give credible news.
    They should also make use of seasoned freelancers, correspondents, stringers and news clearing houses. They should avoid planting hoaxes in the media such as the rumuor which went round in the country after the Haiti earthquake that there was going to be an earthquake in Ghana. Such rumuors are mischievous and constitute felony. Our journalists should avoid being armchair journalists. They should follow the story live and not the other way round where they write speculatively, based on hearsay, rumuors and gossip. They should engage in investigative journalism.
    If they want to be fiction writers, then sorry we have enough fiction writers in West Africa such as Flora Mwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo, Efua Sutherland, Francis Selormey, Amu Djoleto, Abroquah, Cameroun Duodu, Asare Konadu, Mungo Beti, Ferdinald Uyono, Ike Chukuemeka, Camara Laye, among many others. We do not need the services of pseudo-journalists and dilettantes who experiment with writing and broadcasting junk. We need journalists who know their onions and have cut their spurs. People who have deeper knowledge of media etiquette.
    Often times, some of these journalists at the FM stations engage in provocative and inflammatory language, causing panic and instilling fear in the public with lowbrow wicked jokes and casting uncivilized aspersions. They engage in vituperative effusions, language which is fit for the sewage system. Their language lacks finesse ad enlightenment. Some of the FM Stations have questionable spin masters and wordsmiths who need to be vetted so that the bad nuts are thrown out. I will encourage the press corps to set up media police who will arrest and charge culprits.
    It is not cool for us the unsuspecting and gullible public to be misled and fed with palpable lies on the various radio stations. I have seen moderators at talk shows displaying their ugly side by not adroitly handling the show as their biasedness is visible and sometimes they fail to moderate the speakers who really go to town to heap insults on their opponents. They forget that they are on air. In deed, the phone-in programmes suck! I think the media associations in Ghana should rein in and tame their members. In this New Year, 2011, I expect stringent self censorship mechanisms to be put in place and there should be a lot of fora for the press corps to get sensitized on public apprehensions.
    It is not the duty of the Government or the Minister of Information to regulate the media houses. Internally, they should have their own oversight and gatekeeping measures as professional associations. They should apply the norms and sunshine rules without fear or favour. They should follow best practice around the world. Their employers should strive for them to get attached to reputable institutions such as VOA, CNN, BBC, Washington Post, The Guardian, New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, New African Magazine, Der Spiegel, Al Ahram, among others.
    In Africa, they can use the instrumentality of the AU to get internships in countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Our media houses should institute many awards to motivate young and up-and-coming practitioners. Our media moguls should also invest heavily in equipment and training. These equipment include cameras, computers, scanners, recorders, transmission equipment, stationery, among others. Our media houses should expand by having more correspondents on the ground in all the 10 regions so that they can have live reporting or breaking news. The government should complement their efforts by proving expanded communication coverage of the country. We hope to see in this New Year a vast improvement in the conduct and behaviour of members of the press corps in the Fourth Estate in Ghana.
    If some FM Stations misbehave by falling out of step, they should be strong-armed and pressurized by their own sister stations and cooperating partners or they could be given the cold shoulder by being ostracized or sent to Coventry. At worst, the displeased public may have a run at them, the worst case scenario. We need less speculative journalism as opposed to investigative journalism. Speculative journalism should be reserved for seasoned experts. Citizens’ property rights should be extended so that they can sue in court for hefty damages if their toes are stepped on by deviant journalists. Ghanaians should begin to exercise their legal and civil rights and not let sleeping dogs lie. Enough is enough.
    Aggrieved parties should opt for following the due process of the law to bring culprits to book. I will advise our journalists to be on top of their game by keeping close by themselves advanced dictionaries and encyclopedias for their constant reference. I recommend Webster Dictionary or Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or Concise Oxford Dictionary. There are many reference sources online which can be subscribed to, though some are free. Journalists should not delude themselves that they are above the law and they are untouchables. In the eyes of the law, we are all equal because the symbolic woman holding the scales of justice and the sword is blind.
    Let our media houses diversify their reportage to give viewers, listeners and readers value for their money. Programmes should include quizzes, puzzles, literacy columns, personality profiles, documentaries, features, book reviews, political coverage, interviews with celebrities, art, science, the environment, gender, child welfare, among others. Let us maintain our status as the number one in Africa and number 34 in the world in terms of press freedom. Let us not rest on our oars but seek, like the national eagle, to reach higher heights.
    Let decency reign in the media houses and let us set up watchdogs to keep us in line. Let me end by quoting from Amendment I to the US Constitution which reads:-
    ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ According to the philosopher, John Locke, there are God-given inalienable rights to life, liberty and property.
    In larger freedom let us find duty and responsibility because prevention is better than cure and a word to the wise is enough. Every man has the right to be heard but everyman has the right to maintain the public law and order. For this cause the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 established the nation state as a sovereign concept. The Bard of Avon in one of his dramas averred, ‘To err is human and to forgive is divine’.
    In 2011, let us forgive one another and start afresh to make amends and forge ahead to achieve the Better Ghana Agenda.
    Source: Kwesi Atta Sakyi