News / 19.06.2014

Free media or better standards: Ghana journalists in dilemma

By Linus Atarah

It is early morning in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. From inside a car, I signal to a newspaper boy dodging skilfully around the cars in the notorious traffic in the capital city. I pick two newspapers, the state-owned Daily Graphic, Ghana’s biggest circulating daily newspaper, is a mammoth-size tabloid with up to 95 pages on a typical week day. I quickly flip through the pages and notice there are hectares and hectares of advertisements – double-page adverts which would make Helsingin Sanomat blue with envy – but less than one-quarter devoted to news.

The front page of the Daily Graphic has a bold headline: “Alleged sex workers arrested”. Beneath the headline are photos of the women, about 30 in all, even though the story doesn’t provide any evidence warranting their arrest.  The other newspaper, privately owned Daily Guide, also displays gory pictures of six dead bodies in its inside pages, who, the headline says, are victims of a traffic accident.

Since full multi-party democracy was restored in 1992, after decades of military regimes, Ghanaians have enjoyed media freedom and freedom of expression more than ever before. This small West African nation of about 25 million is ranked 27 out of 180 countries according to this year’s Reporters without Borders’ (RSF) press freedom index, higher than any other African country except Namibia.

The Constitution allows whoever wants to practise journalism or start a news media to do so without obstruction. As a result the state monopoly grip on the media has been dismantled. From a single television broadcasting station, there are now about 20 private television stations and about 270 FM radio broadcasting houses all over the country. About 1,700 newspapers have mushroomed to add to the four state-owned titles, even though just about 70 of them appear in newsstands every day. However, nearly all of the newspapers are published in Accra with hardly any in the small towns or rural areas.

All of these myriad of news media are free to publish and write just about anything without repercussion and they often relentlessly criticise government.

However, there is a dark cloud threatening to engulf the colourful and lively media environment. Media experts are beginning to complain of falling professional and ethical standards.

Ironically, the largely unregulated media sector threatens journalistic freedom because powerful media owners, who are often editors-in-chief, undermine freedom because some of them dictate what should be published or broadcast in their media, according to Affail Monney, President of the 1,500-strong Ghana Journalists Association (GJA).

“Too much power is in the hands of media owners and of them dictate the content in their media”, he says.

The other big challenge facing GJA is lack of training, according to Monney, and accuses the same media owners saying for preference to hire untrained young high school leavers in order to save on wage costs.

In the same breath, Monney also complains about the appalling working conditions of journalists, which doesn’t allow motivation. According to him, studies conducted by the Ghana Trade Union Congress (TUC), the central trade union, have revealed that there are some media houses which don’t pay their workers and others where journalists are paid below the minimum wage of 6 Cedis (the equivalent of less than 2 Euros) – hardly motivating for anyone bring in serious investigated stories .  

Unfortunately the 65-year GJA is not a union and therefore, has no bargaining powers to secure a condition of service agreement for its members from employers.

The quality of journalists employed in newspapers is very poor but many of them have the potential to rise, the drawback however, is that the owners of newspapers have no great horizons for journalism, says Yao Graham, a former editor of a newspaper, Public Agenda

“They are either looking to sell their product and attract advertisements, or are committed to politicians, so there is a kind of partisanship which colours the work they do”, he says.  

Given this backdrop it is hardly surprising that Ghanaian newspapers – and of course radio stations as well, are not up to scratch.

“The perpetration of mediocrity in sections of the media dents our image and we are always called upon to do put sanity into the system”, says Monney.

Some of the mediocrities are displayed on pages of newspapers in particular. Poor language, bad reporting and spelling mistakes apart, it is standard practice for Ghanaian newspapers to boldly display the names and photos of alleged criminals even before the courts have convicted them of any crime, which is against professional journalistic standards.

Even more disturbing is the practice of displaying photographs of dead bodies, very often alleged armed robbers, just to entice readers to buy, ignoring the traumatic experience that it might have on children who are often not shielded from such photos.

Last month, the Daily Guide newspaper caused a public outrage when it went to the extent of publishing the corpse of a well-known politician whose former position was equivalent to a prime minister, lying in the mortuary.

But Graham dismisses such complaints as “intra elite nonsense”. According to him, photographs of alleged armed robbers and victims of car accidents are regularly displayed in newspapers but attract no attention.

“There is no principled commitment to protect the dignity of dead people, there is only an interest in the dignity of an important person”, he says.

The poor quality of journalism stems from: “predominantly the newspapers here have a tabloid culture, competing against each other to have the most frivolous sensations on their front pages”, Graham says.

Ghana’s equivalent of the Finnish Council for Mass Media (Julkisen sana neuvosto) is the National Media Commission established in 1993, with the mandate to enforce media ethics and professional standards.

But unlike the JSN, the National Media Commission in Ghana is a state institution and its members appointed by the president. And like most government institutions, it is poorly funded and so cannot enforce its regulations. Over the past year for instance, the Media Commission has not receive its annual budget from the government. 

So according to Graham, providing sufficient funding to the media watchdog would lift the quality of journalism.

“Democracy is an expensive business; its resourcing is a problem”, he says.

But to Monney, the current unregulated media ownership pattern should be addressed. The GJA is proposing legislation to limit the number of media houses which can be owned by one person or organisation. That should go alongside placing limits on the entry requirement for people to practice journalism.

“The point of entry into the profession is loose and that deepens our challenges”, he, complains.

However, the problem in Ghana is, owning a radio, television station or newspaper is an enormous political resource simply because of the influence they have on the electorate so passing a law to limit ownership or restrict the supply of journalists would generate fierce opposition from media owners, most of who are also politicians.

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