Feature Article of Sunday, 22 June 2008
Columnist: Nkrumah, Jermaine
By Jermaine Nkrumah
The title of this original story gave the impression of a critical attack on the two state-owned media houses as well as the NPP government. However, careful reading unearthed an excellent job by the Center for Media Analysis and Research (CMAR). This organization represents a breath of fresh air from the trend these days when news stories are either overwhelmingly and at times baselessly critical, or unashamedly complimentary whichever direction they point. Yes, CMAR deserves commendation for placing emphasis on the ‘A’ and the ‘R’ in its name.
Not only did the organization report objectively on its research findings, which is the research portion, it did an outstanding job of analyzing the cause of those findings. One of the first items that stands out is that no one can accuse the NPP government of manipulating the media because “a similar study conducted by the Media Foundation for West Africa found that then ruling NDC government attracted more coverage than opposition NPP” (CMAR, 2008). In fact, several commentators on Say-It-Loud (SIL) alluded to this.
This trend suggests two main possibilities. Either the two state-owned print media houses unfairly ignore the activities of the opposition parties, or they unfairly place members of the ruling party and their activities, whether or not they are related to government business, in a fishbowl. A third, relatively minor possibility is that opposition parties indulge in such negative criticisms and activities that the print houses, based on their honest assessment, do not deem them newsworthy. Whatever the reasons, things must change if we are to develop our democracy into maturity.
A first big step is to complement the elimination of the Libel Act with the establishment of a Freedom of Information Act. It is noteworthy that the bulk of the so-called critiquing of the government comprises accusations and fabrications. The media has been reduced to a where-there-is-smoke-there-must-be-fire posture because getting its hands on information accurate and valuable for public consumption and consequent assessment of its government is all but impossible. Of course, a public and a press that has only recently been freed to critique its government would invariably be more critical than complimentary. That means it would be in the government’s own interest to free up information so that its performance would be accurately evaluated.
For example, when the NDC recently claimed that the voter rolls in Ashanti Region had ballooned by 103%, and thereby, suggesting foul play, few people knew that the actual numbers on the voter rolls for all regions had been given to representatives of all registered parties, and those numbers did not support the claims made by the NDC. If the media had free automatic access to such information, the accusations would not have created such loud discussions which ended up constituting a waste of our time.
Free access to public information, however, does not mean unfettered access to all pieces of information. For example, the United States Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), while “ensuring public access to U.S. government records,” also provides for nine specific exemptions upon which the government relies to exclude certain pieces of information from public access. Granted, some administrations can abuse such exemptions, but it is better than an environment where the public and the media are are not statutorily entitled to information pertaining to government activities.
With the establishment of an FOIA in Ghana, opposition parties would be positioned to make constructive criticisms because they would have accurate information upon which to base such criticisms. Further, opposition parties can lay out their plans relying on accurate information. The current NPP administration was shocked to learn upon assuming office in 2001 that it had no chance of keeping the promises it made during the campaign because the financial state that it found the country was far worse than it thought. The national reserves were enough to last the country for two weeks, which it has now built to a year. It would be improper to subject today’s opposition parties to the same surprises even if they turn out to be pleasant surprises.
If opposition parties become more constructive in their criticism, it would lead to more newsworthy activities that would warrant coverage from the state-owned media houses. Right now, the private media houses are aligned one way or another. If they are aligned towards an opposition party, their modus operandi is to criticize away with or without facts. Conversely, if they favor the ruling party, they paint rosy pictures even where there is none. The state-owned media houses subscribe to different standards, and that may be why they have favored the party of the ruling government.