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Opinions of Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Columnist: Korang, Daniel

Assaults On Journalists: A Shame On Ghana’s Democracy

Daniel Korang

When Ghana embraced democracy in 1992, one would have thought that the press would be allowed to function without restrictions and to play its role as the ‘fourth arm’ of government. However, it is unfortunate that, journalists are subjected to the indignity of public assaults, political attacks and other forms of undignified treatments in the performance of their duties.
In the 21st century, it must, I think, be generally accepted that no ideal democracy is possible without a free press. It is on the strength of this realization that the press has been widely proclaimed as the ‘fourth arm’ of government that is expected to provide the needed checks and balances without which governments cannot be effective.

In our quest to deepen and sustain our incipient democracy, we, the people of Ghana, guaranteed the freedom and independence of the media under Chapter 12 of the 1992 Constitution. This giant and bold constitutional step embodies our common national vision to ensure that our democracy brings us as much dividends as possible. An assault on a journalist must be seen as a naked slap in the face of our democracy itself and an affront to the rule of law.
Perhaps, the overarching need for an unhampered press in a democracy led to the famous Jeffersonian declaration in 1787, when Thomas Jefferson said: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Despite the present-day mass media’s propensity for sleaze, sensationalism and superficiality, they are still seen as essential democratic tools. Contemporary democratic theory appreciates the media’s role in ensuring that governments are held accountable. Indeed, without a confident media, democracy cannot thrive in a country that is in the grip of pervasive corruption, rising ethnic violence and strife, poverty, fallen standards of education, abuse of power and lawlessness. The press is our best and only chance of deterring corruption in government.

In both new and old democracies, the notion of the media as a watchdog and not merely a passive recorder of events is widely accepted. Governments, it is argued, cannot be held accountable if citizens are ill-informed about the actions of officials and institutions. The watchdog press is a guardian of the public interest, warning citizens against those who are doing them harm. There is little that journalists can do when they are attacked personally.
A fearless and effective press is critical in Ghana’s fledgling democracy where institutions are corrupt, weak and pummelled by political pressure. The press must be strengthened to function well. It is indeed a crying shame on our democracy to subject journalists to public assaults in their attempt to uncover malpractices in public administration. Even where they fall foul, it is unacceptable to physically assault them.

If, ideally, democracy requires the active participation of citizens, then the existence of an unrestricted press is key. The role of the media is to keep citizens engaged in the business of governance by informing, educating and mobilising the public.

The media promotes democracy by, among other things, educating voters, protecting human rights, promoting tolerance among various social groups, and ensuring that governments are transparent and accountable. To this end, the press should be free to draw citizens to the public square and provide a culture of community conversation by activating inquiry on serious public issues. The rising assaults on journalists must be seen as a devious development intended to cover misdeeds in public administration. We must all condemn the situation.
When the legislature, judiciary and other oversight bodies are powerless against the mighty or are themselves corruptible, an effective press is often left as the only check against the abuse of power. This requires that journalists play a heroic role, exposing the excesses of state organs, despite the risks.
In our incipient democracy, the expectation is that the media would help build a civic culture and a tradition of discussion and debate which was not possible in authoritarian regimes. The existence of a robust media has a clear instrumental role in preventing corruption, financial irresponsibility and underhanded dealings.
If we need to ensure public education and enlightenment, reconciliation among warring social groups, and to initiate much-needed political and social reforms, then the rising assaults, bullying, intimidation and manhandling of pressmen must stop.
In Ghana, where politicians and other state officers who have access to the public purse, use state money for their personal purposes, the role of the media is undoubtedly essential.
In our country, where corruption is increasing in geometric progression, and where transparency and accountability in public administration are almost non-existent, the need for a robust media is critical.
In Ghana, where state resources only benefit a small class of greedy individuals at the expense of the masses, and where public administration is fraught with designed malpractices, the need for a fearless media remains a national concern. Any attacks on pressmen in the performance of their duties must be condemned.
I cannot end this piece without mentioning that journalists, on their part, must maintain high levels of journalistic standards. The media should avoid putting a premium on shallow and sensational issues that lack any public importance. Journalism should not be an attempt to personally denigrate targeted individuals.
Journalists must not allow themselves to be used for devious political ends. It is obvious that the political interests of media owners often determine media contents and allow the media to be manipulated by vested interests. But, journalists should be responsible and professional in their reportage.
To this end, it is hoped that the Ghana Journalists Association and the National Media Commission will help curb irresponsible journalism, the excessive zeal of journalists and make sure that journalists work within the framework of the law and public policy.
In conclusion, it must be said the judiciary, the police and other security agencies should be quick and firm in stemming the tide of assaults on journalists. If we need to deepen our commitments to the rule of law and sustain our democracy, there is the need for national efforts to insulate the press from unnecessary attacks and pressures.
The law should apply forcefully to irresponsible individuals who take the law into their own hands and flex muscles in their unworthy attempts to conceal their misdeeds from the public’s eye. Ghana needs a vibrant press to foster good governance and national development. All unjustifiable attacks on journalists must therefore end.
Daniel Korang
Ghana School of Law
Accra; Mob: 0208759342