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Opinions of Saturday, 6 May 2017

Columnist: A.C Ohene

Critical media minds for critical times

The Freedom of Information Bill has waited for nine years, and, still counting.  The Broadcasting Bill has not spent so much time at the labour ward, but, has delayed too much for comfort.  New Info Minister, Mustapha Abdul Hamid, has vowed that Insha Allah, the bills will come into law and into force this year. 

Not that other information ministers before him promised that the bills would only be passed over their dead bodies: they all gave similar pledges. Should we, therefore, disregard what Mr. Hamid is saying? Absolutely not. Will the bills be passed this time round? Yes, but, if only interested parties keenly push.

The government side says the bills have delayed because their final consideration stage elapsed with the closure of Parliament.  Once a new parliament comes into being, old bills that never got passed by the previous legislature have to be re-laid before the new House. Former Communication Minister and current Minority Leader, Haruna Iddrisu, says Parliament has never been in a dilemma over either of the bills; just that time had not favoured their passing by the previous legislatures. 

Plausible. Maybe, plausible, but, we are talking of a Freedom of Information Bill that has oscillated between the Executive and Legislative arms of government for pretty nine years!  Are there any other bills that have so long delayed before Parliament?  If so, what were the reasons?  Did they have to be re-laid?

Nine years of dingdong

Well, as occasion came last Wednesday (May 03) for the marking of World Press Freedom Day, Ghana’s unfinished agenda of passing a befitting law to cover the multiplicity of radio and TV stations, and, the agenda of passing a media freedom law popped up once again for public discussion.  It was at the national forum held at the International Press Centre, Accra, that Messrs Hamid and Iddrisu declared their respective parties – the New Patriotic Party and National Democratic Congress’s willingness to get the bills passed.  Those who have reliable memory will recall that under the last regime, there was buck-shifting between the Executive and the Legislature; a kind of blame-game over who was causing the delay in the passing and promulgation.  Today, the blame is on the closure of the Sixth Parliament of the Fourth Republic.

World Press Freedom Day

Talking of World Press Freedom Day, what is World Press Freedom Day?  What is the meaning of Freedom? The Oxford says the right to do or say what you want without anyone stopping you is freedom.  Thus, we have Freedom of Speech. Indeed, the Oxford (my daily guide) has a line on Freedom of Information: the right to see any information that a government has about people and organisations.

The United Nations figures out that Media Freedom and access to information feed into the wider development objective of empowering people.  Empowerment is a multi-dimensional social and political process that helps people gain control over their own lives.  This can only be achieved through access to accurate, fair and unbiased information, representing a plurality of opinions, and the means to actively communicate vertically and horizontally, thereby participating in the active life of the community.

What are the prerequisites for freedom of expression?  You need (1) a legal and regulatory environment that allows for an open and pluralistic media sector to emerge. In Ghana, we have more radio stations than there are in the United Kingdom; over 400 tabloids and more than 50 television stations. (2) You must have the political will to support the sector and rule of law to protect it.  Our political leaders have shown varying degrees of political will; while some went as far as repealing the Criminal Libel Law and donating a building to be converted into an International Press Centre, others had to be dragged screaming to open the media space. (3) There must be laws specifically ensuring access to information, especially information in the public domain; and that is what leads us to the need to pass the Freedom of the Info Bill into Law.

The necessary media literacy skills among news consumers to critically analyse and synthesise the information they receive to use it in their daily lives and to hold the media accountable for its actions is the fourth precondition.  But for me, by far, the most important condition for media freedom expansion is that, on top of these elements, media professionals must adhere to the highest ethical and professional standards designed by practitioners, and serve as the fundamental infrastructure on which freedom of expression can prevail.  On this basis, media serves as a watchdog, civil society engages with authorities and decision-makers, information flows through and between communities. Freedom of Info Law panacea?

I am unapologetic about this my rather unorthodox prediction: we may have a Broadcasting Law in force; we may have a Freedom of Information Law in place and, yet, no positive change will be noticeable.  We already have too many beautifully crafted laws in existence and, yet, our forests are gone, our water bodies are following and graft in public office is the order of the day.

 In this country; on this continent; the more things change, the more they remain the same.  But, should that be the norm? Surely, not. Can’t we have meaningful media freedom?  We certainly can.  Even in the short-term, can’t we raise critical minds for these critical times when we need to save our ecology, economy, education and very existence?  We can.

Yes, we can: the way to go is for the media – who lead in the exercising of the right to free speech – to develop critical minds. The operative word here is critical. The Oxford has five or six meanings; two of which are material here. Something critical is extremely important because a future situation will be affected by it. In other words it is crucial.

An example could be a critical factor in the election campaign. My second pick relates making careful judgements. It involves making fair careful judgements about the good and bad qualities of somebody or something. For example, students are encouraged to develop critical thinking, instead of accepting opinions without questioning them.

A few home truths

Whether or not we in the media will marshal the critical minds to play our pivotal roles in bailing out Ghana from her critical times depends only to a limited extent on a Freedom of Information Law. It depends far more on our quest to become more and more professional. If we continue availing ourselves for propaganda by politicians, we will surely miss being critical-minded.

Secondly, we need to be well-informed; educated above the average Ghanaian, maybe. For, what use will it be, if you have a law supposed to let you in on public documents fraught with corruption, but, you can’t even read and comprehend the content? In that connection, the public and private media training schools should reorganise their curricular to provide specialisation on mining, the environment, agriculture, cottage industries etc. reporting. We are using yesterday’s tools to perform today’s chores and hoping against hope to remain in business tomorrow.

When Kufuor’s first Media Relations Minister, Elizabeth Ohene, canvassed the general public in 2001 to boycott the notorious media for their reckless stories, she seemed misunderstood. But, it remains imperative that the necessary media literacy skills are taught news consumers to critically analyse and synthesise the information they receive to use it in their daily lives. That is how to empower them to hold the media accountable for its actions.

In the final analysis, we need – not a docile and domesticated media in the face of all the beautiful laws – but a general public that holds the media accountable and a media full of critical minds. Is it the third American President, Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), that is credited with this quote I love so much? “The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance!”