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Opinions of Sunday, 8 March 2009

Columnist: Prof Lungu

No news when information minister meets media!

“…To be worth their salt, Ghanaian media practitioners and communication professionals must be watchdogs of the government and its officials. Being a watchdog implies they have a secular responsibility to report what officials are doing. That way, citizens become informed of the actions, activities, and decisions of officials, and are then empowered to assist in governance. This has absolutely nothing to do with the media “feeding” anybody anything. Every simpleton knows that infants are fed, even if they cannot think, critique, or object. “Watchdog” and “critiques” go together. In tandem, they shame “Praise Singers” and the “Yes-Man/Women.” There is a difference, madam information minister, media director…!” (Prof Lungu, 6 Mar 09).

We began to appreciate the many critical opinions about the performance of the just-selected information minister, Mrs. Sabah Zita Okaikoi, when the statement “Feed Ghanaians with accurate, substantive information…” was attributed to her during her first meeting with heads of Ghana’s major public media agencies (Ghanaweb, 27 Feb 09). We say this: Reporting the news is never intended to be a passive “gobbling” ritual by Ghanaians. Rather, it is an endeavor that asks readers, listeners, and “watchers” to critically examine data and make independent judgments on matters of public interest. To cut to the chase, we believe that in an active society of proud people and equal citizens empowered to act on information provided by the media about government activity, that “feeding” metaphor was simply inappropriate. What are we supposed to think about the process improvement proposed by Mr. Mills with respect to the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill when the information minister, in her first meeting with the media and press, does not have a word about the plan? And so this regrettable silence now compels us to inform the information minister that complete and accurate information required for governance and social living is actually a function of free access and time. Maybe, the minister ought to devote a little time to finding out when/how this new government will pass the FOI bill, while she is in that chair. Or did we clap too soon, Mr. Mills? Going forward, a review of that GNA report informed us that the weakness in communication was not just from the Zita Okaikoi side, but as well, from the side of the various heads of the agencies who were in attendance at that meeting. After all, the fact still remains that we've got to work with what we have: the new president selected the appointee and as much he has the right to reconsider at a time of his own choosing, we all must allow politicians and political appointees to be nothing less. BUT, as far as it goes, for managers who call themselves public servants, that is an entirely different proposition. Hell, their marching orders were spelled out in “The Speech,” if they were paying attention. And so, on another track, we’ve concluded that based on the GNA report, the managers themselves went to the meeting unprepared, as was Mrs. Zita Okaikoi. There was absolutely no news from their worn-out and pathetic complaints. After all, aren’t they supposed to be the “professionals”? Again, unless it was wretched reporting by the GNA, it is certainly remarkable that no data was presented by any of the directors to buttress their need for more public resources. The reports attributed to the heads of the GNA, GBC, ISD, and GPC, etc., showed a total lack of groundwork that almost bothers on professional misconduct. None of these heads provided new information or data to the information minister that would be have been actionable by her were she so inclined, and had a million Ghana cedis in hand to dole out. There was not even a passing reference to “The Speech” that provides an enabling context for future communication policy and action by the public media. ITEM: There was no news, really, from Ghana’s media at the meeting. A cursory analysis of concerns expressed by the directors shows that all the heads cited a litany of woes such as this one from the GNA’s Mr. Nana Appau Duah “…the government subvention received by the agency was only enough to pay staff salaries because the amount left after paying salaries is paltry…(that)…part of the internally generated funds be retained by the agency to be used to pay bills and other allowances.” Goodness grief, did not the president tell Ghanaians he is aware of these issues in “The Speech?

READ: “….Governance…these institutions have performed relatively well, they are under resourced, their leaders and staff poorly motivated and their institutions thinly spread…” (Mr. Mills, in State of Nation Speech).

And so, would it not have been useful if Mr. Appau Duah had told the people and the minister how “small” the budget is compared to the need, what percent of the budget is “paltry,” exactly how much the agency earned, and proportion of that income he thought the agency needed to keep to support “non-funded” activities?

Not to be outdone, from GBC’s Mr. William Ampem-Darko, we learned that the public news corporation “…was not properly structured…” and there was the “…need to train and re-tool staff since most of their equipment was digital and most of the staff was used to the analogue system.” Here again, would it not have been important to provide the data behind the issues – what is the total amount involved for the re-tool, what is the budgetary allocation, and what proportion is needed for training and hiring of persons with the requisite skills for the “new” age he talked about? And what is it that prevented Mr. James Amuah, of the Information Services Department, from telling the minister and the people how many mobile information vans are on hand, how many is needed, the minimum budgetary allocation that would begin to suffice to allow them to do their job, etc.? ITEM: We say get up, heads of Ghana public media! Do your homework! Get the data to the leaders and the people at every opportunity so they can better assist in the governance. Understand, though, that the task truly has nothing to do with “feeding” anybody information as the minister suggested. Rather, your task is to provide data, ask tough questions, and expect that the people will in turn ask tougher questions. Above all, show/tell the people what resources you are allowed, why it is not sufficient to get your jobs done, and what process improvements make your efforts valuable. You can call that achievable goals with measurable objectives to make a difference for the people who pay your tabs. Know that none of that is possible unless you seek to empower the people by promoting free and timely access to information you keep on behalf of the people in your own agencies, and those in other public agencies. That, my friends, was the marching orders from Mr. Mills the other day, if you were paying attention! Go get it, media head, madam information minster, ladies and gentlemen. Ghana-Nation is no longer a baby!

3 NOTES FOR ACTION & PONDERING:

1. At this stage in Ghana’s development, as far as we are concerned, it is unforgivable for any public agency or official in Ghana to meet the press or announce anything without first telling the people and the media where on the World Wide Web (WWW) that particular information is hosted.

2. The GNA director is reported to have claimed that GNA is the “most credible source of news in Ghana and abroad…” Prof Lungu and the crew beg to differ!

3. Prof Lungu and www.GhanaHero.com are Ghana-centered. Please visit www.GhanaHero.com and tell us what you think. Read, listen, learn, and reflect!

© Prof Lungu, Okinawa, Japan, 6 March, 2009.

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