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Opinions of Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Columnist: Awuni, Manasseh Azure

Savannah View: NDC Government’s Media Blunder

By Manasseh Azure Awuni

In 1993, the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) dragged the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) to court for not giving a live coverage of a seminar organised by the party to comment on the 1993 budget. The NPP was aggrieved because GBC had given full coverage of a similar event organised by the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) for its supporters on the 23rd and 24th January 1993. In a unanimous decision on 22nd July that same year, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the NPP.

Per Justice G.R.M. Francois, “The free exchange of views is necessary to give the electorate an opportunity to assess the performance of government in power as against the potential of an opposition in the wilderness. It keeps the government on its toes and gives the neutral, apolitic citizen an opportunity to make up his or her mind.”

The judge could not have said it better. The media, especially the electronic, are very powerful tools in election campaigns. It is not in vain that the framers of the 1992 Constitution made adequate provisions on the need for state-owned media to provide equal platform for various political views. Unfortunately, however, the reason for which NPP went to court in 1993 is still very much with us. In the run up to the 2008 elections, many people expressed concerns about the manner in which the state-owned media covered the elections. In column entitled “Ananse the Vulcaniser”, the Daily Graphic’s ace columnist, George Sydney Abugri, wrote:

“Campaign reports on television are getting more and more intriguing as Election Day keeps hurtling towards us with increasing momentum. Several television stations telecast a report on the same campaign rally: In one telecast, the camera pans across the crowd in such a way that you think you are seeing all of humanity in one single sweep of the lens.

“You watch a telecast of the same rally by another station and the camera pans at very strange angles and for only short distances across the crowd! One campaign rally, two sharply contrasting images. Intriguing, Jomo. Absolutely intriguing.”

Mr Sydney Abugri did not name the station or the victimised political party, but any objective monitor of the media in 2008 showed a disturbing bias on the part of the state media in favour the ruling NPP as contained in a report published by the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) after monitoring the campaign and elections in Ghana.

“The state-owned television and radio broadcasters failed to provide equal or equitable coverage of the candidates or their parties in line with constitutional provisions,” the report states. ”During the campaign period for the 7 December 2008 elections Ghana Television (GTV) dedicated 33 per cent of its peak time coverage of political actors to NPP.

“NDC received 19 per cent, with CPP afforded 15 per cent and PNC 10 per cent. Presidential activities were widely covered by GTV and these activities received a total of 20 per cent share of this channel’s coverage of political actors, thus granting the NPP an advantage in terms of the amount of airtime it received.

“The coverage of Radio Uniiq [GBC Radio] followed a broadly similar trend with 32 per cent of its coverage of political actors afforded to NPP, 19 per cent to NDC, 15 per cent to CPP and 10 per cent to PNC. The president received 17 per cent share of political coverage on this station.”

“During the second round run-off campaign period 70 per cent of GTV’s coverage of political actors was of the NPP, its ministers or the president. Similarly, they received 66 per cent share of coverage of political actors on Radio Uniiq.” The report also shows that the state-owned newspapers gave more time to the NPP than the rest.

It however lauds the private television stations for providing “broadly balanced coverage of the two main parties.”

According to the report, “most of the commercial radio stations monitored by the EU EOM acted with responsibility for most of the campaign period. The one exception was Radio Gold that constantly criticised the NPP in its programming ...

“Joy FM and Peace FM provided balanced coverage of the two main parties with NPP and NDC receiving a 38 and 34 per cent share of coverage of political actors on Joy FM and 32 and 28 per cent on Peace FM with the remaining coverage largely afforded to the PNC and CPP. Radio Gold allocated a greater amount of airtime to NDC (46 per cent) than to NPP (32 per cent).”

I have decided to quote this report extensively to serve as a basis for appraising the recent decision by the government to boycott media outlets belonging to the Multimedia Group Limited. The boycott was announced by no other person but a former anchor of Radio Gold and now Deputy Minister of Information, Mr James Agyenim Boateng. He cited instances of bias against the government by the Multimedia family, especially Joy FM, as the reason for the boycott. The decision to boycott Multimedia outlets, especially Joy FM, was mind boggling because if the government was indeed acting against irresponsible and bias journalism, then Joy FM should have been one of the last media organisations to target. The EU EOM report quoted above indicates that while in opposition, it was the private stations like Joy that gave NDC equal platform to reach out to voters when the state-owned media was almost monopolised by the ruling party. The NDC may be right when they claim that they are not in the good books of the media like their political arch rivals, the NPP. This is not difficult to explain. For revolutionaries-turned democrats, it will take some time to be in the good books of the media. Most of the “media gurus” in Ghana today are people who suffered in one way or the other in order to have media freedom. And you don’t expect the journalist you harassed yesterday to sing your praise today. It is not that easy. The NDC’s main worry in recent times, as expressed by party and government officials, is that the media does not highlight the achievements of the government. But this has more to do with the weakness in government’s communication machinery than with the media houses. I may not be a millimetre farther from the truth to say that much of the embarrassing situations this government, including the presidency, has suffered have been caused by the communication team.

The government communication outlets seem to lack coordination, and as a result, one finds many people saying different things on the same issue at different platforms. It is a communication team that has specialised in attacking and tagging personalities and organisations instead of addressing the issues. The Institute of Economic Affairs, IMANI Ghana, the Centre for Democratic Development and other civil society groups have been accused of being agents of the NPP, working to make government unpopular because of their positions on certain policy issues. Catholic bishops have been labelled NPP sympathisers because of their call for the authentication of the identity of voters, and for the abolition of the Computerised School Selection and Placement System. And the leader of the Ahmadiyyah Muslim Mission and member of the National Peace Council, Maulvi Wahab Adam, was not spared being called an NPP mole when he condemned the unsavoury reaction by Mr Koku Anyidoho to the NPP’s flag bearer. In fact, the behaviour of some members of the government’s communication team leaves one wondering whether mastery over foul language is a criterion for being selected into the communication team. When Vice President John Mahama addressed the Tertiary Institutions Network of the NDC at the University of Ghana recently, he said the main challenge of the NDC was how to tell their story. He blamed the situation on factionalism, which had given way for party members to “criticise more harshly than the opposition.” He also said the NDC had allowed itself to be distracted so much that they had no time to tell their own story.

Much of the blame must still go for the seemingly unplanned communication structure and their priorities. If the leader of government’s communication team decides to shelve government achievements and resort to calling internal political foes “diaper-wearing and bed-wetting boys,” then no-one should blame the media.

In as much as we condemn government’s “unprecedented” boycott of Multimedia outlets, it is important to draw the attention of media organisations and regulators to certain disturbing lapses that threaten not only the credibility of media organisations but also media freedom in the country.

Joy FM is one of the most credible media platforms in this country. This does not mean they are infallible. The government cited a number of issues that led to the boycott such as the alleged death threats to GREDA executive and Amina and the Yutong bus saga. A statement signed by the Information Minister after the boycott also said:

“Following a story that said some military personnel stripped naked and man-handled two teachers in Bawku, Joy FM spoke to a certain Dr. Bukari from the Bawku hospital who painted a horrific picture of the alleged injuries of the victims. The management of the Bawku hospital issued a press statement saying they did not have any doctor on their staff list by that name. Again, Joy FM refused to broadcast the hospital’s reaction, did not retract and did not substantiate their false claim.”

Anyone with some journalism experience should know that the station may not have done this deliberately because there are often misleading sources who are difficult to detect. The media house should not feel too arrogant to retract the story and apologise when they realise the credibility of the source is questionable.

The media regulators and influential proponents of press freedom should also avoid the politics of convenience if they want to be taken seriously. It is a disturbing phenomenon when certain utterances and condemnations are made only when the wrong action is committed by a particular political party; and when similar or even worse actions are committed by others, no one complains. A reprehensible action is reprehensible whether it is committed by Adzo or Adwoa.

Savannah View is a weekly column published in the Tuesday edition of The Finder newspaper.

Writer’s email: azureachebe2@yahoo.com