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Obscenity, poor quality besiege Ghanaian media

Now that the Rawlings government has been replaced by a more media-friendly administration, attention has shifted to the quality of Ghana’s public and private media. Efforts are being made to address these problems, which include obscenity, corruption, and unsubstantiated reporting.
Sam Sarpong and Amos Safo

The assumption of office by President John Kufuor on January 7, 2001 signalled a new era in state-press relations in Ghana. But it also switched attention to the poor performance of the media, a problem Ghanaians term as a "serious violation of the country’s culture by the incessant use of uncouth language on the airwaves and unsubstantiated allegations."

President Kufuor’s early words after taking over from ex-President Jerry Rawlings were in support of the media. "Set free, I have no doubt our media will play their honourable role with a heightened sense of responsibility," he said last March. "Our desire is to make freedom, in whatever respect and form, appreciable to Ghanaians."

True to his word, Kufuor has provided the media with an enabling environment. Last July, the government honoured its election promise by repealing aspects of the criminal libel laws that criminalized free expression. The law, which ex-President Jerry Rawlings and his top officials used to muzzle the media, provided for a maximum of 10 years imprisonment "for reports likely to injure the reputation of the state."

Under the law, the Rawlings government jailed several journalists and, even up to the last day when the previous administration left office, two senior journalists were standing trial under the law. In contrast, the present government is currently feeding the media with news of the corrupt deals of the past government, and members of the present government are friendly to journalists.

However, it might now be time for the media to police itself. The Ethics Committee of the Ghana Journalists’ Association (GJA) recently reminded the print media in particular that it is a crime to publish nude and obscene pictures. GJA referred specifically to the September 12 edition of the Weekend News in which the paper carried nude pictures of white girls on its front page. GJA said at the time that the media should not promote obscenity when the government was making efforts to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS.

The same problem can be found in Ghana’s FM radio stations and three television stations – including the state-owned GTV – whose heavily foreign programming, observers note, contains obscenity and pro-West values that do not reflect or promote the culture of the country.

Just like many other stations in Africa, GTV’s capacity to produce local programmes has declined, paving the way for the use of foreign programmes. It is estimated that foreign programmes consist of about 30 per cent of GTV’s airtime. TV3, established five years ago through a joint venture between the Ghana government and a Malaysian company, and Metro-TV, also a joint venture between the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation and a private company, come under severe public scrutiny for the content of their programmes. It is estimated that 80 percent of both TV3 and Metro TV’s programming is foreign, making little room for local content.

Sensitised by the amount of obscene films churned out by the two stations and in some cases GTV, the Ministry of Communications released guidelines to compel television stations to indicate which movies children under 18 should not watch. They were also reminded to air a minimum of public interest programmes, such as jingles and advertisements to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS.

Despite this directive, on December 12, 2001, Jake Obetsebi Lamptey, Minister of Information and Presidential Affairs, complained to the chief executives of state media about the publication and broadcasting of obscene pictures in the national media. He was reported to have cautioned the executives to use their channels to promote morality and Ghanaian values.

It is not only obscenity that has upset critics. They also note the poor quality of political and other programming. For instance, with the increasing use of vernacular on the airwaves, even people without the requisite insight into economic or political issues could now be heard directing the government on what they believe would be feasible for the country’s economic and political development. "It’s messy upfront," says Kofi Siaw, a social critic who has had to call some radio stations to challenge contributors on views they have expressed.

Phone-in programmes that currently dominate the airwaves are mostly on politics and, because of poor moderation, many contributors tend to malign each other and have used foul language, which has compelled media watchers to call for proper moderation of phone-in programmes. Tension normally arises and radio stations have been invaded by people just out to deter panellists from being overcritical.

"Some talk shows can be shamelessly biased and one-sided, focusing almost exclusively on real and imagined shortcomings of political groups they love to hate, for a variety of reasons," observes Kwamena Afful, a media analyst. "Some profane songs could even be heard on the airwaves, drawing lots of protests from conservatives,"

The broadcasting of newspaper articles has proved to be controversial. In some cases, popular newspaper review segments on radio simply repeat some unsubstantiated suggestions and allegations made in the morning papers. The broadcasts also undermine newspaper sales. "They do not just give you a synopsis of the major stories, they actually read everything, so most people just listen to the review and don't buy newspapers," says Ayitey Mensah, a newsvendor.

The problem became so serious that, in December 2001, newsvendors petitioned media houses to stop radio stations from reading their papers on air because of plummeting sales. This situation has sharply divided editors. On one hand, they love the publicity when the radio stations pick their newspapers for reviews; on the other hand, they are disturbed by the outcome.

The integrity of some Ghanaian media practitioners has also been questioned. Allegations of extortion and thuggery have been made against some reporters who, because of poor remuneration, have indulged in acts that have brought the profession into disrepute.

For example, late last year, a reporter with one of the state-owned media was sacked after he demanded 5 million cedis (about US$720) from an Indian businessman in exchange for dropping a ‘damaging story’ about him. The reporter, who was investigating an alleged maltreatment of a Ghanaian employee by the businessman, decided to ‘negotiate’ with the businessman instead. Suspicious of the reporter’s motive, the businessman tape-recorded what transpired between them, which was subsequently played on a radio station. After accepting his culpability, the reporter was dismissed by his employers.

Observers note several reasons for the problems found in Ghana’s media. "Journalists, it seems, are found wanting because of the lack of resources and in-depth knowledge of certain subject areas," argues Kale Dery, a journalist.

Media operations are fraught with economic and technical constraints. Lack of transportation limits the range of a journalist’s coverage, while access to important sources sometimes remains a mirage. Public media tend to be more under-resourced than the private media.

Editorial training is virtually non-existent for the majority of media practitioners. Hard-pressed managers often need to be convinced that staff development is a necessity rather than a luxury. When it is available, there is little consistency in the training, follow-up, or evaluation of progress.

A high turnover rate within the profession has had the effect of pushing young, inexperienced hands into positions they are professionally unprepared for, as the experienced ones leave out of frustration or because of poor remuneration.

Inexperience is a major problem among editorial staff and managers. "But while some managers merely lack experience, others are foisted on editorial staff by owners for political reasons or for reasons of nepotism," says Albert Sam, a journalist.

As a result of these problems, some Ghanaians believe they are being short-changed. "The right to express and listen to opinions is fundamental to democracy," says Kwabena Asante, a student, distraught with the current media lopsidedness. "An informed electorate is critical to democratic governance. Misinformation and calculated disinformation cannot have a place in a democratic system,"

David Newton, director of the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ), which trains the bulk of Ghanaian journalists, is very much aware of the enormity of the problem. "We need to be assisted to enable the institute to deliver to the best of its ability and turn out the calibre of journalists many governments have yearned for," he said during the institute’s 2001 graduation ceremony.

Currently, Ghana has more than a dozen newspapers including three state-owned dailies, and two state-owned weeklies.

Accra has one-state-owned and 12 private FM radio stations, and there are about 40 private FM stations across the country. Most stations are independent and air a wide range of viewpoints. The BBC and Radio France International have full-time FM re-broadcasting stations in Accra and several foreign radio broadcasts, including the Voice of America (VOA), have affiliations with local stations in several cities.

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