The struggle between governments and the media (which are purportedly acting on behalf of the public) has been a long one. In fact, it dates back to the fight for freedom and independence across the world, and particularly in Africa.
In Africa, past and present attempts to keep government (state) operations on the blindside of the public has become part of our governance process. However, recent demands for good governance by our development partners makes it incumbent on our governments to respond positively. The freedom of the media and the accompanying ‘Right to Information’ calls have thus become the yardsticks for measuring democratisation, good governance and even human development. This is because people of all social, economic and political backgrounds need information to participate in democratic and development process, change attitudes and demand their rights – some of which are inalienable.
The mass media are generally viewed as the main channel for public education, as media information reaches millions of people at a go. On the flipside, the bulk of information the media publishes is mostly from government and its departments and agencies – which treat information as classified and sensitive, and not for public consumption. The relevance of the media is based on the right of the public to know. This explains why governments and the media continue to play cat and mouse games over information flow.
The Right to Information bill (RTI) has a long history, dating to 2005 when the Kufour administration, as part of the African Peer Review Mechanism, committed to passing the RTI into law. This follows the successful repeal of sections of the Criminal Code which criminalised freedom of expression and free speech. But toward the end of the Kufour administration’s tenure, it dithered on the promise to pass the bill.
The Mills and Mahama administrations made little progress on the bill. This compelled civil society to form a coalition to intensify advocacy on the bill. With time, the civil society coalition lost steam – perhaps, due to lack of proper coordination, as bigger CSOs wanted to take credit for the advocacy’s successes. In advocacy work, very little can be achieved without proper collaboration, cooperation and coordination.
In 2012 and 2016 the New Patriotic Party (NPP) made the RTI a campaign promise, perhaps to continue from where its predecessor left it. The former Minister of Information, Dr. Mustapha Hamid, is on record as saying that the RTI would become law during the first tenure of the Akufo-Addo Administration. In one of my previous articles, I analysed the need for government to keep to its promise by removing whatever virus is curtailing passage of the RTI bill into law.
Now, the advocacy has been taken over by the media themselves. Last week, some media practitioners formed a coalition to push for the passage of the RTI bill. Known as the Media Coalition on RTI, it was officially out-doored at a press briefing, during which they outlined plans to embark on a series of actions – including demonstrations – to compel the Executive and Legislature to act on the RTI bill.
A leading member of the Coalition, Mr. Elvis Darko, described the RTI as the most abused piece of legislation in the 4th Republic. “For about two decades, successive governments have failed to ensure passage of the RTI law that will give meaning to this constitutional provision,” he told his colleagues. The Coalition is particularly putting the heat on Parliament, which it claims is negating its duty to represent the interests of the electorate. To the media, Parliament and the Executive’s lack of action on the bill is sending signals that the RTI is no longer a priority for government.
In response to the Media coalition’s accusations, a Deputy Minister for Information – Ama Dokuaa Asiamah Agyei – attributed the delay in passing the RTI to other equally important bills which are also fighting for attention.
During a programme in Cape Coast, the Deputy Minister explained that the delay did not mean the bill is no longer a priority. She nevertheless emphasised that passing the bill would give meaning to Article 21 (1) (f) of the 1992 Constitution, which stipulates that “All persons shall have the right to information subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society”.
I was shocked when I read news attributed to the MP for Ningo Prampram, Hon. Sam George – to the effect that the media’s demand for RTI is a misplaced priority. “I have been one of the loudest to say that the RTI is of no consequence. I think the media fraternity, you have completely misplaced your priorities.” He continued: “You are chasing an RTI bill, an RTI bill that will not fix any problem. Today, what will an RTI do? If we pass the RTI bill and it comes into law, all it means is that there is a designated officer in an institution who we have termed in the bill an information officer.
“So, you send a request to an information officer; he has seven days to respond to your request. If you do the request and the information officer tells you ‘I don’t have the information’, what can you do?” he told Starr News’ Parliamentary correspondent Ibrahim Alhassan.
The posture the Ningo MP has taken clearly demonstrates his lack of appreciation for the fundamental role of the media in national development and democratisation. Hon. Sam George needs to be reminded that the media’s watchdog role over the functions of government – exposing crime, abuse of power and corruption – are at the heart of RTI. These cannot be a misplaced priority. It is my view that we need to have the law first, then pursue other matters on how to strengthen it. I only hope Sam George and government are not sharing the same view on the issue.
I have also heard the MP for Adansi West, Hon. K.T. Hammond, expressing fear that RTI could be abused – to the point of individuals or groups crippling government business. He may have a point, but his fears are overstated. Many, if not all, the developed countries whose development and democratisation processes we are modeling are operating on RTI. Information, especially that bordering on public expenditure, procurement, contracting, the judicial and legal processes are public goods. Where there is transparency of government processes, accountability and responsibility, the public is the ultimate beneficiary.
In 2000, the World Bank undertook the largest-ever survey to find out what
people living in poverty said they needed most. The most common response was that people’s priority was not money – it was that they needed a voice; a say in the decisions that affected them (World Bank, 2000). And having a voice in decisions that affect them is based on the amount of information available to them.
Several studies have proved the mass media’s importance in building opinions about new issues and changing negative attitudes. The principle of free flow of information was written into the United Nations Charter, the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Article 19 declares that “Everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression: the right includes freedom to hold opinions….and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.”
The McBride Commission buttressed this point when it stated that: “The right to communicate is an extension of the continuing advance toward liberty and democracy”. This explains why everyone must be interested in the gatekeeping and agenda-setting role of the media.
The hypothesis of agenda-setting, which is the creation of awareness around a public issue, is based on Habermas’ (1989) argument that, today, people are addressed as consumers of news, rather than being active participants.
On assuming power in January 2017, our President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, charged Ghanaians not to sit on the fence but be active participants. People need information to be active participants. McCombs and Shaw (in Watson, 2003) buttressed Habermas’ point that the agenda-setting capacity of media makes them highly influential in shaping public perception of the world. The media’s ability to affect cognitive change among individuals is one of the most important aspects of the power of mass communication (ibid).
Doubtless, the media plays a critical role in development – principally by providing public spaces and fora where issues of poverty and marginalisation can be freely discussed and fed into public debate. In development literature, an implicit assumption is that media (especially the electronic media in developing countries) carries a pro-development content. It is assumed that increased exposure to mass media messages will obviously create the climate for modernisation in the third-world.
The traditional agenda-setting role of the mass media involves both the surveillance and consensus functions of communication, calling attention to the new and major issues of the day and influencing agreement about what the priorities of these issues are.
And recently, new scholarly platforms are examining various cultural arenas of the mass media and their influence on society. Turning specifically to the practice of journalism, both as professionals and researchers, stakeholders need to continuously monitor how well the news media are performing these social functions (McCombs, 2004). Arguably, the overarching ethical question for journalists concerns their stewardship of these resources. Setting the agenda is an awesome responsibility, which is based on credible information.
Perhaps the most widely acclaimed analysis of media agenda-setting was that of German sociologist Jurgen Habermas (1989). Habermas (1989) argued that, today, people are addressed as consumers of news rather than being active participants. According to Doris Graber in Mass Media & American Politics, “When people are asked which issues are most important to them personally or to their communities, their lists tend to correspond to cues in the news sources that they use in their communities” (2002, in McCombs, 2004).
Habermas’ fear was that the enslavement of media priorities to profit maximisation can influence media negatively, making them less able to reflect the full range of citizen interests. The danger is cultural impoverishment that not only attenuates political discussion but undermines vital cultural life. All of us, presidents, ministers, MPs, pastors, chiefs, teachers, students, businessmen/women have taken turns to lambast or lecture the media on their duties and responsibilities – but with little concern over the difficulties journalists go through to obtain information.
In line with Habermas’ point, it is important to note that the agenda-setting capacity of media makes them highly influential in shaping public perception of the world. So, the media’s demand for passage of the RTI bill into law is not a misplaced priority. It is a constitutional as well as fundamental right of the people. It is the right of the taxpayer to demand accountability from every government – and our elected representatives must be working to promote this ideal, not scuttling it. Parliament needs to be proactive on the RTI, as well as promoting media development.
Habermas, J. (1989). Communication and the evolution of society. Boston, Beacon Press.
Watson J., (2003) Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process (3rd. Ed.). Palgrave/Macmillan.
World Bank (2000) Policy Research Paper 2196. Washington DC: World Bank.
McCombs, Maxwell (2004). Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
(***The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate. All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation(s). (Email: Mobiles: 0202642504/ 0243327586/0264327586)