Culture of silence or culture of noise?

Female-run SMEs and youth at the heart of AfCFTA
Amos Safo is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Sam Jonah – a former CEO of AngloGold Ashanti – muddied the waters when he suggested there was a semblance of a return to the ‘culture of silence’ in Ghana. In my opinion, this assertion sounded somewhat controversial as it bore the semblance of ‘doublethink.’  Doublethink in political communications discourse means ‘the ability to hold two completely contradictory beliefs at the same time and believe they are true’. The issue at stake is whether Mr. Sam Jonah believed what he was saying, viewed against our recent political history.

Ironically, Mr. Sam Jonah was never ‘silenced’ – as he freely expressed his views regarding the economy and other political and social issues in an interaction with members of the Rotary Club of Ghana. The question is, how could someone claiming there is ‘culture of silence’ be freely expressing himself on the same platform he claims does not exist? In fact, one political analyst recently described the freedom on Ghana’s airwaves and social media as ‘verbal terrorism’.

Media and culture of silence

The ‘culture of silence’ does not only connote fear of individuals to freely express their opinions; it significantly impedes the freedom and independence of media to investigate and publish credible news and information without fear of libel and security attacks. Whether the media lack freedom and independence in the current dispensation to warrant the assertion that Ghana is receding to the culture of silence is debatable.

Honestly, the era when the military, police and revolutionary cadres beat up journalists and confiscated their equipment, and bombed media houses with human excreta, are no more.  Experience has shown that any attempt by a government to introduced censorship or a culture of silence often starts with attacks on the media, which is the fourth estate of the realm. Is that the case currently in Ghana? Are the media censored in Ghana? Do journalists operate under fear and trepidation? Your answers are as good a mine.

Case study

I remember in 1994 during the launching of the Kakum Canopy Walkway at the (Kakum National Park), state authorities invited only state media -Daily Graphic, Ghana News Agency, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation and the Ghanaian Times for coverage.

The UNDP, which provided counterpart funding, insisted on the presence of private media, at least to give a different perspective to the event. Those were the days when the president (Jerry John Rawlings), the First Lady, and ministers captured all state media headlines from 6am to 6pm each day – 365 days.

Yours truly, was assigned to cover the Kankum event for The Chronicle. Together with a BBC reporter (Ruby Ofori), we were conveyed in a UNDP van. On arrival, military commandoes prevented me from entering the grounds on learning I was from The Chronicle. It took a protest by Ruby Ofori of the BBC and the communications manager of UNDP for the commandoes to allow me in – but not until they had confiscated my camera and restricted my movement.

When the president finished his speech, four copies were made available to only the four state media publications. Those were the days when only the state media mattered to the ruling government. The private media were a nuisance that had to be blacked out of state and government functions. On many occasions, journalists from the private newspapers were physically manhandled and thrown out of state functions.

When I questioned why I wasn’t given a copy of the president’s speech, I was told The Chronicle was not invited. None of my colleagues from the state media would permit me to a make a photocopy of theirs. Then the Minister of Tourism made a very brilliant speech, which in my estimation was more newsworthy than the president’s speech. I gave the Minister of Tourism (Dr. Steven Ayidiah) a front-page banner in The Chronicle two days after the state media reported the event. This caused many readers to ask whether the state media did not get the minister’s speech. Dr. Ayidiah lost his job shortly after that event, and to date I am still wondering whether it was the prominence The Chronicle gave him that cost him his job.

Adu-Boahen and the culture of silence

The late Professor Albert Adu-Boahen was one of few intellectuals who crossed the line between intellectual discourse and practical politics. An authority on Asante and West African history, he was emboldened by the valiant deeds he often wrote about to take on the military government of Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings in the late 1980s. In those ‘revolutionary days’ the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) regime literally ‘sat on the necks’ of Ghanaians after seizing power on 31 December 1981.

Those were the days one had to look over their shoulders when discussing anything publicly. Those were the days when friends, husbands and wives spied and reported on each other to win the military government’s favour. It was virtually impossible to openly express divergent political views without being labelled a ‘dissident’ and an ‘enemy of the revolution’.

Prof. Adu-Boahen of blessed memory, in a series of lectures delivered at the British Council hall at Accra in 1987, condemned ‘The Culture of Silence’ that had descended on Ghanaians because of their fear of brutal reprisals by the military regime and its agents.

“When a people who are used to open discussion of their political affairs are forced to remain silent, the country cannot progress,” he said in one of his lectures. Prof Adu-Boahen pointed to the massive devaluation of the cedi, among other things, as evidence that Ghana was regressing economically because of the political backwardness military rule had brought. Is this a true reflection of the conditions Mr. Sam Jonah alluded to in his speech?

Breaking the culture of silence

From 1988 onward, Prof. Adu-Boahen brazenly denounced military oppression in a series of lectures which cast him in a heroic light globally and nationally. His outbursts probably laid the foundation for a return to multi-party rule and the current democratisation process. Within five years of Adu-Boahen breaking the culture of silence, Rawlings was compelled to introduce a new constitution under which freedom of thought and expression were partially guaranteed. It was during preparations toward the return to civilian rule that a repugnant newspaper licencing law imposed by the PNDC was repealed.

Subsequently, Rawlings won the presidential election as the first civilian president after 19 years of military dictatorship. Even though Ghana had returned to democratic rule, the anti-media and press freedom antecedents of the PNDC seeped into the democratic era – as journalists continually faced arrest and intimidation. The attitude of ‘rulers’ at the time demonstrated their reluctance to introduce civility into our governance process.

The debate

So, is the ‘culture of silence’ real – as Sam Jonah and others would like Ghanaians to believe?  The politicians may be trying to score their points, but evidence does not support the assertion that there is a culture of silence in Ghana. As indicated earlier, if Mr. Jonah could speak his mind in the manner he did and walk away free, there can’t be a culture of silence. Of course, in a democratic dispensation people have the right of response to whatever we say; and that should not be labelled as a culture of silence.

In a country wherein Lawyer and Citizen vigilante Mr. Martin Amidu can publish several epistles which criticise government policy, there can’t be culture of silence. Let’s be reminded that under the current democratic arrangement, no one has a monopoly over what constitutes ‘truth’.  The fact that the criminal libel law has been repealed and the Freedom of Information Law has been passed buttress my point that the culture of silence in its literal form does not exist in Ghana. These legislative interventions were meant to enable the media to be more critical in demanding transparency and accountability from duty-bearers.  Nonetheless, the laws of defamation are still active; so, if you make any false allegations against anyone, you can be sued for defamation.

Media landscape

Arguably, the current media landscape is too vibrant for any individual or group of people to conclude that there is a culture of silence in Ghana. Whereas formerly we had only the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which provided radio and TV news at restricted times, currently there are more than 600 Commercial, rural and community radio stations spread across the country. Television stations have also witnessed steady growth to more than 200 across the country.

Moreover, it is well-recognized that the Internet and new media have opened greater avenues for the current media industry. The massive spread of mobile phones, along with other portable devices and digital technologies, in Ghana is transforming patterns of media consumption and political communication and participation. These new media are enabling an unprecedented increase in the number of young and old, rich and poor to interact with friends and duty-bearers.

Digital public sphere

The most significant innovation in mass communication during the digital era relates to the emergence of a digital public sphere. The concept of a public sphere has attracted much scholarly attention since Jürgen Habermas conceptualised it as a bourgeois public sphere. Habermas argued that “events and occasions are described as ‘public’ when they are exposed to all, in contrast to closed or exclusive affairs” (Habermas 1989).

Questions have been raised as to whether the Internet and social media have enabled operation of the public sphere as Habermas envisioned it, or if they have brought about an alternative public sphere. Generally, a functioning public sphere is understood as a collection of communicative spaces in society which permit the circulation of information, ideas, debates –in an unfettered manner. While it is true that social media spaces such as Twitter and Facebook have become platforms for the exchange of information and debates, the question may be whether such debates lead to consensus or rather amplify our differences.

That said, it is argued that real democracy manifests in individuals’ ability and competence to engage with one another. However, the bottom line is not whether citizens are discussing issues or not; what concern us is what is being said and how. We live in a country where people can create ‘fake websites’ to circulate ‘fake news’ about political and business opponents without fear. How can such people now claim there is culture of silence?

Fourth estate and Watchdog

In the era of digitalisation, journalists should refocus on investigative journalism rather than fuelling triviality and propaganda. Investigative journalism and the watchdog role are key components of what has come to be known as the ‘fourth estate’ function of journalism.

McNair in a study (2005: 28) identifies three core functions of news media:

  • A supplier of the information required for individuals and groups to monitor their social environments.
  • A resource for, support to, and often a participant in public life and political debate; such as the discursive foundation of what sociologist Jurgen Habermas (1989) called the public sphere.
  • A medium of education, enlightenment, and entertainment – what might be grouped as the media’s recreational or cultural functions.

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: [email protected]. Mobile: 0202642504/0243327586)

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