The right to information and national security


The arrest of a journalist with Accra-based Citi FM, Caleb Kudah, has rekindled debate on the duties, responsibilities and obligations of journalists and other state-actors. Mr. Kudah is reported to have misrepresented himself at the National security head office and filmed cars parked at the premises, and then forwarded the footage to his colleague, Ms. Zoe Abu-Baidoo.

A national security statement on the issue said the Citi FM journalist entered the security zone under false pretences and took pictures of a security installation. The media reported Caleb Kudah as alleging that he misrepresented himself as a different tribe during interrogation to avoid maltreatment; thus, creating the impression that security agencies maltreat people of one tribe and treat other tribes favourably.

This is a dangerous statement, with the potential to plunge this country into tribal war. We need to draw lessons from Rwanda. The genocide in Rwanda was sparked by a careless and uncouth statement by one journalist that pitted Hutus against Tutsis against each other, killing more than 800,000 people. If Caleb Kudah made misrepresentations with the intention of creating ethnic tension, his action should be strongly condemned. Thankfully, the Ministry of National Security has initiated investigations into the case, and all stakeholders should be keen to see their outcome.

Security zones and journalistic rights

Journalism, by origin, was the production of ‘factual accounts’ – dates to many centuries before it became an industry and profession. Besides its role of providing information in a democracy, journalism was and is expected to scrutinise the policies and actions of the powerful – whether government, businesses or other influential/powerful spheres of society. This watchdog role of the journalist is what Edmund Burke described as the ‘Fourth Estate’ in a functioning democracy.

The notion was and still is that professional journalists may not abandon norms and ethics associated with the watchdog role; it is the role itself that is being gradually displaced by the failing business-model of journalism. Thus, the moral authority of journalism relies on a commitment to values which include accuracy, objectivity, and service to the public’s interests.

But to what extent can journalists go to obtain information in the interests of the public? Are all journalistic contents good for public consumption? Who is paying for the content? These are pertinent questions which border on whether news and information can be accepted and consumed as public goods.

Journalists and media organisations should be first to recognise and respect the fact that national security installations are ‘no photography’ zones. I recall in 1995, as a young and enthusiastic investigative reporter of The Ghanaian Chronicle, my editor Kofi Koomson sent me to take a picture of the GNPC building in Tema.

I arrived there armed with the wrong notion that – since the building was a state property, and The Chronicle and I were operating in the public interest (the right of the public to know) – I had the right to take a picture. I did – and the security man invoked his right to arrest, detain and confiscate my camera.

The Chronicle and GNPC

The case ended at the Tema Port police station, where the officer in charge schooled me on where my rights as a journalist began and where they were supposed to have ended. In honesty, even though I was purportedly acting on the right of the public to know, I needed to have sought permission before taking the picture. Moreover, there was a running battle between The Chronicle and GNPC, following several investigative reports the newspaper had published on some financial dealings at the state-owned company. The officer in charge destroyed the film in the camera as part of the bargain to release the camera to me. Since then, I have approached my investigative journalism with caution.

International development organisations like UNESCO, UNDP and World Bank uphold the principle that information is a public good, and for that reason journalists and the media should be given free access to information. Truly, anyone who subscribes to the principles of democracy and democratisation should uphold the notion of information as a public good; but to what extent should journalists go to get information? Who sets the agenda for media and journalistic framing of what is news?

Laws on the invasion of privacy captured in the Ghana Journalists Association and National Media Commission codes of ethics and standards are still relevant to contemporary journalism practice. False representation is unethical and cannot be justified under any circumstances. For this reason, the GJA rightly described the conduct of Caleb Kudah as unethical.

Kotoka Airport

A few years ago, late former President Jerry John Rawlings went to the Kotoka International Airport to take pictures without permission and was stopped, despite his standing in society. He was also subsequently barred from taking pictures at Burma Camp and other military posts across the country.  The question then is, should a journalist or media organisation gain fame or celebrity status by using unethical means to obtain information? Perhaps, the British High Commissioner in Ghana, Iain Walker, hit the nail on the head when he explained that the rule of law demands neutrality; and all journalists and state institutions must act with accountability and responsibility.

News as a public good

The 2021 World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) held on 3rd May, had as its theme ‘Information as a public good’, focusing on contemporary issues for freedom of expression, access to information and the public service role of journalism within the changed communications ecosystem. The theme resonates with Nobel laureate, Joseph E. Stiglitz’s famous statement that: “Information is a public good. […] and as a public good, it needs public support. Good information is necessary for the functioning of a strong democratic state,” he continued, and added: “In democracies we know what needs to be done, and we actually have the ability to do it: we need to strengthen the free and diverse media with public support”, he said.

In advocating the notion of ‘information as a public good, WPFD highlights the significant difference between information and other kinds of communications-content: such as disinformation, misinformation, hate-speech and other forms of fake news that are published to cause disaffection and mayhem. As UNESCO indicated, the aim of WPFD is to draw attention to the special role of journalism in producing news as verified information in the public interest, and how this depends on a wider ecosystem that enables information as a public good.

The 2021 WPFD highlighted three imperatives for a congenial ecosystem for journalism and media. In fact, state actors and journalists have equal roles to nurture the ecosystem. Closely related to this ‘public good’ notion is the fact that news (or at least journalism) should serve public purpose beyond the immediate interests of advertisers, politicians and other news consumers.

On 3 May 1991, signatories of the historic Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press stated in Article V that:

“The worldwide trend toward democracy and freedom of information and expression is a fundamental contribution to the fulfillment of human aspirations”. The statement underlined the interlinked roles of these fundamental freedoms for advancement of the public good of humankind. While the 1991 Windhoek conference focused on print media, the 10th anniversary in 2001 highlighted communications through the airwaves – giving rise to the African Charter on Broadcasting.

Social media, new media

As UNESCO has noted, globalisation and the Internet revolution have brought in their wake several changes in the media landscape. First, there has been a rise of pluralistic media environments in many countries across the globe – thanks to liberalisation and expansion of transnational media via satellite or subscription. Secondly, it is evident that significant technological advances have increased the opportunities for people to communicate and access information. The result is a proliferation of information that co-exists with other contents in an increasingly digital communications sphere, including the challenges of disinformation, misinformation and hate-speech.

Misinformation and disinformation

UNESCO reports that misinformation and disinformation were practicalised during the COVID-19 era, when a mixture of misinformation and disinformation (‘disinfodemic’) spread across the world sowing confusion, discord and division. Perhaps, the disinformation was partly fuelled by the lack of reliable public data and information. Further, the Internet and social media played a key role in spreading misleading conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, UNESCO recognised that the output of both old and new media remains a powerful source of information which people access for various uses, especially with the advent of the COVID crisis and beyond.

Information literacy

UNESCO also unscored the need for citizens to develop and reinforce their Media and Information Literacy (MIL) skills. When citizens acquire media literacy, they will be empowered to detect misinformation, disinformation, hate-speech, fake news – and above all make informed judgments and decisions on news in the public domain.

Equally important is citizens’ knowledge of their own rights to freedom of expression and the importance of the journalist’s role to produce reliable information. MIL needs to include appreciation of journalists’ safety; including, especially, female journalists, and awareness-raising about the need to defend and demand journalism in the public interest.

The theme of Windhoek 2021, ‘Promoting Information as a Public Good’, serves as a call to renew the global commitment to freedom of expression, press freedom and freedom of information, while acknowledging the new economic challenges faced by the media sector; and the gatekeeping role of Internet companies and their need for greater transparency. Indubitably, promoting information as a public good is necessary to ‘build back better’ in the COVID-era world. But, in my opinion, it is not every news that is meant for public consumption; and journalists should know the boundaries of their operations regarding sensitive national information.

In fact, UNESCO declares that independence of the media and the preservation of its contribution to information as a public good also has implications for the proper running of democratic societies. This independence is particularly important in times of elections, public health crises, conflicts, and natural disasters. Ironically, it is some of these media and journalists which stoke ethnic flames – as in the case of Rwanda.   While a range of policy measures are needed alongside innovation within news media institutions, to empower journalists and media to play their watchdog roles creditably, members of the fourth estate owe the country a duty to uphold the journalistic codes of conduct and statistics.

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