Development Discourse: Great power, greater responsibility


… A reminder to the media

Concerns are intensifying once more over the significant twin-topic of press freedom and free speech and their role in the democratisation process. The concerns are not about whether or not there is press freedom and free speech in Ghana, but more what the media and citizens use the free press and free speech-enabled environment for.

The history of the struggle for freedom all over the world imposed great responsibility on the media to inform, educate and hold rulers and duty-bearers to account; history equally imposed greater responsibility on the media as the Fourth Estate to bind society together. Where press freedom is used responsibly, democracy, development and society at large benefit. Conversely, where press freedom and free speech are used irresponsibly society suffers disintegration, and individuals and interest groups benefit.

Press freedom and free speech

The concerns over responsible or irresponsible use of media specifically heightened during the violence at Ejura – a multicultural town in the Ashanti Region of Ghana where the unfortunate death of a social media activist sparked riots. News of the death of Kaaka spread through the power of radio and social media to the point of incensing the youth of Ejura, who violently vandalised some buildings in the town and vented their anger against the police of Ejura. Authenticated and eyewitness reports later indicated that Kaaka’s death was the result of a domestic dispute and had nothing to do with politics, as initially stated in a Kumasi-based radio report that went viral.

Perhaps if the journalist who gave a political slant to the killing had exercised cautious verification, the two other lives and vandalised property would have been saved. In that instance, the desire to report first overshadowed sound judgement and journalistic values of always being objective, truthful, accurate and fair to both sides of an issue. These journalistic core values are so basic that it is unpardonable for any media organisation and its journalists to take them for granted.

During the Eid-Ul-Adha address at the National Mosque last week, President Akufo-Addo reassured Ghanaians that he is a known supporter of free speech and that his government supports and promotes free speech. The president further reminded Ghanaians that in the exercise of free speech, words can be more dangerous than guns. Referring to the Rwandan genocide which killed more than 800,000 people, President Akufo-Addo pointed out that it took only the irresponsible comments of a journalist, amplified by the power of radio, to trigger the genocide.  President Akufo-Addo therefore charged Ghanaians not to allow the actions or inactions “of a few misguided people to destroy the peace of the country”.

Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill

Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were two extremes in the use of words to different effects. Hitler is captured in history as the man who used inflammatory words and hate-speech to cause World War II. He made effective use of propaganda to incense and rally the Germans to fight for a wrong cause. Conversely, Winston Churchill used words and effective speech to restore hope to the British army that had been cowed by Hitler’s powerful army.

In 1940, as the French army fell and the British army weakened, Prime Minister Churchill spoke to the nation: “Upon this battle depends the survival of the Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our empire…Hitler knows that he will have to break us on this island or lose the war. If we stand up to him, all Europe may be free.

But if we fail, then the whole world will sink into the abyss of a New Dark Age made more sinister and, perhaps, more protracted by the light of perverted science”. Thus, through the power of words and images, Churchill led Britain to fight for king and country and stop Hitler’s ambition to destroy Europe. Such are the powers of words, but to different effects.    This leads to a key question, whether news must always be negative and inflammatory or positive and binding?

Among the traditional media, radio has more power because of its reach and speed. Radio reaches thousands, if not millions of people in seconds; so, if issues are not presented with circumspection, radio always has the capacity to either build and bind society or stoke violence and war – as in the case of Rwanda and the more recent case of election-related violence in Kenya. Interestingly, or sadly, social media has only come to augment or help fuel the powerful reach and impact of radio.

The convergence and synergy between radio and social media is even more dangerous if they are used for negative ends. These days, radio organisations stream their news reports or other events live on social media to add depth to their audience. Much as this is a technological innovation, the development could also speed up the spread of unsubstantiated news, propaganda or violence.   This is why media actors need to be reminded of their social responsibility to the country.

News for sale?

In fact, allegations that some journalists are being paid by politicians and other corporate interests to commercialise news is gaining legitimacy each day – given the unprofessional conduct accompanying news outputs by traditional media and social media belonging to the same news organisation. Nowadays, news is considered a distinct commodity produced only by journalists and established media organisations – and is currently being defined by external interests because of the unethical conduct of some media organisations and journalists.

When journalists and media organisations are discharging their duties as members of the Fourth Estate with the expectation that politicians and corporate organisations will compensate them, it gives a signal that society is sick. This assertion is drawn from the axiom that the media mirrors society. Ideally, the media should be the last to be corrupted, as by their mandate the media are to expose and fight corruption.

The traditional agenda-setting and gatekeeping role of the media dictates that journalists should choose what news is, based on a set of journalistic principles. In other words, politicians or advertisers should not define news under normal circumstances.  In setting the agenda, therefore, news organisations should not knowingly report falsehoods or trial balloons without labelling them as such for their readers. Allowing those with power to ‘spin’ a story is morally unethical and a breach of the code of standards. One cardinal code of journalism is that a report must encompass ‘both sides’. Sadly ‘one-sided reporting’ has become the norm in current journalism practice in Ghana. As a member of the journalism and media fraternity, my heart bleeds when journalists blatantly flout the profession’s codes and ethical standards.

Deadlines and bottom-line imperatives

Indubitably, in a competitive and rapidly changing mass-media communications environment, deadlines, bottom-line imperatives, and corporate interests can easily compel journalists to lose sight of the ethical implications of their work. In the wake of the new media, newspapers, television and radio news programmes have been compelled to adapt and diversify to compete for a share of the market. These changes are understandable, but they are not enough justification for media organisations and journalists to sell out to the highest bidders.

Although news organisations and journalists have a professional responsibility toward advertisers and shareholders, their commitment is always to citizens first. This means that journalists must report the facts truthfully and without omission, even if they are not in the best interest of advertisers, shareholders, or friends or the media owners. This notion of truth should not only include an accurate representation of information from reliable sources, it must also include a complete representation – one that presents multiple perspectives on an issue and does not suppress vital information in favour of powers behind the scene. If politicians are telling lies, journalists are supposed to expose them by reporting the truth; but if journalists begin to tell lies, then society will lose its moral values.

Social responsibility of the media

Responsible journalists should always strive to balance disclosure of the news with a respect for individual privacy. Of course, finding this balance can sometimes be a challenge because of bottom-line issues. It is a known fact that many journalists are underpaid or unpaid.  But this imperative should never encourage journalists to expose private information that could be harmful to individuals for the sake of sensationalising a story.

Because the media and journalists have a duty to serve the best interests of the citizens in a democracy, it is important that journalists act independently and remain neutral in their presentation of information. Responsible journalism requires journalists to avoid favouritism and present news that is fair, and always offer a complete picture of the issue. The principle of journalistic independence is an important component of the news media’s watchdog role.

Besides, journalists should avoid conflicts of interest – be they financial, political, or otherwise; and where conflicts of interest are unavoidable, it is a journalist’s ethical responsibility to disclose them. In addition to maintaining independence, the news media should allow for commentary and opposition; but these should be clearly delineated. Leaving space for citizens to voice concerns about journalistic conduct is an important part of serving the public interest and keeping the public’s trust. Therefore, journalists should discard their ‘holier than thou’ attitude and always accept their mistakes and criticism as part of their work.

Codes of ethics

Many codes of ethics stress that the media and journalists have a duty to invest time in investigation of facts, and to rectify any inaccuracies which may have occurred in the initial coverage of an issue. This is what I expected the media, especially Joy News that initially reported the wrong information on the Ejura killings, to have done. It is an accepted industry practice to retract a wrong report and apologise, rather than to hold onto a falsehood as though the media were sacrosanct.

In the preamble to its statement of purpose, the Committee of Concerned Journalists lists as the central purpose of journalism “to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society”. This theory of social responsibility for the press is often referred to as the vital information premise. Though sometimes worded differently by different organizations, it is widely accepted in the journalism community as the foundation for any principle of media ethics. Here are some of the principles that are particularly important for journalists in the current media climate.

Along with an emphasis on the truth, codes of ethics stress loyalty to citizens as a standard of primary importance. Of course, truth-telling is an essential component of this loyalty; but additionally, the concern is in reminding journalists that they work in the interest of citizens. Especially in the current environment, in which media outlets face increased financial pressure, there is a tension between responsible journalism and the demand for profit. Is it true that some media organisations and their journalists are peeved that the Akufo-Addo government is not paying them, like the previous John Mahama government did?

The MP for Assin Central, Mr. Kennedy Agyapong, has openly accused journalists of a radio and television media organization of putting pressure on government to pay up or risk adversarial news reporting ahead of the 2024 elections. If the allegation is true, then Ghana is in deep trouble. Since when has the media become king-makers? My understanding of election reporting and political communication is that media report the facts and not manufacture election results to the contrary. Let journalists and media organisations be reminded that media products are not just ‘economic’ or ‘bottom-line’; they are public goods for which journalists must defend the larger public interest above narrow interests.

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