A strong media culture promotes peace and stability

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

The term ‘fourth estate’ is used to describe the invaluable role of media organisations and journalists, who are expected to hold governments and decision-makers accountable. Describing journalists and the news outlets for which they work as members of the fourth estate is an acknowledgment of their influence and status among the greatest powers of a nation. The term ‘fourth estate’ envisions media and journalists playing a powerful role in influencing and shaping the political and public sphere.

The term ‘fourth estate’ is often attributed to British politician Edmund Burke. Thomas Carlyle, in ‘Heroes and Hero-Worship in History’, quotes Burke as saying “There were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important by far than them all”.

However, some media and political analysts argue that the use of ‘fourth estate’ to describe media and journalists is outdated because of the public’s mistrust of journalists and news coverage in general. Many journalists across the world, including Ghana, have a penchant for publishing fake news and propaganda, misinformation and disinformation for a fee. In a 2019 survey, Gallup found that only 41% of news consumers said they trust the media – a trend that has dented the image of a profession once noted for upholding the truth.


Despite misgivings about the credibility and independence of the media and journalists, stakeholders still refer to them as the watchdogs of democracy. This is because media and journalists are expected to keep their eyes on the work of government, and to create public awareness on human rights abuse, bribery and corruption. Invariably, an independent news media must use its watchdog-role to investigate and report on government wrongdoing, and to hold those in power accountable for their actions.

Furthermore, the power of independent media and journalism to promote a variety of viewpoints empowers citizens to make informed decisions about their community and country. This explains why it is in the collective interest of all, and in fact a responsibility for patriotic citizens, to promote media and journalistic plurality and independence.

I am not by this arguing that journalists and their media should not be held accountable for deliberate creation and dissemination of fake news, disinformation and misinformation; but in cases of journalistic excesses, defamatory laws should apply rather than assault and maltreatment with impunity.

Ending impunity

It is against this backdrop that the 2023 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists must be embraced by all stakeholders. UNESCO points out that ending impunity for crimes against journalists is one of the most important and complex challenges of recent times. It is an essential precondition to guaranteeing freedom of expression and access to information for all citizens. Access to information and guaranteeing freedom of expression is undoubtedly the cornerstone for building strong, democratic societies.

In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 2nd as the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’ in General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/163. The Resolution urged member-states to implement definite measures countering the present culture of impunity. The date was chosen in commemoration of two French journalists’ assassination in Mali, on 2 November 2013.

This landmark resolution condemns all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers. It also urges member-states to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists and media workers: to ensure accountability; bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media workers; and ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies. It further calls upon states to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.

Protecting journalists is also part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The plan has also contributed to building international coalitions of governments and civil society, and served to promote changes on the ground – such as the creation of national safety mechanisms in at least 50 countries.

The 2023 observance seeks to raise awareness of the main challenges journalists and communicators face in exercising their profession, and publicise the escalation of violence and repression against men and women practicing journalism. This year’s theme also seeks to highlight the role of a safe and free press in ensuring the integrity of elections and our democratic systems. It reaffirms the obligation of states to adopt effective measures which protect the independent press and strengthen institutional frameworks that combat violence and impunity, and promote media independence, sustainability and diversity.

Data on attacks

Data on violence and repression against journalists include attacks and restrictions on media in the context of social protest coverage; the use of judicial mechanisms against journalists for reasons related to their journalistic work on matters of public interest; and the increasing forced exile of journalists in some countries. While Latin America and the Caribbean remain the region with highest amount of murdered journalists, according to 2022 UNESCO data, Africa has recorded its fair of share of arresting, detaining and killing journalists with impunity in the course of their work.

While killings are the most extreme form of media censorship, journalists are also subjected to countless threats – ranging from kidnapping, torture and other physical attacks to harassment, particularly in the digital sphere. Threats of violence and attacks against journalists create a climate of fear for media professionals, therefore impeding the free circulation of information, opinions and ideas for all citizens.

Female journalists are particularly impacted by threats and attacks online. According to UNESCO’s discussion paper ‘The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists’, 73 percent of the women journalists surveyed said they had been threatened, intimidated and insulted online in connection with their work.

Since 1993, more than 1,600 journalists have been killed for reporting news and bringing information to the public. In nine out of ten cases the killers go unpunished, according to the UNESCO observatory of killed journalists. UNESCO points out that impunity often leads to more killings, and is often a symptom of worsening conflict and the breakdown of law and judicial systems. In many cases, threats of violence and attacks against journalists are not properly investigated. This impunity emboldens perpetrators of these crimes, and at the same time has a chilling effect on society – including the journalists.

Situation in Ghana

A statement by the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) to mark the Day revealed that over the past five years (between 2019 and 2023), Ghana witnessed 45 cases of assault or attack against media practitioners and institutions. The statement explained that 2023 recorded the highest number of cases per year, with October 2023 also recording the highest number of cases per month (four cases). Undoubtedly, impunity for crimes against media practitioners and institutions is worsening, according to GJA.

“We are extremely worried that Ghana, a country once acclaimed internationally as a bastion of democracy and media freedom in Africa, is fast sliding down the slope with impunity for crimes against journalists and other media practitioners,” says the statement signed by GJA President, Albert Kwabena Dwumfour.

Furthermore, GJA laments the lack of sincerity and determination by key actors, particularly the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary toward ending the state of impunity for crimes against Ghanaian journalists. GJA argues that the lack of commitment to ending impunity for crimes against journalists is gradually undermining the country’s democracy and development.

Media as civil society

As Africa is undergoing military interventions, with a possible decline of democracy, there are renewed calls for strengthening civil society organisations so they can provide counterbalancing powers to the state and its actors.  The significance of a lively civil society lies in providing a mode of expression against authoritarianism.

Depending on where one stands, the media can be either private sector players or civil society organisations. As private entities, they need to remain profitable by using sound business management principles; and as civil society organisations, independent media and credible journalists are expected to hold governments accountable by providing a voice for the voiceless.

Furthermore, by combining the roles of private entities and civil society players, the media and journalists are generally expected to:

  • Investigate and publish information that replaces rumour and speculation
  • Resist or evade government controls
  • Inform and empower the electorate
  • Subvert those whose authority thrives on lack of information
  • Scrutinise the actions and inactions of governments, elected officials and public services,
  • Scrutinise businesses, their maltreatment of workers and customers, and the quality of their products,
  • Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable by providing a voice for those who cannot normally be heard in the public domain
  • Hold up a mirror to society, reflecting its virtues and vices; and also debunking its cherished myths
  • Promote justice by investigating and exposing injustice in society
  • Promote the free exchange of ideas by providing a platform for those with philosophies contrary to prevailing views.

Media organisations and their journalists which fail to uphold some or all of the above universal journalism principles constitute threats to society, rather than reflecting the virtues and vices of society.

Common interest

Media and civil society advocates have proposed that an active citizenry is a powerful catalyst for democratic and economic development. In this regard, a vibrant and independent media can be the springboard needed to promote citizen participation in governance processes.

It is argued that civil society often promotes common interests – independent of the state, though this may not be the case in some countries where civil society, including media and journalists, have compromised their independence. In Ghana, for instance, it is becoming difficult to distinguish some media organisations from political parties and politicians.

Some media organisations and journalists or broadcasters have been embedded with political parties and politicians, who have become their dominant source of news. These political journalists religiously follow the social media handles of politicians for news and information, whether authentic or fake, to feed into their news content for public consumption.

Not only is this embedded journalistic practice unethical in as much as it promotes fake news, but it is also making it difficult to assert the independence of the media and journalists for the good of our democracy. With the advent of social media and citizen journalism onto the news ecosystem – and the subsequent proliferation of fake news and fake websites, the relevance of mainstream journalism will depend on authenticity, credibility and ethical behavour.

Notwithstanding weaknesses of the media, government, state agencies and other civil society actors are under constitutional obligation to provide a congenial atmosphere for media capacity improvement so ethical journalism can be practiced.

Media and journalists need capacity-building in conflict-sensitive reporting to promote and sustain peace and stability in times of conflict. Journalists and media must however behave so they deserve to be accorded respect and dignity as the watchdogs over society and ‘Fourth Estate’ of the realm.


Randall, D. 2000. The Universal Journalist. Pluto Press. London.

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