Press freedom. It’s one of the those phrases, a bit like human rights, which in polite conversation you can’t argue against. At least, not without looking like an extremist. But what does this term we are so quick to defend actually mean? Or perhaps the more pertinent question is – who gets to decide what it means? We often think of western liberal democracies as bastions of press freedom. But the influence of both neoliberal policies and western power in post-colonial nations can give us an insight into how these models fail to provide a free press capable of holding power to account – and perhaps, how that might be changed.
Freedom from whom?
Most of us understand press freedom based on the liberal idea of the media acting as a state watchdog. Of course, acting as a check on the state and government of the day should be one of the main functions of the press. But this traditional liberal definition, inspired by the likes of John Locke, derives from a period “when government was commonly thought to be the ‘seat’ of power”, according to James Curran, author of Media and Power. In today’s world, where most countries are neoliberal democracies, the power of private ownership is extensive. This not only means that the private sector should be scrutinised by the press just as much as the state, but that the media also needs protection from private (as well as governmental) interference.
This aspect of press freedom isn’t considered nearly as much as it should be because it doesn’t fit with the neoliberal status quo of minimal state interference and deregulation of all industries, including the media. The last significant attempt to challenge this conception of press freedom was made by The Non-Aligned Movement in the late 1970s. Cofounded by Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, the movement sought to those represent countries – mainly in the postcolonial, ‘developing’ world – who were not aligned to a superpower during the Cold War. The movement’s concerns about the threats globalised media brought to their cultures led to a proposal in UNESCO for a ‘New World Information and Communication Order’. The result was the Macbride Report, which questioned the role of the private sector in communications and argued that “the right to communicate should have been both an individual and a social right, and that its recognition would have helped democratise communication’. Published in 1980, the paper was seen as a threat to press freedom by Western nations. It eventually led to America and the UK leaving UNESCO in a bad mood, allegedly because “the debates challenged the profitable operations of U.S. commercial media in foreign markets”. The report then went out of print and became difficult to obtain.
Ghana – like many other African countries – began its transition from colonised state to independent nation under the threat of aid conditions from Western donors. Aid was often conditional upon the country agreeing to institute liberal capitalist policies aimed to smooth the functioning of the free market. With this came the liberalisation and commercialisation of the media. Over twenty years on, Ghana is often hailed as one of Africa’s most ‘successful democracies’ with its peaceful society, ‘free and fair’ elections and safe press environment. In a sense this comparison is true; in many countries in the wider West Africa region, criticising the government or simply reporting the news can cost journalists their lives. But such comments implicitly involve former colonising nations seems implicitly washing their hands of responsibility for the turmoil in countries they condemn as ‘unsuccessful’. Moreover, from international donors such as USAID to liberal think tanks like Freedom House, those who sing the praises of Ghana’s political system come from a neoliberal standpoint. The integrity and moral authority of this standpoint is crumbling before our eyes. The polarisation of the media landscape, fears over ‘fake news’, and the clear imbrication of state and media power stand testament to its flaws. Clearly, this neoliberal conception of freedom is wildly insufficient to provide a genuinely robust freedom of the press. The point is that freedom to buy and sell does not necessarily equal freedom to speak in the public interest – and sometimes it actively deters it. So while Ghana’s press, much like that of the UK, may be considered ‘free’ in neoliberal terms, its function as a public good risks being neglected or subsumed by personal and financial interests.
Government owned, government controlled.
In 1957 Ghana became the first African nation to gain independence from colonial rule. Independence leader Kwame Nkrumah inherited media structures put in place by the British colonial regime, such as GBC (based on the BBC) and the Daily Graphic newspaper (founded by the chairman of the London Daily Mirror). These outfits were used as tools of oppression under British rule, so the state press “started as a propaganda tool for the colonial government, and then when independence governments took over they were used for the same purpose”, said Ebo Quansah, veteran journalist at The Chronicle newspaper. This was perhaps at its worst under the military governments led by the likes of General Ankrah (or Jerry Rawlings in his military years), when it was the norm for the military to arrest journalists in their studios. When asked about the sacking of a number of state media editors at a press conference in 1967, General Ankrah answered “He who pays the piper calls the tune”.
This abuse of the state media made working in the press dangerous. This has not been forgotten by the older generation of journalists in Ghana, many of whom were forced to flee the country during these times. But this history is also used by neoliberals to justify restricting government owned media, while the private press are given free reign. The Press Freedom Index by Freedom House, for example, demonstrates this disregard for publicly owned media by failing to distinguish between government ownership and government control of the media in one of their questions about the economic environment.
In order to understand the importance of publicly-owned media, it is useful to look again at Nkrumah’s Government; the first in newly-independent Ghana. Though the press at this time was largely used as a state mouthpiece, many contend that this was a necessary part of nation-building. “Paternalistically, he thought that the press was too important to leave in private hands…it was important to control our own image, to use the media for developmental purposes”, explains the University of Ghana’s Audrey Gadzekpo. As Nkrumah put it when he launched Ghana Television in 1965, the broadcaster would:
“Supplement our educational programme and foster a lively interest in the world around us. It will not cater for cheap entertainment nor commercialism. Its paramount object will be education.”
To an extent, this public service function lives on at government owned broadcaster GBC. Although it is undoubtedly under soft government control, GBC provides essential coverage of topics which the private media neglect, such as agriculture and gender. It also broadcasts to rural areas (where 46% of the population live), particularly important considering private outlets tend to focus on urban areas, and rarely have the incentive from advertisers to reach further. It also produces important content during election periods to educate citizens and maintain peace, explains Kwasi Asare, Executive Secretary of Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association:
“A private media person would think ‘okay, how much airtime do I really have for this?’ If MTN and Vodafone can give me money for it, I’d rather go with them than give one spot to the peaceful broadcast. But GBC can decide ‘this is so critical we can shelve all our commercials and run this’.”
GBC has however been severely weakened by neoliberal policies and the introduction of commercial media. As indicated above, GBC is dependent on advertising for some of its revenue. It was forced to turn to the market in order to survive following privatisation and austerity measures under Structural Adjustment Programmes.This has made GBC dependent on both government and private funding – pulling its loyalties in all directions. It has to negotiate the conflict between serving the public whilst protecting private profit margins.
GBC is also often considered out of touch, particularly by urban Ghanaians: “it becomes almost like punishment to sit and watch GTV when programmes are the same format as decades ago”, one former GBC journalist told me. In the face of privately-owned media driven by profit, entertainment, sport and sensational politics dominate – while the state’s public service broadcasts aren’t sexy enough to please audiences. The Head of Radio at GBC, Affail Monney, suggested that:
“The average listener doesn’t care about standards or ethics, and the state media is overly cautious when it comes to those things…while the motive of most of the private media is commercialisation, sensationalism, and politics, how to win power.”.
So the state-owned media’s freedom to be critical of government remains restricted by the state, but its freedom to fulfil its role as a public service broadcaster is also limited by the private sector – due to competition from the private press and the influence of advertisers.
As in the rest of the world, it is widely known in Ghana that if you are interested in gaining any kind of power or influence, opening a media organisation is a fine place to start. Although ownership does not necessarily equal editorial control or infringements on journalistic freedom, many in the industry are concerned about this risk. This is due to a rising trend of politicians and business people setting up media houses – i.e. individuals who tend to have a motive other than news reporting or high quality journalism.
The issue came to the fore recently during the December 2016 election campaign, when hate speech was used by a radio “owned by big people in the previous government”, explained Bernard Avle, Head of News at Citi FM. A radio host at Montie FM and two panelists threatened to rape and kill judges involved in a case against the country’s Electoral Commission. The three were initially jailed but then pardoned by the president, leaving the nation “bitterly divided”, according to Avle. This case shows us that one of the main reasons liberalisation hasn’t actually ‘freed’ the Ghanaian press is because politicians – many who are members of the governing party – are able to privately own media outlets anyway. Much as in colonial times, those in power use their ownership of the media to consolidate their position.
Business people are another group keen to have their share of the country’s liberalised press. One notable example is Samuel Amo Tobin, owner of both the pharmaceutical giant Tobinco and the popular media outlet Atinka FM. Tobin “had a lot of problems with the Government in the past few years” according to one journalist I spoke to, referring to a clamp down on his company’s imports after it was found to have imported counterfeit antimalarial drugs for children. Following this, Tobin established a radio station: “I guess he sees having a radio station as a way of fighting back if he ever gets into trouble again”, the journalist suggested.
The dwindling of diversity of opinion through cross-ownership of media is also a risk to press freedom, as large media groups and individual moguls rapidly buy up the press. EIB Network (the owners of Starr FM), for instance, is owned by former finance minister Kwabena Duffour – who as well as maintaining strong political connections owns several other companies in other sectors. One journalist I spoke to made the point that Duffour must be building his media empire to support his own interests, because “he’s not going to make as much money from the media as he would from his banks or insurance companies!”
In fact, some argue that business people set up outlets in Ghana mainly because it gives them free advertising. This brings us onto another risk to press freedom neoliberal politics brings – the grip of advertisers, which is significant in Ghana’s under-resourced and highly competitive media industry. One journalist recounted a story to me about an article written by his friend on a news website, which challenged a study published by Vodafone about the quality of telecoms services in Ghana, which (surprise surprise) ranked itself in first place:
“Vodafone called the marketing guys at the radio station and said if you don’t take down this story, we are going to pull our advertising…I guess the matter went to management, and then the story had to be taken down.”
Add to this the growing corporate PR sector in the country and you’ve got a problem. This is even more worrying if we look at National Media Commission statistics from the 2012 Ghanaian election, which found that of all media houses measured just 0.5% of stories were business focused. Of course, many outlets in Ghana produce excellent reportage which is in the public good, particularly around elections. But they focus their scrutiny on government, and as business journalist Emmanuel Dogbevi explained, coverage of business as well as illicit finance is “inadequate” in Ghana’s media – problematic in a country where market forces are so dominant.
Don’t end up like us.
As we know all too well, the risk to press freedom which neoliberalism brings isn’t just a Ghanaian problem. In many ways, its problems are the consequence and reflection of problems endemic to the British media landscape, and the close interweaving of private interests in ‘public service’ institutions. Take the BBC. In many ways, it is still a public service, and austerity measures have not caused the broadcaster to resort to corporate advertising to fund its activities – yet. But politically it has for many years upheld the neoliberal status quo, and earlier this month Sir David Clementi was made BBC chair – a former banker with no broadcast experience who advised Margaret Thatcher on the privatisation of British Telecom in the eighties.
There is a fear amongst Ghanaian journalists that ownership of their media will “go the same way as the UK because these owners are buying up stations all around”, explained Kwame Karikari, retired journalist and founder of the Media Foundation for West Africa. He is of course referring to the lack of plurality in Britain’s media, where, according to the Media Reform Coalition, three companies (DMGT, Trinity Mirror and Murdoch’s News UK) control nearly 70% of national newspaper circulation, and radio news is a “duopoly” split entirely between the BBC and Sky. What is more, journalists from newspapers such as The Telegraph and The Financial Times have spoken publicly about (sometimes successful) attempts by advertisers to influence editorial content.
Luckily for Ghana though, there are plans for legislation to curb corporate capture of the media. Amongst other things, it is hoped that the long awaited Ghana Broadcasting Bill will limit the number of media houses a single individual or company can own. As George Sarpong, CEO of Ghana’s National Media Commission, told me:
“The economic transition itself is young, so we do not have private businesses as huge as you can see in England or America…But we are seeing where we will end up…if there is no regulatory intervention now there will be complete capture of the media by commercial forces by the turn of the decade – every element of freedom will be gone.”
There are also suggestions that the licence fees GBC is now attempting to collect should be shared with private broadcasters. This may sound strange, but it could move Ghana towards an egalitarian-welfare media system, which seeks to counter the influence of the market in the media – in part by subsidising the press. Depending on how much revenues amount to, as well as improving GBC’s independence the licence could have the potential to fund private broadcasters to carry out more public service broadcasting.
These plans in Ghana signify a recognition by the government and media industry that ‘press freedom’ in a broader sense is under threat, and that leaving its fate up to the market is not the answer. It remains to be seen how the country will tackle this in order to allow for more public good media. But if it’s done well, Britain might be well advised to listen up too. Press freedom should indeed be protected and championed, but we need to reshape the way we think about it. It is not about market freedom to buy and sell, but freedom to report in the public good – independent from state and private power.