Former President John Agyekum Kufuor has charged journalists not to misconstrue the prevailing favourable media environment as unfettered freedom to upset the governance process.
He said despite being considered the ‘Fourth Estate of the Realm’, media practitioners should wield their powers responsibly.
Mr Kufuor was speaking at the Kempinski Gold Coast Hotel, Accra on Tuesday.
Below is his speech
It is a delight to be here with you and for inviting me as your special guest on this occasion when the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) is launching the celebrations marking seventy years of its existence and to formally launch the celebrations. I should thank Chairman McKorley and President Monney for all the fine things said of me. The truth is that I have always fervently believed in our national motto; “Freedom and Justice” and that it empowers responsible media to be a critical underpinning for the motto’s realization.
Mr. Chairman, I was in Standard-2 at primary school in Kumasi in 1949, when your formidable association was founded in the Gold Coast, then a British colony which was struggling to evolve into an independent sovereign nation. Today, thank God, I am 80 years old, and classified culturally and socially as an ‘OLD MAN,’ and indeed, many an impudent youngster pokes fun at me in public, by catcalling me ‘OLU’ to indicate that my time is past, and not too relevant to current issues of society. Truth be told, in my younger days, I too used to perceive such older people with similar impudence. So now, I can absorb such youthful cheek with humour and not be hurt.
The point here is that your association is quite aged but, happily, because it is instituted and organized to be “timeless” in the sense of it being open-ended with successive generations of journalistic membership into eternity, it is still youthful. It does not suffer the perception of irrelevance to the ever-changing circumstances of culture and society.
Its essential and central purpose was, is, and must always be to train and discipline its members to seek information, verify, digest, and report it with such commentary where necessary, as objectively as can be. This would help society inform and educate itself and deepen its self-awareness to make requisite decisions, where needed, through the changing times and circumstances. This enhances the sovereignty of society to manage its governance for the continued benefit of all its members inclusively. Hence, the media becomes an anchor for sustained enlightenment of society.
This is why, in many a democratic state, the national constitution provides for a free media which has come to be dubbed the “FOURTH ESTATE OF THE REALM” after the Executive, Legislature, and the Judiciary. The scope of your profession encompasses the entire spectrum of human endeavour and society. Indeed, as much as advancing education, science, and technology conduce to free flow of information and deepen self-awareness of both the individual and of the polity, your profession also engenders the sense of entitlements among the general public. Practically, however, your profession and Association, like all human institutions, have their strengths and weaknesses, good sides and bad sides, and while the good tend to outweigh the bad, they nevertheless, attract enemies.
Thus, your occupation, especially among the more developed and enterprising media-counterparts around the world, treat your subscribers to topics of all sorts, including politics, economics, business, education, finance, religion, the professions, sports, international relations, literature, fashion, the arts, drama, commerce, mind-games, social-basket, and many more. Such versatility would make any organization exceptionally formidable, especially where practitioners take due pains to prepare and equip themselves well, intellectually and ethically.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the challenge here is that because the practitioners of journalism are not enjoined to be licensed or regulated publicly like many of the other professions, they come to wield a lot of influence and power for shaping the minds of the populace without open and commensurate responsibility and accountability. Thus, some of your members become susceptible to use the airwaves and other media as tools and weapons to mislead, intimidate, defame, castigate, disrespect and even blackmail individuals and authority at times. Consequently, many a reputation of individuals and even security of nations have been ruined unjustly and irreparably. The cost can be untold and has contributed to the subversion of democracy and human rights in many parts of the world.
My friends, media freedom does not mean that members of your profession or media houses can operate in the media landscape without any limitations or rules of engagement. This is why practitioners should be well versed in the regular laws of sedition and defamation. Further, the establishment of an association such as yours is to help curb the excesses of conduct among its members, becomes crucial. It must never be forgotten that it is the same Rule of Law that defines the state and its organs of government, and conduct of its citizens, that fixes the interrelationships of all the entities, including your association and its practitioners, within the jurisdiction of the state. None, including the media, is above the Rule of Law.
Mr. Chairman, the people of Ghana, through its Constitution, have chosen to be governed through multi-party democracy, with the freedom of the citizenry secured through the mechanism of checks and balances among its organs of governance. Central to this mechanism is the principles of transparency, accountability and probity. The media are a critical watchdog institution to underpin the smooth and effective operation of the mechanism and must, therefore, be a vanguard respecter of the Constitution in all its terms and purposes. The media cannot, therefore, be exempt from the principles of the Constitution.
Mr. Chairman, it is with the full appreciation of these principles that the government that I led repealed the potently anti-democratic CRIMINAL LIBEL LAW in 2001. Indeed, it was the very first law our new government repealed in its first year of office. My government saw that the continuance of that criminal libel law that had been functional from the colonial times, was incongruous with the demands of democratic governance, with its attendant need for transparency and accountability, and with respect for the principle of sovereignty of the people. Also, my party which had been in political opposition for forty-eight out of the fifty years of self-government of the state from 1951 to 2000 and been made to suffer the brunt of “muzzled” media, knew how undemocratic, unjust, and cripplingly costly the system was to the populace and good governance at large. The repeal has not only liberated the media landscape but also vested real meaning into democratic governance of Ghana.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my conviction that the GJA has acquitted itself creditably in these seventy odd years despite the very checkered history it has had to labour in and contributed positively to the development of our dear nation. In the process, it has produced some very fine gentlemen and ladies of the media. Suffice it to say, there were earlier pioneering journalists like Dr. J. B. Danquah who founded a newspaper, The Times of West Africa in the Gold Coast in 1931, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who became the editor of the African Morning Post of Accra, a nationalist newspaper in the Gold Coast when he came to live here in 1934, before leaving for his native Nigeria in 1937.
These pioneering journalists blazed an illustrious path for the Association to be founded two decades later. Over the years, you have produced seasoned journalists of all age-groups whose works are acclaimed internationally. Unfortunately, there have been some martyrs within your ranks.
We reminisce such courageous journalists of the likes of Tommy Thompson and John Kubglenu of ‘Free Press’ fame, who endured several bouts of imprisonment, which ultimately led to their deaths, all in defense of press freedom, and for being the voice of the voiceless against the tyranny. We salute these giants and warriors of free press and those others who paid the ultimate price in fighting for the fundamental human right of our people.
Distinguished Audience, as I have stated earlier, your profession has been described as the “fourth estate” of the realm and is a segment of society that has a direct and significant impact on the political affairs of the nation. Your explicit capacity of advocacy and implicit ability to frame political issues make you wield a critical and very important tool in helping shape the evolution of our nation. Many a time, in many nations around the world, free and vibrant media have been needed to stand between liberty and dictatorship, to checkmate power in men’s instincts for unfettered domination over their fellow man.
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America, writing from Paris to Edward Carrington in 1787 at the Continental Congress where the United States Constitution was being written, and emphasizing the importance of the free press to a free society, said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
My friends, this rhetorical statement is very instructive and is the kernel of why your profession is indispensable to the operation of a liberal democratic society. Your purpose, or ‘raison d’être’, must be to act as a counterbalance, a deliberate opposite force that is to seek information, verify and report it, and question matters of governance when affairs are not too clear. This is to ensure that the sovereign authority of the people is not subverted by their representatives.
Ladies and Gentlemen, speaking truth to power, as your profession demands, many a time, thrusts members of your profession squarely into the suppressive sights and crosshairs of non-democratic leaders and autocrats.
Mr. Chairman, here in Ghana, in most of our history as a nation, our darkest days have been when the press has been muzzled. Today, as a nation, we should all celebrate that we live under a democracy, and the sanctity of the press has been codified in our sacred document, our National Constitution.
Just last week, the president of the republic, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo signed the ‘Right-To-Information’ (RTI) bill that had recently been passed by the Ghanaian parliament, into law. Henceforth, the Ghanaian journalist has another tool in his or her arsenal to work effectively to shed light on public activities that can enhance transparency and accountability in governance.
However, your association should acknowledge that such a mechanism has not always been there. It must be appreciated that this is expanded freedom that has been hard-won, and that your entire membership must justify it with an equally enhanced sense of responsibility to the Rule of Law and sovereign people of Ghana.
My friends, you should never misconstrue the prevailing favourable media environment as an unfettered freedom for “upsetting the applecart” of governance, so to speak. You should wield your power responsibly and acknowledge the fact that this power has been earned from the increasing trust the people’s representatives in both the Legislature and the Executive are gaining in you. The Association must, therefore, ensure that no one within the profession takes anything for granted to endanger and subvert the fine balance enacted by the Law.
You must always remember that the abuse of the immense power of the press led to the Rwandan genocide through which almost a million people perished in the East African country in 1994. This harrowing history on our continent entrenches the responsibilities of your profession. The GJA must monitor its members to ensure that the rights of individuals and government are not unduly violated. Your association should be able to pull up its members who flout your ethics and rules, for necessary discipline.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the fight against corruption is still a work in progress, and more needs to be done to fight malfeasance in society. In your role as watchdogs of society, media exposés of corrupt public officials must be in fair and accurate reporting. You must do your jobs on this score without fear, favour, or partisanship.
However, if during your duties you get something wrong, please be bold and humble enough to accept your shortcomings and apologize for your misreporting. It makes you a more credible journalist because to err is human. It would be arrogant on your part not to accept culpability in your proven misreporting. Such attitudes, my friends, dent the image of the entire profession and attract opprobrium, and might suggest rightly or wrongly, that your services may be for hire, and that there may be hidden agendas, other than objective journalism.
Speaking of hidden agendas, the high cost of setting up and running a media organization, especially when it is a private venture, would naturally make some of such outlets mouthpieces of their owners who might have ulterior motives, be they commercial, ideological, religious, or political. The adage here is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. In this regard, it should be part of your association’s work to try to curb excesses in such situations in the media landscape.
May you, journalists of today, resolve to conduct yourself so honourably that the toil of yourselves and your forebears would not have been in vain. You should contribute to building a society of enlightenment where democracy reigns as people feel free to think and to express themselves without fear of impunity, and where checks and balances between the governors and the governed, and among the estates of government are guaranteed.
The current global phenomenon of fake news and reporting that is amplified by social media, and which manipulate the mass thought and psychology of society, also poses a serious challenge to your profession. Your association should engage itself to counteract and sieve out such tendencies and their operators.
Ladies and Gentlemen, into recent times, the sad death of Ahmed Hussein-Suale of Tiger-Eye fame this past January gives testament to the fact that there are still dangers lurking against your profession. The forces of darkness will try to continue to resist you for as long as you dare to shine a light on their nefarious, diabolical, and nation-wrecking activities. But dare, you must, for yours is a mission to contribute to enhancing DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM and GOOD GOVERNANCE for all our people! As daylight overcomes darkness, so would your genuine truth-seeking endeavours triumph over evil.
In this light, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and gentlemen, the association should give clear, unadulterated, and principled leadership to the profession whose loftiest preoccupation must be to serve the welfare of the sovereign people of GHANA.
Long live press freedom in our dear nation.
Long live the Ghana Journalists Association.
God bless our nation Ghana!
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, I hereby declare the 70th Anniversary celebrations of the Ghana Journalists Association launched. Thank you!