Kasoa murder victim - Ishmael Abdallah

On April 3, two teenagers in Kasoa in the Central Region of Ghana allegedly killed a 10-year-old boy for money rituals.

This should not have resulted in a conversation about media sector reforms, except that in recent years the media has become the new found space for money ritualists, supposed cash doublers, and financial scammers.

In fact, some reports indicate one of the alleged teenage murderers said he chanced upon the ritualists who inspired him to commit the heinous crime on national TV. The matter has, therefore, erupted a heated discussion on the media’s contribution to that monstrous murder.

The discussion has also brought up about the ultimate questions of who must have access to the media space, what must be published in the media and how is media content regulated?

Media Content and Cultivation

If the conversation is about assessing the triggers and causes of the atrocious murder, the media may not be the only influencers, especially when the alleged accomplices are young and are of school-going ages. There can be many causes including parenting, poverty, poor leadership, education among others. A broader conversation must be had and the appropriate corrections put in place.

While we are on the conversation of the contribution of the media to the matter, there is a connection between media consumption and its impact on perception of social realities.

In media studies, Gerbner’s (1960) cultivation theory explains that the more people are exposed to media content for a long period of time, they are more likely to perceive the social realities of the world in line with the content they have been consuming. The content consumption and the resulting perception of the world in turn affects attitudes and behaviours in society.

Thus, our perception of the real world today is to a large extent the images, ideological messages that have been transmitted to us through the mass media. The impact of the cultivation therefore leaves us with the big questions of who and what must be allowed into the media.

90s Regulatory Body Supervising Fast-changing, Tech-Aided Media Landscape

The Constitution of Ghana established two media regulatory bodies—the National Media Commission (NMC) and the National Communication Authority (NCA). Among other roles, the NMC is to promote media freedom and independence, and maintain highest journalistic standards in the content of the media, while the NCA allocates frequencies to the broadcast media (Radio and TV).

These bodies were established in the 1990s. The NMC whose role matter immediately in the conversation of media content, for instance, was established by the NMC ACT 1993 (ACT 449) which was assented to by the president on July 6, 1993. Since then, little or no changes have been made in the roles and outlook of the Commission.

In 1993 when the NMC was established, the broadcasting airwaves was not liberalised. The only Ghanaian broadcasting entity that existed was the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC). State-owned media dominated the media landscape. Hence the roles of the Commission as enshrined in the ACT are heavily focused on the state-owned media organisation.

Today, 27 years later, the media is dominated by the privately-owned media organisations and the impact of GBC in the broadcasting landscape is very limited. According to the NCA, there are 575 radio stations and about 150 TV stations as at 2020.

In the 27 years, the Internet has also emerged with a penetration of 48% into the population. The Internet has come with it news websites which are uncountable. There are also numerous bloggers whose categorisation as journalists is an ongoing debate but are influencing news production and consumption. And there is also social media that has totally changed the landscape. Today, 22% of Ghanaians consume their news from social media platforms, according to the Afrobarometer. The landscape is fast changing.

The media landscape has grown, metamorphosed and keeps changing since 1993. The regulator, however, is stunted in growth, static and has refused to change.

The NCA, Media Capture and Ownership

The question about what is published in the media is as important as who owns the media. Media content to a good extent can reflect the perspectives and ideologies of the media owner and its management. Unfortunately, there is lack of transparency of media ownership in Ghana. Ownership of media organisations are shrouded in secrecy to the extent that journalists working in some media organisations do not know the actual owners.

The apparent lack of transparency on media ownership prompted the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) and Reporter Without Borders (RSF) to embark on a project called the Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) in 2018 to observe the companies and faces behind some of the prominent media organisations. The study collected data from the National Communication Authority (NCA) and the Registrar General’s Department (RGD), where all businesses ought to be registered.

The study which also gathered information through interviews with the media organisations and companies observed there are inconsistent and missing ownership data. The MOM found that there were companies who owned the media but had no profile with the RGD, some had no information beyond their profile name, some had inconsistent public and official information while others were not even registered as media organisations at the RGD.

The MOM found that a third of the media is owned by persons with political affiliations, which brings in the conversation about media capture. It is not difficult to find today that many of the TV channels are owned by self-styled men of God and capitalist religious organisation, partisan politicians and profiteering businessmen whose mains focus is to make money or further their religious and political interests regardless of how injurious their content may be to media audience.

The NCA, the regulatory body in charge of allocation of the frequencies, is not given to naming the owners of the broadcasting outlets, despite calls from the MFWA to do so. The NCA is politically controlled in the allocation and revocation of the frequencies. Recently, the Authority claims it did spectrum audit and ended up shutting down pro-NDC Radio Gold and Radio XYZ, an exercise that many described as discriminatory and targeted at the opposition NDC.

On the subject of media owners and transparency, the MOM raised some pertinent questions worth reiterating: “How can people evaluate the reliability of information, if they don´t know who provides it? How can journalists work properly, if they don´t know who controls the company they work for? And how can media authorities address excessive media concentration, if they don´t know who is behind the media´s steering wheel?”

Broader Stakeholder Consultations on Reforms, Legislation and Ethics

It is worth indicating that in 2016, the NMC wanted to introduce a new law that would aid the Commission with regards to regulating media content. However, the law, NMC (Content Standard) Regulations 2015, L.I. 2224, was going empower the Commission to authorise or disallow content of the electronic media operators before airing.

Thus, in L.I. 2224, the NMC was going to dictate what broadcasting outlets should publish which is in contravention of Article 162 Clause (4) of the 1992 Constitution. Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA) took a legal action and succeeded in quashing the regulation.

The absence of a broadcasting bill to regulate the fast-changing landscape is telling on the quality of media content being consumed every day. The Ministry of Information has hinted it has facilitated in the amendment of the 2012 broadcasting bill, adding that it will present it to parliament in May. Hopefully, the ministry has had broader consultation with media stakeholders on this broadcasting bill and the bill will not aim at sapping from the independence and freedom of the media.

Also, it will be appropriate a stakeholder consultation is held to discuss the needed reforms that must shape the landscape and address the free, falling professional and ethical standards in the media.

Besides, the stakeholder consultations, the following are recommended in efforts to reform the media sector in Ghana:

  • Revamping the NMC from a 90s to 2020s Institution: More than ever it is important the NMC is overhauled in its approach and outlook to reflect the current tech-aided landscape which it must regulate. For instance, currently the NMC has no website. The Commission’s Twitter page which was set up in 2014 has ceased to be active since 2017. Meanwhile, social media has become the platform where trends and key conversations develop and whoever is tasked to monitor the media must have a strong presence in the space.
  • Periodic Updates on Trends and Developments in the Media Landscape by the NMC: What is commendable about the work of the NCA is the thorough periodic updates on industry statics and growth in terms of the numbers of broadcasting outlets on their website. It makes it easier for any stakeholder to have an idea on how the media sector is growing at every point in time. The NMC would also have to adopt a similar approach by monitoring the media landscape to produce periodic updates on the trends and development in terms of the content the media is churning out. For instance, the issue of ritualists taking over the airwaves is one that the NMC should have already flagged on several reports even before it becomes a national conversation
  • NMC must monitor Professional and Ethical Standards of the Media: The work of the MFWA has demonstrated that critically monitoring the media landscape to flag the use of indecent language and ensuring professional and ethical standards is effective. In line with Article 167 (b) of the Constitution, which enjoins the NMC to ensure the establishment and maintenance of the journalistic standards in the media, the Commission must commence rigorously and proactively monitoring of the media landscape for compliance with the professional and ethical standards that media must abide with. The NMC would therefore produce regular reports on its monitoring, holding journalists, editors and media owners accountable.
  • Active Transparency on Media Ownership:  The NCA and the NMC must ensure that media organisations proactively and comprehensively publish and update data of its owners and management. This would ensure transparency and in turn guarantee a level accountability and the need to churn out quality content on the part of media owners.

Kwaku Krobea Asante is a Programme Officer at the Media Foundation for West Africa (MWFA) under the Institutional Development Programme.