Ghana’s decline from 27th to 30th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index study is a clear indication of how much the protection of journalists has deteriorated in the country.

Ghana was named Africa’s freest press (first) and the world’s twenty-third (23) in 2018, but lost to Namibia in 2019. Among other things, our press freedom credentials helped the country win the bid to host the 2018 World Press Freedom Day in Accra.

The world is turning into an inexorably perilous spot for journalists to manage their work. With World Press Freedom Day practically around the bend, it’s a fun chance to dive further into the difficulties of journalists across the world and how they are encountering (the absence of) free press in their nations, especially Ghana.

The third of May (03-05-2021) serves as a reminder to governments of the importance of upholding their commitment to press freedom, as well as a day for media practitioners to focus on issues of press freedom and ethical standards. World Press Freedom Day is also a day of solidarity for media that have been targeted for press freedom restrictions or abolition. It’s also a day to remember the journalists who have died while trying to break a story. May the soul of Ahmed Hussein Suale Rest In Peace!

Here are five useful insights into press freedom problems I thought you should know as a preview of the upcoming events marking this year’s celebration under the theme “Information as a Public Good.”

1. Being a journalist is indeed dangerous: Journalists all over the world encounter formidable risks as a result of their work. Threats, surveillance, attacks, and even forcible disappearance, detention, or murder are all too often the price of telling the facts.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) has this to say in 2018 “the trend of wanton attacks on journalists continues and is perhaps getting worse.  Journalists continue to be vulnerable to brutal attacks, which are perpetrated with gross impunity. For purposes of evidence, below are incidents of attacks on journalists from January 2017 to March 2018:

* February 27, 2017 – Kotoko Express Reporter Attacked: A photojournalist of the Asante Kotoko Express newspaper, Gideon Botchway was subjected to physical abuse by a fan and a steward of Ashgold football club in Obuasi during a match between Ashgold and Asante Kotoko.

* March 5, 2017– Photo Journalist Attacked, Expelled from Stadium: Officials of Accra Great Olympics attacked a photojournalist, Senyuidzorm Adadevor, at the Accra Sports Stadium during the Accra Great Olympics-WAFA football match.

* March 6, 2017 – Soldiers attack a freelance journalist: Soldiers attacked a freelance journalist, Kendrick Ofei during Ghana’s 60th Independence Day celebration at the Independence Square in Accra.”

It is also imperative to add the gruesome  murder of Investigative Journalist with Tiger Eye PI, Ahmed Hussein Suale in 2019. Ahmed Hussein-Suale, an investigative journalist for the organization Tiger Eye, was shot and killed by unidentified assailants on his way home from work in Accra, Ghana’s capital, on January 16, 2019. Police detained six people on suspicion of involvement in the killing a month later, but they were all released due to a lack of evidence.

In an interview with IPI, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, the head of Tiger Eye, said that police had made little progress in finding the hitmen or the mastermind. At this time, I am not aware of any new arrests. The police aren’t doing a great job of finding the murderers, he bemoaned.

The recent violence meted out to journalists by military forces in La, Greater Accra Metropolis, while they were on official duty to report on a citizen protest is unacceptably indecent. According to reports in the media, unarmed demonstrators and journalists were subjected to life-threatening beatings by Ghana Armed Forces staff.

2. Media legislation that restricts freedom of expression is on the rise: Authoritarian leaders and other illiberal actors often threaten the media in their efforts to consolidate political influence. They actively seek control of the media through restrictive media legislation, nepotism, and crackdowns on independent media outlets, rather than providing laws and regulations that promote a positive media climate.

The trend in Bangladesh, for example, to prosecute journalists in so-called defamation cases filed by pro-government individuals is troubling. Journalists face up to 14 years in prison under the terms of the Information and Communication Technology Act. Since the law provides no protection for journalists, two dozen journalists were sued in 2017 under Section 57 of the Act.

The Right to Information Bill in Ghana.

The bill, which aims to give people access to certain types of information in order to keep government officials accountable, has been met with a barrage of criticism, especially from the media and civil society organizations.

They accused politicians of purposely blocking the law’s passage for their own personal gain. The lawmakers, for their part, have argued that the bill required fine-tuning, especially in areas involving national security.

The right to information is enshrined in Ghana’s 1992 Constitution, but the country has failed to pass the RTI law for many years, despite its stellar media environment and democratic credentials. Ghana’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) drafted an RTI Bill for Ghana in 1999. Until being introduced to parliament for the first time in 2010, it was reviewed three times (in 2003, 2005, and 2007). The Right to Information Bill, 2018 (2018 Bill or Bill) was introduced in Parliament in March 2018. It has taken a year for this passage to see the light of day.

The legislation would make the fundamental right to information from public and private entities operational, subject to necessary and clear exemptions for the defense of public interest in a democratic society.

Though commendable for the RTI Bill to be passed and assented into law by the president, the operationalization of the bill is still not in full force, stalling media practitioners quest for information about specific stories. A clear example was the demand for information about the cost of  new equipments procured by the Electoral Commission for the 2020 general election which has not been made available for public consumption.

3. Censorship has a negative impact on the coverage of contentious issues. Many countries around the world are abusing legislation and regulatory procedures to suppress independent voices and public discussions. Journalists who cover contentious topics are often the targets of these campaigns.

Myanmar’s experience of censorship demonstrates that the media is open to political attacks. Journalists have been imprisoned on a daily basis. Until the 1960s, privately owned newspapers were not allowed.

Field news from conflict-affected ethnic areas has suffered the most: media access to these areas is intermittent, and journalists, drivers, and sources continue to be arrested on a regular basis. Certain issues are off-limits when it comes to covering news because of the military’s continuing involvement in the country’s political scene.

Sir Sam Jonah, a statesman, said on April 22, 2021, during a public lecture with Rotarians in Accra titled “Down the Up Escalator: Reflections on Ghana’s Future by a Senior Citizen,” that the culture of silence was slowly creeping into the country through ease, hypocrisy, and parochialism.

“Our media landscape is so polarised and partisan. There is hardly any objectivity, because a lot of the media stations are owned by politicians whose interest is in swaying voters one way or the other. Independent media practice seems to have faded and journalism has become a conveyor belt for political propaganda, insults, and acrimony.

What is the status of the role of the media in holding the executive, judiciary, and legislature accountable as the fourth estate of the realm? Is it enough to just report issues? Where are the investigations? Where are the facts? These are hard questions that the media must ask and re-assess its role in reshaping our country’s future.

In the past, when all had failed, academia was the last vanguard. We all remember the role that the Legon Observer played. Under the hallowed cloak of academic freedom, men and women of conscience could write and speak words that penetrated the halls of power.

It appears to me that in recent times in our fourth Republican dispensation, the courage to stand up for the truth and the determination to uphold the common good is lost. In our dark moments as a nation, it is concerning that the voices of the intellectuals are receding into oblivion. Sadly, it is a consequence of the deep partisan polarisation of our country such that everything is seen through the lenses of politics.

It appears to me that the culture of silence has returned. This time not enforced by legal and military power but through convenience, parochialism, hypocrisy and lack of conviction. Where are our Adu Boahens and PV ANSAHs?”

The preceding quote exemplifies the breadth of news reports that are censored by journalists in favor of political actors. It emphasizes that the media’s position in keeping government, i.e., the executive, judiciary, and legislature, accountable has devolved into nothing more than a conveyor of “they say, they say.”

Bernard Koku Avle, the 2017 Journalist of the Year and host of the Citi Breakfast Show, delivered a thought-provoking lecture on the theme: “Rethinking the national conversation” at the Swiss Spirit Hotel & Alisa in Accra on Tuesday, November 28, 2018.

He discussed a variety of issues that are slowing Ghana’s development and obstructing the country’s progress. In one of the shifts he proposed, media practitioners “cannot afford to keep reporting, “he said” and “she said”forever. We cannot continue to keep quoting only the people at the top”.

He added that “We must consciously make a shift from the Top-Down news agenda to bottom up reportage. Journalists should stop chasing politicians after press conferences, for more sound bites”.

Gary Al-Smith, in response to a comment on Manasseh Azure Awuni’s Facebook page, emphasized the use of communist techniques by political actors.

“There are legitimate fears among these groups about being silenced through communist tactics, and through a seeming governmental will to chase down those who speak against it”. These institutions included the media and as such a seemingly sensitive topic cannot be discussed without “footsoldiers’ being deployed to attack.

4. Lack of training jeopardises credibility and trust. When professional and ethical journalism standards in the country are poor, the media’s position as a source of impartial information is jeopardized. Low wages and social status, combined with a lack of high-quality training institutions and integrity in the industry, make it difficult to maintain employees, ensure bribery-free journalism, and promote credibility and confidence in the media.

In 2002, Pakistan liberalized its broadcasting, resulting in responsible journalism giving way to sensationalism. In the media, commercial interests became more prominent.

Many people working in the media today receive no formal training or qualifications in order to serve as journalists.

The basic training needs are also not adequately addressed in the curricula of media schools. Lack of basic media training has been related to biased, unprofessional coverage, as well as safety and vulnerability concerns for journalists.

5. Financial restrictions make it easier for corruption to flourish. Despite their position as watchdogs, journalists and the media are not always immune to corruption. Bribery is often the product of a lack of financial capital, insufficient legal systems, and a lack of professional expertise.

For the tenth year in a row, Transparency International ranks Somalia as the world’s most corrupt country. Journalists are often paid to cover specific stories, and since they do not earn a living wage, they take advantage of the opportunity.

When you look at the critical political economy of the media in Ghana, you’ll note that media ownership, financial problems, and a slew of other issues make it difficult to practice good journalism.

The examples above demonstrate why World Press Freedom Day is so important, and why a thorough examination of the state of press freedom around the world is still needed. The role of free media in forming consensus and disseminating information is critical to democratic decision-making and social growth.

The writer, Osman Abubakari-Sadiq, is an award winning student journalist of the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ).