One question that has bothered and intrigued scholars of several disciplines over the past half century is the phenomenon known as the counter-culture of the 1960s. This was the movement of mostly young people in the Western world which challenged long held beliefs and used politics, music and alternative lifestyles as the driving force of their ideas to change the world. One certainty about the movement is that it was fueled in large part by opposition to the Vietnam War, and one of the movement’s most enduring slogan was “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR”. Perhaps the time has come for all of us, Ghanaians to focus on making peace, not war.
Last week, moved by a troubled and anxious week of which the Kennedy Agyapong saga was the lowest of several low points, I added my voice to the chorus of warnings about how the country is being pushed towards a fate that has befallen several African countries, but which is eminently preventable. I called attention to my personal experience of war torn countries and the possibility, indeed, the probability that those fanning war flames from both the NDC and NPP camps have not personally experienced such horrors.
The article got a mixed reaction from readers, judging by comments on a website that carried it, but one comment stung me into thinking. The writer called me a “prophet of doom”, and demanded rather angrily that I focus on peace. Incidentally, I had been thinking similar thoughts myself about the media’s impact when it reports a dangerously negative situation; does it make it worse by reporting or should remain silent? A friend living in another country posted on a website a demagogic diatribe written by a Ghanaian against marrying across ethnic lines. The man who wrote that piece of trash was keen to provoke a reaction from other people on ethnic lines; that much was obvious. So, was the friend right to post the article? In other words, in these sensitive times, if someone makes a statement that is negative about, say, another political party, religion or ethnic group, should the media amplify it by publishing it, or should it be swept under the carpet?
Writ large, the question is this: is the media’s emphasis on the possibility of election or political violence fueling it instead of preventing it? A case in point: a TV station posed as its question of the day on its Morning Show the following question: WHO IS TO BLAME FOR THE POLITICAL TENSION IN THE COUNTRY – POLITICIANS OR JOURNALISTS? Let us consider this: Mr. Kennedy Agyapong’s original harangue on his own Oman FM would have been heard by only those who had tuned in to that station that morning. However, by the evening of that same day perhaps every Ghanaian with access to radio, the internet or television would have heard the play and re-play of the MP’s voice across the airwaves. If a violent reaction had occurred to his statement most of those reacting would not have heard the original broadcast but the repeats.
And yet, clearly, the media should report things – that is its job. Commentators and columnists will also comment on issues in the public domain and throw even more light on the situations and issues at stake. The danger that such comments can inflame passions even further cannot be discounted, but on the other hand a free country in which freedom of expression is a guiding principle has no choice but to allow a wide range of views, including some that could be distasteful to many people, to be aired. However, even a democracy cannot allow people to proverbially “shout ‘fire’ in a cinema”, which will cause pandemonium and lead to deaths and injuries. So how do we deal with such situations?
The solution is to resort to the rule of law principles and establish the aspects or kinds of expressions that are not allowed and in what situations. We have said umpteen times that the absence of a comprehensive law regulating broadcasting is a serious drawback in the effort to ensure clean speech, especially on radio. A question frequently asked is what the National Media Commission or the National Communications Authority doing about this or that situation in which a radio station has abused its privileges. The answer, sadly, is not a lot because there is no law detailing what can be done to errant radio stations.
However, beyond the law, journalists (including radio producers and presenters) have a duty to “frame” in contexts that allows all sides of an issue to be canvassed or discussed. For example, for all the negatives that get reported in the media, there are serious efforts being made by thousands of organisations, institutions and individuals towards ensuring peace and development in the country. The problem we have in the media, especially on radio, is that journalists, presenters and producers appear to recognise that only political parties, and even then only the NDC and NPP have the right to comment on issues in the public domain.
The media should make more and better use of independent and expert sources instead of harking back to known and entrenched positions of the NPP and NDC. The conduct of “newspaper reviews” in most radio and television morning programmes is truly a pretext for confrontation. The same well known adversaries gather on the same day of every week to restate their rehearsed propaganda pieces with the same results. This is not meant to enlighten the public but to entrench prejudices even further in the body politic.
The person who described me as a “prophet of doom” had a point. The nature of the media makes us obsessed with the negative. For example, the TV station that wanted to know who to BLAME for political tension could as well, or even instead discussed, who is working for peace in the country. The media should report as much of what is happening but it has to ensure that there is balance, not only in how it reports what it chooses to report but in what it chooses to report as well. In that sense, we have to remember that another slogan of the 1960s counter- culture was “GIVE PEACE A CHANCE”.
MFWA is SHOWING THE WAY
Talking of emphasizing the positive, one initiative that is definitely in the right direction is a new initiative of the Media Foundation for West Africa on “Promoting Issues-based and Decent Language Campaigning for a Peaceful, Free and Fair Elections in Ghana in 2012,” funded by STAR-Ghana. The project involves daily monitoring of campaign language or expressions by politicians and activists on specific programmes on 31 radio stations across the country. The monitoring also includes assessing the conduct of the stations that are being monitored.
To ensure that the monitoring is reliable and credible, a comprehensive monitoring instrument was developed through the support of language experts from the University of Ghana, the Ghana Bureau of Languages and a Consultant from the School of Communication Studies. The main objective for this project is to contribute to ensuring issues-based and decent language campaigning in the 2012 elections, by monitoring and exposing political parties, activists and radio stations that use indecent expressions. Weekly reports from all the monitors are analysed by the MFWA and presented to the public through the media.
The weekly reports are aimed at sensitising the public to know which political party, candidates or radio stations, are the most abusive in their expressions and are thus not focusing attention on the issues of importance to the majority of our citizens. This an initiative the media can follow because it is providing a solution to a problem. But equally importantly, that monitoring process has to be monitored, and this is a job that only the media can do; after all, the monitoring involves, to some extent, NDC and NPP, which appear to be the trigger alphabets for media reports.