Ghana is an interesting country, or perhaps two interesting countries inhabiting one territorial body in the manner of a person with a split personality syndrome. Last weekend, the President of the Republic called on his party faithful to be gentle and respectful towards their opponents. He asked them not to engage in insults, lies and abuse. Two days later, his Minister designate for the Eastern Region admitted before a Parliamentary Committee that stories he published as an editor about former President Kufuor had no basis in fact. As I write, the President has not withdrawn the nomination of his errant minister designate, who has served for more than two years as an Ambassador.
Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo Addo, the opposition Presidential candidate has stated on more occasions than you can count that he did not endorse the use of violent language in politics and has said emphatically that he would not want to see a “drop of blood spilled” in his quest to replace Professor Mills as President of this country. However, he was standing right there beside one of his most vocal MPs, Mr. Kennedy Agyapong, when the latter let off a blistering attack on President Mills, although he apologised later, the MP was not rebuked.
On the face of it, both leaders of the two main political reasons are against the use of insults and other forms of verbal violence against their opponents, and both will protest if one was to accuse them of being complicit in the excessive use of insulting and rude expression in what passes for political discussions in the media. And perhaps, we should be charitable enough to believe them because they are honourable men. But every day we hear their followers trading insults on the airwaves. How do we square this circle?
In my mind Campaign 2012 is actually two parallel campaigns running in opposite directions and passing each other like ships in a night fog. Let us call them High Campaign and Low Campaign. High Campaign is your friendly, gentle, non-threatening friend; the one that is pushed out into the open when politicians mount their stage, or find a microphone next to their mouths. High Campaign talks about peace, policy and patriotism. Low Campaign on the other hand is the one we see more often; indeed that is the one live with – the ruthless, rude, boorish master of insults and abuse. That is ugly lover the politicians disown in the daytime but embrace behind closed doors.
The question of political insults has moved to centre stage and dwarfed the issues that rightly ought to be discussed – the grinding poverty, youth unemployment and the like – precisely because the politicians have found that as an easy way to confront one another without doing the hard work of assembling REAL facts and figures with which to persuade voters. There is another, more fundamental reason: in our minds, we tend to separate everyday life from politics such that whereas no Ghanaian of sound mind would routinely insult people of the calibre of President Mills and Nana Akuffo Addo, in politics these distinguished elderly gentlemen are treated like riff-raff by their respective opponents, especially on radio. A third reason is that during political campaign seasons political parties tend to be controlled by their extremists while the more emollient characters are pushed to the margins.
Normally, after elections parties re-adjust their balance, especially in government, in order to accommodate a wider view. The problem is that in Ghana there is nothing like a campaign period because the campaign starts the day after election results are announced with no period for rest and reflection for politicians and public alike, and in that case the extremists rule the nest forever and ever. In this scenario, most people believe that not a lot can be done about the insults situation.
However, the Media Foundation for West Africa appears to have found a way to address the situation using an innovative monitoring tool which was launched in Accra last Tuesday. The instrument is for monitoring the use of language on radio and it has selected 31 radio stations for the exercise. Previously, the MFWA had carried out a Media Improvement Project which had (hopefully) improved journalistic practice at some of the stations involved. MFWA has trained monitors, usually graduate teachers who live in the radio stations catchment area and understand the language of the station.
MFWA will compile and present a weekly report of the findings of its monitors at a press conference so that the media will let the public know which of the stations involved and which politicians or journalists are using abusive language. While it is true that the MFWA has no power to sanction errant stations or people the hope is that the naming and shaming at the weekly press conferences will guide the politicians in their use of language.
The question is why should this work while other such devices, including myriad codes of conduct failed? The answer is in the detail. This is a practical process which relies on the actual monitoring of the selected stations and therefore goes beyond the voluntary observance of a code. In this instance someone is listening and reporting. Furthermore, the monitoring is not based on vague notions of insult and unacceptable language; the language has been broken down into categories and those categories have been defined with examples.
To give a flavour of those categories and their definitions, here we go with a few examples:
Insults are any words, expressions or language meant to degrade or offend others. Insults attack the person using words such as thieves, fools, stupid, greedy bastards, unintelligent people, etc.
Hate speech is using insults against a group of people based on their ethnicity, religion, etc. to degrade and/or offend them and hold them out to public scorn and hatred.
Prejudice and bigotry consist of expressing instinctive views or biases against someone based on preconceived ideas and/or unreasonable dislike for a group of people such as:
“Akyems are arrogant”
“Ewes are inward-looking”
“Ashantis have inordinate pride”.
“What else do you expect from a Northerner?”
These are just a few of the categories but these clear definitions and examples mean that a standard has been set for the monitors and those being monitored to know exactly what is being tracked on the radio programmes involved. It has to be explained that the monitoring is not being done in some hazy way depending on the mood of the person monitoring. The Content Analysis Coding Schedule has 26 questionnaire-type parts with several subsectors which have to be filled in by the monitors, and the academic who devised the code has assured Ghanaians that there are trick questions in there to catch a monitor who tries to cheat.
There is no guarantee that this will work, but then there are no guarantees that the millions of words been spoken by Imams and bishops will have any effect either, but we all have to try and stop those who want to drive this country towards a fate that has befallen too many African countries from doing so. The good thing is that it appears that events next door in Cote D’Ivoire have woken this nation from its normal complacency and our belief that God is a Ghanaian appears to have been shaken somewhat!
Unfortunately, realising that we are vulnerable is not the same thing as resolving to prevent the vulnerability from becoming real, not to those who place power above everything else. Perhaps, these insults and their attendant risk of provoking violence are inherent in the political culture we have selected for ourselves. However, the consensus must be that we are smart enough to know the difference between an insult aimed at a person and criticism of a policy or an idea.
Furthermore, we cannot and should not aim to kill genuine rough and tumble of debate from our politics but we should know where and how to draw the line. It is in that exercise that the MFWA coding instrument, which was drawn up with the participation of the parliamentary political parties, has its virtue. It also enables to those who truly are against insults to stand up and be counted on the side of the angels.