Pre-election Ghana and the role of news media

The media has been refusing to responsibly cover elections – which could incite violence.

Supporters of rival parties in Ghana reportedly traded gunshots and vandalised voter registration centres [EPA]

Accra, Ghana – Journalism, he said, is like a mirror. This – from a senior Ghanaian newsman trying to justify the media’s kneejerk coverage of homosexuality’s boiling points, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent call for international aid recipients to respect gay rights, or an earlier incident when Ghana’s Western Regional Minister Paul Evans Aidoo called on landlords and tenants to help police round up and arrest gays and lesbians.

According to the mirror concept, some people and politicians can work themselves into a state of caustic agitation, and the media, an impartial sheet of glass, merely reflect the mood.

Too bad. Journalism can more responsibly be considered a searchlight.

With a national vote set for 2012, Ghana is already in pre-election posture, and this concept of purely reflective media could prove increasingly dangerous as the vote draws nearer. Politicians have been boiling over with dangerous remarks – that the election period will be like the Rwandan genocide, for example – and the media is over-reporting these statements, handing out public platforms without adequate consideration for the consequences. While there is debate and dialogue about all the inflammatory rhetoric, no one has seriously implicated the media in the overall mix.

Ghana is always described as a stable country, and its elections receive international applause. Not for here the ethnic war in Ivory Coast, the back-lash terrorism of the Niger Delta, the post-war amputees of Sierra Leone, the mutiny of Burkina Faso, or any of West Africa’s other problems. And yet, political violence is a reality in Ghana, wounds that will surely sting if salted.

In August 2008, during voter registration, National Patriotic Party (NPP) and National Democratic Congress (NDC) supporters traded gunshots and vandalised registration centres. Then, about a month before the December vote, houses and cars were burned, walls were peppered with bullets, and six people were killed in the Northern Region; a curfew was imposed and military patrols began.

In a 2010 Central Region by-election, a women’s organiser from the NDC allegedly drove her car through a mob of people, hospitalising about a dozen. She claimed the action was in self-defence because the group had set up an illegal roadblock.

Wallowing in absurd statements

On November 29, 2011, the trial of three soldiers accused of killing Alhaji Issa Mobilla, regional chairman of the Convention People’s Party in Tamale, was adjourned to early December. Mobilla had been arrested in 2004 on suspicion of distributing guns to young people in Tamale, the capital of the northern region.

Mobilla reportedly died in the custody of Corporal Appiah Yaw, Private Modzaka Eric and Private Seth Gokah at the Kamina barracks.

Meanwhile, politicians speak from two perches. From the high ground, they join civil society in its calls for responsible rhetoric to cool the kitchen ahead of the election. Much to its credit, the media picks these stories up. But down in the gutters, politicians make absurd statements that could incite people to violence. To its detriment, the media sometimes wallows in these.

Recently, NPP MP Kennedy Agyapong went on the radio to say that Ghana could easily slip into a Rwanda-style horror-show if there’s any attempt by the NDC to rig the elections.

These remarks came not long after NDC presidential spokesperson Koku Anyidoho appeared on a London-based Ghanaian radio station provoking and taunting NPP presidential hopeful Nana Akuffo-Addo, saying his people were ready to take him on.

Those comments were apparently in response to Akuffo-Addo’s February address to supporters in the Eastern Region capital of Koforidua, where he said that “all die be die”. Nine months later, the NPP and NDC are still sparring over the meaning of the phrase, whether it was just benign sloganeering, or actually a call to violence, Pigeon English for “let the dead fall where they will”.

These are just a few lowlights in the ongoing Olympics of acrimony and insults that too often pass for national debate in Ghana.

The press may not be the perpetrator here, but it’s most certainly a propagator. A lot of these statements are made on broadcast talk shows. Newspaper reporters recycle them and bill them as news, pecking out reams of copy repeating verbatim what was said on the panels, and then those stories are sometimes pondered on air by the next morning’s radio personalities. Meanwhile, websites that aggregate news stories reproduce the same copy for national and international audiences.

Responsible journalism

Now, there could be corners of the national imagination that see the coming elections as fight between two brigades of thugs, with bitterly ethnic overtones, all of them ready to die and maybe even dismember their neighbours en masse. At this point, it’s no longer a question of mirrors, not even the funhouse variety. It’s now a question of echo-chambers, of shrill sirens sounding off in dark caverns.

Anyone who doubts the power of this kind of messaging only has to look at the role media incitements played in Rwanda, Kenya and Ivory Coast. The point is not to compare Ghana with any of these countries. It’s to underscore the way media can psychologically torque its audience.

Read more from Paul Carlucci:

Is Ivory Coast sounding its last beats?

At the moment, the situation is not dire. It’s just a bit of a mess. When it comes to politics, reporters and editors need to reconsider their notions of public interest. How newsworthy was Agyapong’s Rwanda statement, really? Doesn’t the public interest lie more directly in one of the NDC’s policies? Isn’t quoting him ad nauseam actually against the public interest? Are talk shows and call-ins worth it if the moderator can’t control the guests and producers invite people with well-known records of dangerous hyperbole? Should reporters be spending so much time and space on political events and conferences? Or would they better serve the public if they took control of the narrative and spent more effort in the field?

A paradigm shift won’t come easily. The degree of political or politicised media ownership in Ghana is a detriment to progress. Long-standing habits of sensationalisation are also worrisome. While there is plenty of good political, social and financial journalism coming out of Ghana, it can be too easily lost in the din of personality-driven coverage. Low remuneration, inadequate resources and spotty professional development also contribute to inertia.

But there are prescriptions, many of them promoted by international industry development organisations, others enshrined right here in the GJA’s elections coverage guidelines. Issues should always come before personalities, a prioritisation that, if practiced, would go a long way in muzzling froth-mouth invective. Regardless, views that could incite violence should not be broadcasted or published. Impartiality is a must, despite political ownership. Campaign pledges and platforms, as well as governance records, should be scrutinised and analysed, a project that by simple virtue of its intensity would direct resources away from personality-based coverage.

Most importantly, more practitioners need to become self-aware, to understand themselves as teetering between part of the problem and part of the solution. If the press is indeed a mirror, then it should turn the glass on itself.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Alhaji Issa Mobilla was currently standing trial. We apologise for the error.

Paul Carlucci is a freelance journalist living in Accra, Ghana. His work has appeared in the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and Vancouver Review.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulCarlucci

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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