Six Ways The World Can Learn From Ghana About Press Freedom


imageWhen we talk about journalism in Africa we are often drawn to think of war-torn countries or dictatorial regimes where repression and censorship are the norm.

The West African nation of Ghana, though, is listed on the top 30 of the latest Reporters Without Borders index. The seaside country is not only scoring far above the majority of African countries but also above European Union members such as France, Spain and Italy.

Classified as a free state by the NGO Freedom House, Ghana is not the only African country that scores well in these rankings. But it is among the few that scores consistently well on different indicators year after year.

Ghana is the world’s second biggest gold miner and one of Africa fastest growing economies. After 30 years of military rule, since 1992 it has a republican constitution with a multiparty system.

Analysing the media landscape in Ghana can shed light on what is needed to create a stable democracy that supports and is supported by the freedom of expression.

Ghana’s performances perplex some experts: “Political scientists are having a hard time in explaining the variation in democratic performances in African countries,” says Dr. Anja Osei from the University of Konstanz.

Scholars agree on the fact that explaining the phenomenon is not easy but it can be pinned down to the country’s strong political tradition and its well-established alternation between the major parties, where “everyone plays the democratic game” says Ambroise Pierre, Africa officer at Reporters without Borders.

Why is Ghana doing so well?

1. Ghana learns from its history

“The country has a history of colonisation and military intervention. In the 1990s its population was really fed up against it,” says Osei.

This discontent, coupled with a relatively high literacy rate, created a powerful civil society movement. When the country transitioned to democracy in 1992 there was a strong opposition group that was ready to fight democratically.

George Koomson, journalist at the Ghanaian national newspaper The Finder recalls those moments: “The struggle to reach a multiparty system was long: it started in the ‘60s. The regime had taken over but there was always a democratic desire and faith in people.”
The transition government and the following governments, the civil society and journalism are all to be credited for the current stability.

“Whereas in neighbouring countries the government is able to control the media because the opposition is weak. But in Ghana there is a functioning two-party system” Osei says.

2. Ghana had and has a critical mass of readers, plus an entrepreneurial class

“When in 1992, Ghana, in line with the world’s changes, chose democracy, it already had a critical mass of journalists and readers ready to enjoy media freedom,” Koomson says.

The opposition to the regime consisted mainly of urban classes. Many lawyers, journalists and businessmen took part in it. Some businessmen who had fled the country during the regime sided with the opposition and when the country transitioned to democracy they had the resources to set up private media companies.

In Ghana there is a high satisfaction with the diversity of the media outlets and journalism is a respected profession. “In general people are very interested in politics, they read, listen to the radio and discuss about politics, ”Osei says.

3. Ghanaian journalists are safe and respected

Corruption is one of the country’s main problems. Ghana newspapers are known for uncovering corruption scandals that may involve members of the government or the administration. No attacks to papers denouncing corruption have been registered in recent years.

“It may not be a very lucrative profession, but journalists are safe. I can recall no case of a journalist being violently attacked for what he wrote,” Koomson says.

No journalist is imprisoned, as it is the case in the neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire. Pierre confirms that almost no threats or aggressions against journalists were registered in 2012 and Reporters Without Borders is confident that 2013 will be equally positive.

4. The media scene in Ghana is diverse, accessible and open

“Prolific” is the most used word when referring to Ghana’s media.

“I can’t even count the number of radio stations that we have because the FM band is almost full!” Koomson says.

Dozens of newspapers and magazines, around 150 FM radio stations and 27 TV stations present a wide variety of news and opinions and therefore ensure freedom of expression.

However, such a high number of media outlets can raise concerns about the quality of the news in private media. Rumours and scandals are a daily presence on the newsstands.

The FM band is so saturated that it can be difficult to open a new radio station at the moment. But apart from this matter of availability, there are no restrictions for anyone who would like to open a media company. Journalism needs private investments because no public financing is granted to non-state broadcasters.
The proliferation of the Internet and of mobile technology is lowering the cost of production and broadcasting.

There are journalism degrees, offered mainly in the capital Accra, but the access to the profession is free and it is not submitted to any state exam or to the possession of a press card (as it is the case of Italy).
Radio is the most popular medium, followed by newspapers in the main cities. Internet use is on the rise thanks to the diffusion of mobile technology: more than 21 million cellular phones were in use in 2011 (on a population of 25 million).

5. Ghana can teach something to Europe: Leave the press alone

While Ghana ranks at the 30th place of the Reporters Without Borders ranking, Spain is 36th, France 37th, and Italy 57th.

“In France we see too often violations of the professional secret on our sources. When the authorities follow a journalist to discover her sources, they are violating the country’s freedom of expression. This does not happen in Ghana,” says Pierre, who is based at the Reporters without Borders headquarter in Paris.

In Ghana the government does not interfere as much as in some European countries; the state media and media structures are fairly independent from it. European democracies can look at it as an example to follow.

6. Ghana can serve as a model for Africa

Ghana is out of the one-party system that was the norm in many countries in Africa after the decolonisation. The military regime was followed by a system where the two major parties are alternatively in power.

Ghana has found a way to “have a fiercely competitive and yet fair and respectful political life and the democratic culture is now spreading its roots all through society,” says Pierre. “Everyone plays the democratic game: media, politicians, society. This is quite an exception in its area.”

In Accra, Koomson agrees.

“The party that is now in power and the opposition party are used to each other, they understand that they can be in power and out of power at the next elections. Fair political competition and multiparty system are the starting point.”

Above all, education makes it all possible. “Ghana has a higher literacy rate than its neighbours, which creates a critical number of potential readers.”

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