Twenty-four years ago today, we took the first leaps down the long prepared but still untraveled road to Media Freedom in Ghana. At exactly 1300 hours on 19 November 1994, Radio Eye started belting out McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” on the 96.2 Frequency Modulation (FM) channel on Ghana’s airwaves. The broadcast, which was from my bedroom of my North Ridge residence in Accra, was the first broadcast by a private entity in Ghana. The historic intrusion of Radio Eye unto an otherwise state-controlled media landscape (including state discretion in the licensing of the print media) led to the major shakeup of Ghana’s Broadcasting environment that is till rumbling to this day.
From the single 4-hour Mono (pol) of GBC FM and the sole GBC TV before Radio Eye, Ghana now boasts of over 400 authorised Radio Stations and 50 TV Stations. Thus, in just 24 years, we have moved from a state of near famine to a surfeit of plurality of broadcasters that threatens to choke the very freedoms of the media we regard as the stalwart protector of democratic governance. However, the supreme irony is that the very Mechanism of Authorisation, which has resulted in the seemingly blooming media environment, has become the very instrument for the slow and inexorable strangulation of the Freedom of the Media from Governmental Direction, laid out explicitly in the Constitution of the 4th Republic.
The landmark event of twenty-four years ago triggered a swift and immediate pushback from the Government of Chairman-turned-President Jerry John Rawlings. The nub of the Government response focused around characterising the onset of Radio Eye as anarchic, unlawful and belonging to the deepest recesses of the wildest of jungles. The culmination of the government’s response strategy was the dramatic Saturday sitting of Parliament at which the then Secretary (Minister) for Information made what he had hoped would be the ultimate down putting statement, that “the PROMOTER of Radio Eye was behaving like a modern-day TARZAN, swinging from tree to tree like the King of the Jungle.” Alas, poor Totobi! The people of Ghana, ably marshalled by its media, made sure the misnomer went viral and the birth names carefully and lovingly bestowed by my parents became as historic as a floppy disk.
If the government’s “jungle warfare” was a spectacular flop, its next course of action was to systematically subvert and deliberately undo the very independence of the media from Governmental control and direction that is explicitly stated in the Constitution.
Our constitution defines two essential requirements for nurturing plural democracy and sustaining freedoms of speech and expression. Firstly, it guarantees the freedoms and independence of the media under Article 162, which eschews censorship and most importantly stipulates that “There shall be no impediments to the establishment of private press or media; and, in particular, there shall be no law requiring any person to obtain a licence as a prerequisite to the establishment or operation of a newspaper, journal or other media for mass communication or information”. Indeed, this was the very article that underpinned the decision to launch Radio Eye.
In order to remove the “grubby” hands of politicians from tampering with our Article 162 rights, the constitution establishes a National Media Commission whose principal function is “to promote and ensure the freedom and INDEPENDENCE of the media for mass communication or information.” (Article 167a)
These two constitutional pillars of Media Freedoms are entrenched provisions, only changeable through national referenda called for the expressed purpose. Yet, barely two years into the 4th Republic, the Government moved decisively to uproot the very pillars erected to insulate the 4th Estate from Executive Control.
Sixteen days after it began its transmission, the studios of Radio Eye were raided by a security posse of more than twenty-seven vehicles who shut down the station and took away all of its broadcasting equipment. Not deterred by this forceful intrusion, we took the Government to court for the illegal seizure of our equipment and rude disruption of our enjoyment of constitutionally-guaranteed rights.
The legal tussle ended at the Supreme Court which delivered the most cop-out ruling I have ever come across, summed as “yes, even though the Constitution states that we do not need a LICENCE to set up a medium of mass communication, there was a need to obtain AUTHORISATION to set up a mass communication medium”. That licence and aurhorisation meant the same, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, did not faze the Learned Lords of our Supreme Court.
Buoyed by this topsy-turvy “bastardisation” of the Queen’s English, the Government moved in for the kill by establishing a National Communications Authority (NCA), whose technical obligations to manage Ghana’s Frequency Spectrum, under the rules and regulations of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), were manipulated very cynically to usurp the NMC’s Constitutional mandate to be the arbiter of Media Freedom and independence. Even though the ITU has defined frequencies for various activities that have worldwide applicability, such as those for FM broadcasts, the Government gave the power of aurhorisation of frequencies to the NCA, when logic and consistency with the intents of the framers of our Constitution would have suggested that all the defined broadcast frequencies be ceded to the NMC to manage within its mandate of ensuring independence of the media.
By sequestering the frequency aurhorisation function, the NCA, which by international convention must be a Government Body, has been used as a backdoor route for political direction and control of Ghana’s media, the very opposite of the stipulations in our Constitution. Sadly, changes in the political governance have only deepened Governmental stranglehold on the media, and at the same time pushed the NMC into subservience and increasing irrelevance as far as the Media is concerned. The NMC finds itself in the pitiable position of seeking a voice on the NCA to plead its relevance, when the reverse, NCA as ex-officio on NMC, must be the norm.
In case anybody reading this thinks I have exaggerated the governance situation in Ghana’s Media space, let me disabuse your mind immediately with the most recent happenings on Digital Migration. Here, the initiative is firmly driven by Government, which is creating the architecture and management for the initiative, and the NMC gasping for the crumbs of relevance as to who should constitute the management board. In other words, the NMC has ceded control of Ghana’s broadcasting environment to the state, i.e. state-owned, and the NMC is simply arguing that it appoints Boards of State-owned media.
Here is a news report from October 14, 2018:
“The National Media Commission (NMC) has petitioned President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and the Speaker of Parliament to intervene and prevail on the Ministry of Communications to review its decision and draft documents on the formation of a company to manage Ghana’s digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform. According to the NMC, the ministry’s decision and the relevant draft document, if implemented the way they were now, would violate Article 168 of the 1992 Constitution, which vests the commission with the power to appoint the members of the boards and the chief executive officers (CEOs) of state-owned media organisations, in consultation with the President.”
So, here we are 24 years after Radio Eye, with an over-abundance of broadcasting stations but with the Media firmly under the direction and control of the Executive. Yes, there is the semblance of Freedom, but the enshrined Independence has all but withered away as we transit from the FM and analogue broadcasting into the Digital Platform of “infinite” broadcasters all operating on a Government-owned and operated platform.
Thus, it is that as we enter the first quarter of a century of pluralism in Ghana’s media, we appear to be back to the pre-constitutional days of media independence very much under the whims and caprices of politicians; and likely to be choked further as we continue to delude ourselves with the notion of a free media until our own Donald Trump assumes the Presidency and purges our media out of its delusional smugness of unfettered freedom.
If there is a ray of hope of halting and reversing the inexorable slide into state controlled-media, it is to be found in the current authority structure of the country. The great legal luminary who championed Radio Eye’s legal battles, to act as the Constitution stipulated, is now the President of Ghana. The Supreme Court Justice, whose ruling prised open the gate that allowed Government to subvert our rights through “Authorisation”, is now the Chief Justice of Ghana.
I would humbly request these two to use the next year to ensure that the judicial review of the 3-2 Supreme Court ruling, which has been pending for over twenty years, actually takes place and the consequential actions taken to return Ghana’s media landscape to the original intent of the framers of our Constitution. Until then, the verdict after twenty-four years of plenty is that Ghana’s media is still waiting for the Uhuru promised the Constitution of the 4th Republic of Ghana.