Monday, December 17, 2012
THE PROBLEMS OF JOURNALISM IN GHANA
By Lina Paulitsch and Lisette Hummelink
In the outside world, Ghana's press is mostly considered free and independent. Reporters Without Borders has rated Ghana with 27 out of 125 points, with 1 being most free. But when having a closer look at Ghana's media, the question remains: is this evaluation accurate and true?
When talking to different people working in the media, a far more diverse picture reveals itself than the figure above is indicating. In spite of the fact that the constitution guarantees freedom and independence of the press, critics claim that most journalists work under hard conditions, which force them to abandon their neutrality and professionalism.
One of the major points Ghana's media is criticized for, is the choice of topics journalists report on. Quite often, unimportant events or so-called "gossip" dominate the press, transforming the media into entertainment rather than providing information. In 1992, Ghana's new constitution ensured democracy and freedom of press, enabling the private media to voice criticism and independent views. But as these media houses receive no financial support, they are more dependent on selling and, consequently, on pleasing their audience. In spite of important issues that may be more difficult to take, trivial events often receive a lot more attention. In an interview, Shirley Asieda-Addo, Secretary of the Ghana Journalism Association (GJA), said: "The private media houses are the more guilty of exploiting the interest of the audience - they are striving to survive."
An equally widespread, yet hushed up problem of Ghana's media is plagiarism. Many journalists use stories from other sources without crediting the author, ignoring the Journalists' code of ethics and, above all, the law. But in spite of the fact that there may be journalists, who are simply unprofessional, the chore of the problem sources from infrastructural and logistical difficulties. In our technologised world, the Internet provides each and everyone with a flood of information, making it easy to do research and receive news. Still, the authenticity and quality of the Internet as a professional source remains questionable: Virtual information may be unscientific and incorrect, as any individual can share his thoughts, without being licensed or checked upon. Kofi Sakyiama, who works for Radio Central Cape Coast explained that Ghanaian journalists often use the Internet as their only source, as it is fairly hard to do first-hand research in Ghana, tempted to simply copy the story. Firstly, many areas throughout the country lack proper road construction, which makes it highly difficult to travel in terms of investigation. Furthermore, "seeing for yourself", which is the most important task according to Mr. Sakyiama, requires money, which many journalists are unable or unwilling to pay.
Directly connected to the issue of plagiarism is, therefore, that Ghanaian journalists receive very little salary. Mrs. Asiedo-Addo mentioned, that most journalists are not really paid, as they are just on allowances. Journalists, who receive 170 GHC per month, are considered to be envied, for being a journalist is still regarded as decent work: it provides the person with certain popularity, functioning as the watchdog of the government. Richmond Yeboah, Programmes Director of Eagle FM confirmed: "You don't want to lose the fame journalism has given you. We put checks on politicians, we are the only ones to investigate - people in society respect journalists." Additionally, journalists might still earn more money than they would with other, more basic jobs: Someone that has been recently selling food on the street might see a journalist's salary as an improvement. These circumstances cause many people waiting in line for a job in the media and, as a consequence, even lower salaries.
Yet again, the rush on work in the media is due to another issue that affects Ghanaian journalism immensely: the lack of educational requirements for becoming a journalist. In Ghana, everyone is able to work as a journalist, sometimes even without basic education. With a population of over 25 million people, the country offers only one school for journalism, which is completely overcrowded. Mr. Sakyiama validated that out of 1000 applicants only 108 students got accepted, leaving many journalists without the opportunity of receiving proper education. The lack of education is not necessarily an obstacle, though: Often, the private media houses are willing to employ unqualified - and as a result to that - cheap workers that write in their favor. For being able to own a media house, an individual would simply have to buy the license; afterwards there are no restrictions or rules that would enable control from the outside, particularly in terms of who to employ. The consequence of this trend is lower quality of journalism in general and a sinking image of reporting. The required abilities of a journalist, such as extracting the important facts of a story and, above all, using good language, are very demanding and need to be trained: the lack of education is currently degrading the profession itself.
Another aspect why journalists aren’t always handling as objectively as they should, is the political coloring of numerous newspapers. “The private media houses are more often accused of being politically colored, but this problem is afoot all over Ghanaian media houses”, said Mrs. Asida-Addo. Often, media houses are owned or sponsored by important political figures. Because of writing in favor of this certain political figure, the own voice of the media houses is diminished. For example: A journalist wouldn’t put together offensive articles if it was not for the presence of the owner of the media house: the political figure. Another logical outcome of these circumstances is that the objectivity of journalism, which is one of the most important aspects, is decreased. A politician who dominates a media house is in the position to circulate his supposition, without taking facts or objectivity into account. Moreover, it is against the law to own a media house for a politician. But as a lot of people profit from engaging in the media, most journalists, politicians and media houses seem to be completely indifferent about this matter.
"You cannot take away the fact that money motivates the journalists to come", Mrs. Asiedo-Addo said. As for this fact, money as being motivation raises another highly critical issue of Ghanaian journalism: the giving out of transportation fees, commonly known as 'soli'. These fees are paid to journalists for coming to and reporting about a certain event. As constructional difficulties make it hard to afford first-hand research, these payments are generally justified as support for investigating in terms of transportation, such as a taxi or a bus. Still, 'soli' raise many people's concerns: what if an important event takes place, but the hosts could not provide soli - would there not be any report about it? What if a political party is willing to pay more - will there be more reports on them, maybe in their favor? In spite of the fact, that soli were initially trying to improve the journalist's working conditions, they are now a target for unprofessional abuse. Mostly, the fees account for more than the actual transportation has cost and can therefore be seen as extra earnings. As there are no criteria for being a journalist, a person might find it tempting to work as a journalist despite the little salary, when there are soli to be collected. But above all, soli question the means and the purpose of journalism. Since journalists are supposed to work as ‘the eyes and ears of the nation”, eager to find news that is important to the people, they should be entirely independent in doing so. Evolving into a vicious circle, soli determine what journalists write about, as they might be more motivated by the money than the matter of the event itself. It is the media’s duty to report about things they consider important, uninfluenced by any political parties or money, which Ghana’s journalism most certainly lacks. The issue of soli is as delicate, as it disguises itself as support – when it really makes journalists dependent on it and lures them into a trap, where money always wins over interest.
Looking at Ghanaian journalism, one gets the impression that all problems are connected by the same source: money. If Ghanaian journalists were actually paid, they would be able to afford the costs for transportation, without needing soli. Consequently, there would be more variety of subjects, as the journalists were freer in deciding on what to report, choosing the topics for their importance instead of money.
However, better salaries also require professional education. Taking that into consideration, Kofi Sakyiama of Radio Central Cape Coast suggested introducing a license that would declare one’s profession as a journalist. This step would not only enhance the media’s reputation, it would also improve its quality. Undoubtedly, people are willing to work more efficiently if they get acknowledgement both from the public and the state. Therefore, it will be essential for the government to take actions, such as opening more journalism schools, in order to improve the journalists’ working conditions. A journalist of Daily Times further demanded that the law against politicians’ involvement in media houses must be respected, as well as copyright laws. “Therefore, we have to strengthen our institutions. There has to be a better communication between the National Media Commission, the owners of the media houses and the public.”
Most certainly, it will be a difficult task to break the circle of problems influencing Ghanaian journalism. Still, the media as “the eye of the nation” is highly important for Ghana as a country, ensuring freedom and independence of each and everyone. Miss Asieda-Addo stated: “Journalism is not about being able to talk louder or being able to write more shaming stories. It is about telling stories that concern people, whether cultural, educational or health. It is about who we are and how we can move forward.”