Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Coping with the dilemma of the press

Elizabeth Ohene

Might it be that the answer to the dilemma of the press in developing countries, particularly Nigeria and Ghana, lies in the slogan inscribed on some recent United States postage stamps: 'A public that reads, a root of democracy'?
It is generally agreed that a free, vigorous and critical press is important for a proper conduct of an open and democratic government. Accountability in government, it is reasoned, is well nigh impossible without the existence of a free and unbiased press. In Ghana, feelings on the subject ran so deeply especially during the 1970s - the Acheampong years that part of the resolutions of the 'never-again' character during the struggle against Acheampong was that never again will one section of the society be unable to get its point of view across because the government of the day had total control over the media.

That was the explanation for the inclusion of the most radical clauses in the 1979 Ghana constitution which made it obligatory on an Editor of any state owned newspaper, or broadcasting station to accord the right of reply to any aggrieved person on any subject published in a medium under his/her control.


This was as revolutionary as its implications were far reaching. Journalists the world over have resisted such moves every time an attempt has been made in that direction.

It has been argued that such a rule constitutes the biggest infringement on the independence of journalists and they have and are still fighting famous battles to resist any encroachment on that 'independence'. "Where will it ever end, if the right to decide what goes into a newspaper is taken from the editor? We might all just as well pack up and go home if editorial content is going to be determined by some law supposedly aimed at giving the right of reply to readers or listeners", generations of outraged journalists have argued.

So how come Ghanaian journalists did not utter a whimper of protest or express any unease at the real prospect of surrendering their editorial independence?


It occurs to this writer with 20/20 vision hindsight that two main reasons can be found for the calm acceptance of the constitutional provision: Knowing themselves to have been guilty of denying any access to the media of any dissenting voices to whatever government was in power and their credibility with the public at a low ebb, they were well aware that they would not have had many sympathetic ears if they had started arguing in favour of 'editorial independence'. In other words that right appeared to have been forfeited because of a track record of never having allowed alternative voices to be heard. They had no choice therefore but to grin and bear it.

The other reason could well have been that the journalists knew very well that a vital right was being taken from them which they were powerless or it was imprudent to prevent and yet chose not to be unduly worried because they knew their countrymen and could take a calculated risk that such a devastating weapon in their hands would be left largely unused and so indeed it turned out to be the case in the event.

Some cynics say that the journalists themselves were unaware of the serious nature of this provision in the constitution and that is why nothing was heard from them and they expended a lot of energy rather wanting indemnity clauses for themselves in the constitution.

So there was a situation whereby the population, to a large extent, could have determined what they read in the newspapers, heard on the radio or watched on television, and yet not even the official opposition parties ever demanded 'equal time' or 'equal space' from any editor, let alone identifiable pressure groups; not the lone irate reader.

It could be said of course, that the reason the editors got away with it, is that they were doing such a splendid job and ensuring that all shades of opinion were being given a hearing, that everybody was satisfied and the provision never needed to be invoked! And yet consider the number of Ghanaians who still felt and said that the state-owned media represented the voice of the government of the day, and consider further that as soon as there was a change of government, loyalty oaths were quickly administered and those found wanting were purged.

Is the lesson possibly that constitutional provisions do not guarantee rights?

Then of course there is the current philosophy in Ghana, originally defined by Flight-Lieutenant Rawlings, screamed from the rooftops in hysterical decibels by his first Secretary for Information, Ato Austin and now expanded greatly into a crusade by the current information Secretary, Miss Joyce Agyee about what she imagines the role of the journalist and the state owned press should be - firmly as part of the government or, to use the words, as "part of the process initiated on 31st December 1981."


Whatever that might mean and in spite of the fact that she is unable or unwilling to see or draw a distinction between the government and the state of Ghana, the fact still remains that if the citizen did not have from the press the benefits guaranteed him under the constitution while it still held sway, the citizen's position is even worse today because that right does not even exist any longer for the yet-to-be-born brave one who might want to demand some space to disagree with the government. The Nigerian situation was somewhat different, the Nigerian press appeared to have a more respectable one. There were no such constitutional provisions and the existence of so many different newspapers and broadcasting stations seemed to guarantee that as many diverse opinions as possible can be heard. Rather than ask for a right of reply or demand a correction, an apology or the presentation of an alternative, people simply founded new radio stations or newspapers.

A rather expensive way of putting differing views across admittedly, but it appeared to be working even if it reached absurd proportions. Thus to get a fair view of any news item one often needed to buy as many as six different morning newspapers and then make up one's own mind about what really happened.


Every newspaper had its own sectional allegiances, be they party or state government or individual and group business interests and indeed, defined its own truths. The famed vigorous and fighting press of Nigeria was thus very much a much fragment ed and sectional creature which could only be defined by fabled story of the three blind men's encounter with and description of an elephant depending on which side of the creature you touched, it was either a snake, or a big tree or a rubber sponge. The average Nigerian citizen who did not care to identify himself with any of the sectional interests represented by the press could very well have been thoroughly mystified by what was happening around him. The good work that was undoubtedly being done by the press thus yielded no results, and the reasons for such a disaster are not too difficult to decipher.

Mr Average Nigerian takes a pro United Party of Nigeria (UPN) newspaper and there is a banner headline about corruption in the rice allocation by the Government Task Force. He skims through the story, skeptical, his mind goes back to yesterday's non-story of virulent abuse of all things ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) government and he decides that this corruption story is most likely as not also in the same category.

This sectional character of the Press undermined the credibility of the Press in Nigeria more than anything else and laid at the heart of the inability of the Press in influencing serious matters in the country. If that was indeed the situation then it was obvious that the ruling NPN government exploited the situation most shamefully to full advantage

Under normal circumstances, the existence of the type of lively press that there was in Nigeria should have ensured accountability in the nation's public life. The oft-extolled exploits of Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame would have been enough only for the cocktail Somehow or the other 'watergate - proportion' disclosures were routinely and regularly made in the Nigerian press without the slightest ripple being made in the political scene.

Alhaji Shehu Shagari and his ministers seemed totally untouched and unimpressed by whatever was said in the Press. Some of them were said to have been of the opinion that the NPN drew the bulk of its support from the part of the population that took no interest in newspapers, they could afford to ignore whatever was said in the press. The newspapers, it was argued, were written, patronised and read by a minority group and they have no effect whatsoever on the votes or support and the politicians therefore they felt able to adopt a cavalier attitude to whatever was written in the press.

With the press pandering to sectional interests and the politicians selecting to treat it with contempt, it is not surprising that the role of the press was subverted totally during Nigeria's small talk circuit. second attempt at constitutional rule.

It is very tempting, of course, to conclude from these dismal performances that the constitutional guarantee of equal access to the media, as was in the case of Ghana, or the existence of a vigorous and critical press as was the case in Nigeria all make no difference to the working of democratic system in a developing country.

The truth, of course, being that, however bad the performance of the press is, when it is free and unfettered, at the end of the day, that is the last line of defence for the individual.

Might it be that the answer to the dilemma lies in the slogan inscribed on some recent United States postage stamps: "A public that reads, a root of Democracy."

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