Accra, May 21, GNA - This year’s global conference on World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), which took place in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) about a fortnight ago on the theme, “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” cannot go without mention. It focused on the role of the media in elections and democracy. Media experts and practitioners at the event raised the alarm about the growing incidence of fake news and disinformation which, they cautioned, is becoming a threat to democracy.
It is a long held notion that information is power, but the information ecosystem we have now is witnessing a rapid deterioration. The plethora of social media platforms which have become part of the ecosystem are broken and unreliable, giving rise to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ (the same way as it has given rise to the controversy over regulation of such platforms even in regimes that lay claim to democracy and free expression). An otherwise noble profession, Journalism is constantly being called to question as it is now at the mercy of persons who, even if they have a clue, do not give a hoot about the ethics of the profession.
Free for all! Unfortunately, by their ‘anything goes’ attitude, those practitioners do not only open up themselves to attacks but also make it possible for some disgruntled sections of the society to give the profession a bad name and hang it. So the increase in the frequency at which journalists come under attack today is no surprise at all; democracy itself, from which the notion of press freedom derives its significance, is under attack.
It is significant to note that although not an entirely new subject, the discourse on social media and their repercussions on press freedom and democracy has grown stronger since the 2016 Presidential election in the United States. Christiane Amapour, CNN’s Chief International Correspondent and undoubtedly one of the living memories of courageous journalism today, remarked in a report in the aftermath of the poll: “The winning candidate did a savvy end run around us and used it to go straight to the people with whatever version of the truth he chose. That end run was combined with the most incredible development ever – the tsunami of fake news sites, a.k.a. lies”.
Amazing! Is it that somehow people cannot recognize and simply disregard what is being churned out as gospel truth, or has our modern day society become so gullible as to simply pass fake reports around without fact-checking. Or worst still, as dramatically articulated by Shakespeare in Macbeth, “have we eaten of the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?”
“Press freedom has never been as threatened as it is now, in the ‘new post-truth era of fake news’, strongmen and propaganda”, Reporters Without Borders sounded in its annual World Press Freedom Index last year, which also warned of a "tipping point" for journalism.
Similarly, Rapporteurs Sans Frontier (RSF), or Reporters Without Borders, in its World Press Freedom Index released in 2018, which ranked 180 countries, observed that media freedoms are falling in democracies, with apparently nothing being done to check that fall. “It is unfortunately clear that many of the world’s leaders are developing a form of paranoia about legitimate journalism,” wrote RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire in the report captioned, Where will this downward spiral take us? According to the RSF secretary-general, “The rate at which democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that, if media freedom is not secure then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed.”
Free expression has always been a thorn in the flesh of power, whose best defensive mechanism has often been censorship. It has come in various forms, right from ancient China through imperial Rome to date. In contemporary times impunity in the murder of journalists is one of the brutal forms of censorship and the biggest challenge facing the media. One of the reasons for the upsurge is simply that the perpetrators know they will get away with the crime.
With little likelihood of a criminal conviction, religious extremists, drug lords and political activists murder prominent journalists with unspeakable brutality to intimidate the rest of the media into self-censorship or silence. This has been the cause of the upsurge in organized crime, political vigilantism, warlordism, insurgent and terrorist groups that have become as much a threat to press freedom and the lives/liberty of journalists as repressive regimes. Journalists/Reporters committed to professionalism have now come face to face with the stark reality that they are at risk not only at the warfront but also in their own homes, offices, and in the streets.
Data from sources including the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) put the number of journalists killed last year alone at 99. The 2018 data presents an increase from the previous year which concluded with 82 fatalities. And as if to emphasise a point, radio journalist Telesforo Santiago Enriquez was killed in Mexico’s Oaxaca State, on Thursday May 2, 2019, the eve of World Press Freedom Day, according to CPJ. Aside these fatalities, about 348 journalists were also put in jail by governments around the world in 2018 because of their investigative work.
Discussions on press freedom cannot be divorced from issues pertaining to journalists’ safety and protection. Ensuring the safety of journalists is primarily essential for the independence and freedom of the press. It is therefore crucial for democracy as it ensures public access to information.
Citizens’ participation in governance and in decision-making processes remain arguably the most fundamental elements of democracy/good governance, and a basic requirement for the fulfillment of the development aspirations of individuals and communities. However, the populace can fully participate in governance and development processes only when the socio-political environment allows for, and promotes the exercise of their freedom of expression.
It is this fundamental nature of the right to freedom of expression that lends significance to the notions of press freedom and the safety of journalists. The media serve as major channels for citizens to send and receive information and for expressing their views on issues affecting them. The media, thus, constitute major facilitators and enablers of freedom of expression. However, they can be effective in playing their role only when they are free from harassment, attacks, intimidation and censorship.
The notion of press freedom is not only about how free the media are but also how protected journalists and media workers are against attacks, censorship, harassment, threats, arrest and detentions, or even murder while carrying out their duty. It should be clarified here that advocating for press freedom and journalists’ safety is not because journalists occupy a special status in our society. Rather, it is for the fact that the media serve as the eyes and ears of the general public and the enablers of information exchange among citizens, between government and the governed and other liberties that are essential for society’s development.
Very often, clear events on a nation’s media landscape provide indicators about the extent to which it has been successful in this regard. For some time now, Ghana has earned an enviable reputation as one of the leading countries with good press freedom credentials in Africa and the world, a reputation that has received a further boost due to the recent passage of the Right to Information Law. It is important to emphasize, however, that freedom of the press may not necessarily be synonymous with safety of journalists.
The fact that Ghana has a good press freedom environment does not mean that violations against the media and media practitioners do not occur in the country. This is evident in a study conducted by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) which indicated that a total of 138 incidents of violations against journalists and media workers were recorded in Ghana in the period 2005 – 2014. And there have been some additional worrisome events since the MFWA’s survey.
The 1992 Constitution of Ghana enshrines and guarantees media freedom and independence in Chapter 12. What has pertained over the years has been that while the legal guarantees to freedom of expression are generally respected by the government, there are no indications of strong commitments on the part of the State to ensure that violations against journalists are duly punished.
Tackling the prevailing situation would require multi-stakeholder action and a firm commitment by all to defend press freedom and guarantee the safety of journalists. The Government, the National Media Commission, Ghana Journalists Association and other relevant stakeholders should work at creating mechanisms to monitor and report on journalists’ safety, while meting out swift punishment on perpetrators of crimes against journalists. Furthermore, and given the intensity of the threat confronting true journalism and democracy around the world today, it is imperative for journalists to stand together in SOLIDARITY always. An attack on one is an attack on all.
In this post-truth era of fake news, journalists owe it as a duty not just to protect the profession but to continue to uphold its relevance as well. To do that, we must recommit to robust fact-based reporting without fear or favour. Collectively, journalists with a mission have a moral obligation and a mandate to rock the boat whenever and wherever there is something fishy going on beneath it – investigating wrongdoing, holding power accountable, enabling decent government, and defending basic rights bearing in mind that the only condition required for evil to prevail is for good people to look on and do nothing.
For sure, what every democratic country needs is a free press, not strongmen who will coerce and reduce the media to propaganda tools for their narrow ambitions. Let's go out and expose the fake news sites and their lies for what they are. Let’s continue to stand for the truth because the future of our nation, the world, and successive generations depends on it.