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Ghana’s media need to up their game in covering the presidential election court case

Exterior facade of a white building with columns and a coat of arms over the entrance
Ghana’s Supreme Court plays a key role in election disputes. Nii Darku Otoo/CitiNewsroom

Ghana, touted for its democracy and peaceful transfer of power since 1992, faced its first presidential election dispute in 2012. This was the sixth election of the country’s fourth republic.

Six months prior to the elections, the sitting president, John Evans Atta Mills, passed away and the vice-president, John Mahama, was sworn in as president.

When the Electoral Commission declared the incumbent the winner of the presidential poll, the outcome was disputed by Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, presidential candidate of the leading opposition party, the New Patriotic Party. He petitioned the Supreme Court to annul some 3,000,000 votes.

The Election Petition Case, as it was called, was heard publicly. In August 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the president had been validly elected and dismissed the petition.

Ghanaians went to the polls again in December 2020. Akufo-Addo was re-elected in the first round after securing a majority of the votes. But Mahama contested the outcome and has petitioned the Supreme Court.

Presidential election petitions are important because they trigger all three arms of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. They provide an opportunity for citizens to understand the political and legal issues at play and affirm the strength of national institutions.

Given the significance of these petitions, the media’s role in portraying them matters a great deal. But how have the media covered presidential election petitions and what should we expect in media coverage? My research into how the Ghanaian media framed the 2012 election petition provides some insights.

It was expected that the media would explain the constitutional and electoral issues at stake and why they mattered, to help Ghanaians understand and participate in the democratic process. But I found that the media did a poor job by covering the election petition like any other political campaign. They failed to explain all substantial aspects of the case and depended mainly on partisan sources to the detriment of other legal voices.

I suggest that the media in Ghana and by extension other developing countries need to educate citizens about these judicial processes, issues and implications for the voter. Journalists need to include sources who can clearly explain the judicial and constitutional issues at play.

The 2012 election petition

The objectives of my study were to establish:

  • whether media coverage followed the lines of normal political coverage focusing on who was winning or losing.

  • whether coverage provided insights into the constitutional and electoral issues at play, and

  • whose voices were heard.

I focused on the digital platforms of the leading elite English language and Akan language radio stations. These were Joy Fm and Peace Fm. Their wide listenership made good proxies for other elite and popular media in Ghana. I sampled 400 publications out of the 732 publications.

I assessed the overarching frame of the story – that is, whether it focused on winners and losers or on constitutional and electoral issues at stake.

I further assessed whether coverage focused on conflicts or disagreements, attributed causes or solutions to something or someone, considered the economic consequences, or indicated impacts on individuals.

I also looked at the type of sources used and the tone of headlines.

Findings

Overall, both publications mainly presented the election petition as a competition between the incumbent and the opposition by focusing on conflict and responsibility in the proceedings.

Rather than including a diversity of sources, both publications depended almost entirely on official sources – mainly politicians or partisan sources.

I concluded that presenting a legal and constitutional issue merely as a competition between two political parties diverted attention from the electoral issues at stake.

Secondly, it ran the risk of making audiences question the authority of the Supreme Court justices. For instance, a story titled “Tsatsu fights off judges, Addison wears out Atuguba” suggested a fight between the lawyers and judges.

The media’s reliance on partisan sources was also problematic as it led to dubious analysts and veiled politicians being used extensively. Neither provided sound analysis of the process and its importance.

Although the use of these sources was not surprising given the political nature of the trial, more legal voices should have been aired to explain the constitutional issues at stake.

Wake up call

The Ghanaian media have another opportunity to engage citizens with the most recent presidential election petition.

Journalists need to consider using diverse voices and affording them the same prominence in news stories. They need to move beyond the routine coverage processes to engage and involve citizens and explain the reasoning of the justices to audiences.

The media, which like to promote themselves as nonpartisan, should step up to the plate and provide a service of educating their audiences.

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