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Sorting out fact from fiction when it comes to the safety of Ghana’s media practitioners

The state can do better to protect Ghanaian journalists Novikov Aleksey/Shutterstock

The ability of the media to function effectively is inseparable from democracy. And that functioning depends on cooperation from different entities in society. So a clampdown on media practitioners is an assault on democracy.

In Ghana, which is regarded as a democracy, concerns have been raised about the spate of assaults and intimidation against media practitioners. These fears have been supported by the fact that Ghana has fallen in the ranking of the World Press Freedom Index.

In our study we set out to try and identify the source of the attacks. We found that assault and harassment of media practitioners in Ghana came from three main spheres: security agencies, communities or individual citizens, and political party supporters.

But, there is, a silver lining. Based on our research we conclude that, overall, Ghanaians frown on acts of violence against men and women in the media. Such attacks invariably receive massive public condemnation.

Concerns

The Reporters Without Borders index places Ghana in the “free” category. But there are signs that all is not well.

Violations of freedom of speech have increased and include arrests, attacks, threats, fines and imprisonment. A significant number of cases, although reported to the police, come to very little legal conclusion.

One such high profile case was the death of Ahmed Suale, an investigative journalist who was killed in 2019. The case has stalled in Ghana’s criminal justice system.

Recently, the cameraman of a local television network, TV3, was assaulted by the police and military during a COVID-19 lockdown incident. Commenting on the matter, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Africa coordinator, Angela Quintal, noted:

It is outrageous that soldiers from Ghana’s military are spending time and energy attacking the journalists working to keep the public informed about the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of focusing on keeping the public safe and supporting the response to the public health crisis.

Perpetrators

Using provocation theory, this study sourced data from 15 experienced full time Ghanaian media practitioners affiliated with state and private media outlets. We also interviewed representatives of regulatory and professional bodies who could comment on the Ghanaian media.

The selected sample was composed of reporters because they physically go to the field to gather news. Editors and media associations were also included because they are the first point of contact should incidents of violence and assault occur.

Our study showed that assaults against media practitioners in Ghana were perpetrated by security agencies, political activists and individual citizens.

First, the police and other security agencies interfered with the work of the media. This sometimes involved the seizure of cameras and tape recorders and manhandling of individuals.

Second, politicians and political party supporters attacked journalists because of an assumption that certain media outlets were hostile to their party.

Finally, some media practitioners were attacked by alleged criminals arraigned before the court. Some were also attacked while covering court cases by supporters of the accused.

One of our lines of inquiry was whether the actions of some media practitioners and the nature of their profession triggered intimidation and assault.

Examples of provocation on the part of the media included that:

  • not all media practitioners were always nonpartisan;

  • media programmes, especially those that hosted panellists, sometimes discussed unsubstantiated issues that offended individuals and contravened societal norms and values; and

  • that the media sometimes obstructed security measures because journalists occasionally went beyond marked security boundaries during national events and other ceremonies.

One respondent noted:

At times, journalists too will trespass and go to areas they have been asked not to. Thus, there is the need for better relationship between the security agencies and the media. I think regular consultations will help build a good relationship between journalists and the security agencies which should be symbiotic.

Interplay of social groups

In Ghana, people have nicknamed the police and military Aban, meaning “government” because they see them as the direct representative of the government.

Our study found that security agencies set the tone for how journalists were treated. We concluded that there was a high chance that ordinary citizens and party enthusiasts would treat media practitioners badly if the military and police did so. But, if security agencies adopted a moderate approach, other players were more likely to follow this example.

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