“We sell silence; [……] you decide which article you want published: the first is free, the second costs 50,000 pesos.” – from The Merchant of Silence, by Enrique Serna.
It is possible and often necessary for the free press to play a role in securing and sustaining social equilibrium and political stability in an embryonic democracy. Sometimes, that presents editors and publishers with grave choices about what is in the ‘national interest’. And so begins [the slippery slope into] journalistic collaboration with political leaders, corruption shrouded in reasonableness and claims to preserve stability. It happened in Mexico and sustained the PRI in power for 70 years until 2000.
It happened in Ghana too. The State media existed as a bulwark of our post-colonial, authoritarian military juntas, and even civilian governments. Theirs became a culture steeped in ‘yessah massarism’, stripped of its role to probe unbiasedly, and promote independent thought. Their focus was to help their political masters to keep power.
The victims of the imposed, conscious oblivion were real. It cost us vibrant debate of our development priorities and credible alternatives to government policy that would have saved us time on the path to development. Eventually, it became an inescapable truth that the Press, behaving in this way, rendered Ghana bereft of the benefits of rules-based democracy and a vibrant politics. Maybe for these reasons, the sprinkling of occasions when the State-owned press acted as a free press, in the interest of enlightening Ghanaians to act as citizens are rightly celebrated passionately.
The story of the Press acting against the best interests of a strong democracy, vibrant politics, and accountable leaders continues in Ghana. Today, the collaboration with political leaders frequently starts journalists down a slippery slope into corruption and acquiescence. The ‘party station’, as we have come to know it, is the herald and evidence of the risks to the media in playing their role effectively as agents of development instead of becoming a disruptive and negative element in the development agenda for Ghana.
The unwillingness of party-allied stations to probe robustly, critique fairly, and if necessary, expose ‘their side’ in news items, editorial pieces, discussion programmes or investigative journalism projects is accepted as norm. Their focus again is to help their political favorite to keep power.
The current paradigm promises to make the Press a polarizing feature in our democracy and politics in this age of social media, media syndication, and electronic media. Our ‘free press’ today, often fails, at a minimum, to ask that seekers of political powers show credible, costed plans that addresses the needs and ambitions of Ghanaian for development, and which lead to transformations and fair opportunities for all.
Beyond 2020, our Press must decide to make a departure from the partisanship that overlooks failure by leaders, which frustrates transparency in government, and fails to effectively hold favored political and corporate leaders accountable to citizens.