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Digital rights are largely guaranteed in Ghana, but growing anger over fake news and sensationalism threatens to end that. As battle lines are drawn in the fight over regulation, the media is facing pressure to change.
— Freedom of expression in Ghana is protected by the constitution
— A Right to Information Bill has so far failed to pass parliament
— Public confidence in the media is deteriorating, quality is criticized
— Social media is seen as a threat, triggering calls for regulation
— The media itself bears responsibility for protecting free speech
Popular support for a free media has dropped sharply in Ghana, according to a survey by the non-partisan research group, Afrobarometer. Some 57% of citizens now say the government should have the right to prevent the media from publishing things it considers harmful to society. Free speech in Ghana is in a precarious place. On the one hand, many studies confirm that the country has a particularly high degree of press freedom; on the other hand, growing numbers of Ghanaians think the media and Internet culture pose a threat to society. These developments are connected.
Over the years, stable, democratic Ghana has built a reputation as one of the most media-friendly countries, not just in Africa, but the world. It has risen steadily on the World Press Freedom Index from 67th place in 2002 to 23rd in 2018, and from 19th among African countries to first place. As well as freedoms, rights such as data protection and privacy are enshrined in law. Ghana is one of only 10 countries to sign up to the African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection. It’s the first pan-African instrument on privacy and data protection. A 2018 report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) onthe state of Internet freedom in Africa" gives Ghana a good evaluation. "The constitution protects freedom of expression. The media enjoys a relatively high degree of freedom, as private press and broadcasters operate without significant restrictions," the report concluded.
Citizens and journalists alike are calling for tighter regulation of digital media
It is a view shared among journalists on the frontline – for better or worse. "I must say that in Ghana we have been fortunate in terms of freedom of the press. There is so much freedom here, which is why you hear a lot of ‘nonsense’ on the airwaves. People have the freedom, even to the extent of insulting the president. Nobody really cares about what you say because we believe in democracy," explains Kent Mensah, a reporter from Accra.
But now, the very freedom to say anything is threatening the right to free expression. Citizens and journalists alike are calling for tighter regulation of digital media. Ghanaians are starting to doubt whether the press should be left to safeguard the country's democracy. A study by Reporters Without Borders found that the repeal of the criminal libel law opened the floodgates for irresponsibility on the part of journalists (Owusu, William YAW 2011/2012). The situation is worsened by mounting concern over the corrosive culture of discussion on the Internet. "Any space that is not properly regulated leaves room for abuses. If there isn’t regulation then other pieces of legislation will be used to prosecute people in ways that might be excessive," said Vivian Affoah of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). She fears that such interventions could curb civil liberties.
Those whose livelihoods depend on a thriving digital media space recognize the need to address these anxieties. “I want the space that I work in to be respected and not just a place for fake news. I’m for regulation that stops defamation, as long as it doesn’t control what people can say,” said blogger Ameyaw Debrah. Women in particular are turned off by the rude tone on social media, said Affoah. "There are a lot of issues with digital rights for women. The issue of cyber bullying against women is very high – an offline problem that is manifesting online," she said. If the trend continues, the government may one day feel emboldened to impose restrictions on free speech, not least because significant numbers of citizens and journalists want it themselves.
During the national elections in 2016, the president resisted calls to imposea temporary Internet shutdown. Penplusbytes claims to have helped influence the government’s decision with their Social Media Tracking Center. The tool identified thousands of cases of incendiary posts or fake news on the Internet, flagging them for users and, in some cases, the relevant authorities. Its founder, Jerry Sam, warns against calling on the government to regulate the network. "Once you allow government to regulate the Internet – and you have examples from other countries – then you will end up with that government telling you how to use the Internet," he said.
Politicians are well versed in social media
Politicians and political parties are now among those with the largest number of followers online. Often they are well versed in social media and managing their interests in the press. Despite Ghana’s democratic credentials, a sizeable portion of its politicians double as media owners.The Media Ownership Monitor from Reporters without Borders reveals that a third of media outlets are either state-owned or have shareholders with political affiliations, among them high-level politicians. Journalist Kent believes that this encroaches on journalistic freedom. "I must say that that there is some kind of censorship, because many of the media houses in Ghana are owned by politicians," he said.The press freedom report underlines the problem: "Political parties attempt to influence coverage. Private media face editorial pressure from their owners, particularly those with political connections."
For years, Ghana’s political class has worked hard to protect itself against further scrutiny, fighting efforts to introduce a public right to information bill (RTI) that could invite investigations. Since 2010, an RTI bill has been floated in parliament but has failed to gather enough support. It was postponed again in autumn 2018. "We have promises about promises but there is no serious political will for it," said Vivian Affoah. The MFWA sees this as a setback in the fight against corruption and, together with other organizations in the RTI Coalition, continues to advocate for the law.
What experts say:
Jerry Sam project coordinator at penplusbytes
Jerry says regulation is not the answer: “There is one key thing to look beyond regulation: it is awareness and education. There is not much civic education in Ghana around Internet usage or how to be a good netizen. That is where civil society has to come in.”
Vivian Affoah Senior Programme Officer for Freedom of Expression Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
Vivian believes that the origin of many problems in the field of digital rights lies outside the Internet: “There are a lot of issues with women’s rights online. I think that in some ways the situation is improving, but it is a problem that started offline. If we could solve it offline, the impact would be seen online.”
Kent Mensah, Journalist based in Accra, Ghana
Kent wants the authorities to get a grip on the digital age: “There are a lot of spoofs and other dangerous websites here. And it is damaging our reputations. The problem we have in this country is that those who have the eyes to check the media at the media commission, they themselves do not understand how the digital space works. All they are interested in are the newspapers, radio stations and TV.”
— Use the right to freedom of expression responsibly
Journalists and Internet users must use their right to freedom of expression in a responsible manner. Failure to do so could strengthen calls for intervention. Journalist Kent Mensah appeals to his colleagues to uphold the highest standards in quality. "If you want to have a thriving democracy, then it is about empowering the media to make sure that they have the power to give the voice to the people to express their opinion. We have to make sure that the ethics of journalism are being respected."
— Any Internet or social media regulations must respect human rights
"A regulation of social media should only be based on human rights principles; it must be appropriate and proportionate," says Affoah. Anything more would result in an unacceptable curb on freedom of expression on the Internet. The same applies to the planned Cyber Security Policy, through which the government wants to combat escalating cybercrime. "We have to make sure the policy is human rights based and the implementation is done in a way that rights are not infringed."
— Empowerment to help generate a positive discussion culture on the Internet
Many people do not understand the potential of the Internet, or how it influences their lives. "Are they using it responsibly? Are they attuned to the dangers on the Internet? Are they aware of the many opportunities? Do they know how to protect their data?" Affoah believes such questions deserve a clear-eyed response, so as to educate Ghanaians about the Internet as a tool for change. "It is really about digital literacy," she said.
After a long waiting period, the Parliament of Ghana passed the Right to Information Bill (RTI) into law on 26 March 2019. The RTI Bill was first drafted in 1999, and subsequently reviewed several times, but only presented to Parliament in 2010. The law provides for the operationalization of the right to information as guaranteed by the constitution of the country. It also seeks to establish a culture of transparency and accountability in politics and public affairs.
In their initial response, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) cautiously welcomed Ghana’s RTI law. "With the passage of the law, Ghana has moved closer to correcting a fundamental flaw in its anti-corruption and good governance legal framework," MFWA says in a statement, but "that the real test is in the implementation of the law." The organization, therefore, urged all stakeholders to remain alert. "This caution is particularly appropriate because of the provision deferring the implementation of the law to the beginning of the 2020 financial year without detailing the timelines for putting in place the necessary structures and administrative systems for its effective realization, as demanded by the Media Coalition on RTIMFWA Welcomes Ghana’s RTI Law With Caution."
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer