Earthquakes & Media Freedoms

Jan 192010
  • Ghana No.1 on the Press Freedom Index

Editors Note: Media freedoms in Ghana compromise credibility of news.

This morning thousands of people all over Ghana arrived late for work and they were exhausted from being up all night… all for the same reason. No, it had nothing to do with a sports match in a different time zone. Ghanaians everywhere did not sleep because they feared an earthquake.

The earthquake never happened but the experience and its ‘aftermath’ is a telling barometer of the state of communication and the media in a country that has been ranked number one in Africa by the recent Press Freedom Index. This is a study compiled by Reporters Without Borders and at no 27 on the listing Ghana is ahead of several European countries. The USA is placed 22nd.

But what exactly does this mean in the day-to-day cut and thrust of the media in this dynamic nation. There is no easy answer but a sweeping generalisation would be; “Very little sometimes…”

Ghana the hub of West Africa is characterised by incongruity: When you stand on the coast looking out to sea you are actually facing south. It boasts a vigorous and independent media but the best stories about Ghana and its people are mostly not found in the newspapers nor on the airwaves. It was the first sub Saharan African country to gain independence from the British in 1957 but the birth date of democracy is given as the early Nineties.

So yesterday evening in this country with Africa’s freest media a strange thing happened. Strange but in keeping with Ghanaian quirkiness. Somewhere, somehow rumours started taking hold that an earthquake would strike Ghana in the middle of the night. Who knows what fuelled it. A national depression over Ghana’s resounding defeat at the hands of the superb Ivory Coast football team in the African Cup of Nations last Friday probably helped. And the fact that the world is grieving with Haiti could have suspended disbelief on a large scale.

Text messages and mobile phone calls (fixed lines are few and far between by comparison) went buzzing across the nation. In the middle of the night people were hauling their sleeping neighbours and family out of bed and into the streets of cities, villages and towns around the nation.

More people in Africa use mobile phones than in any other part of the world, says the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Usage has risen from about five percent in 2003 to well over a third of the population currently, according to ITU figures. And what happened in the earthquake saga brought this statistic to life vividly.

Some people even left their neighbourhoods and went to camp at central points in order to be ready for disaster relief efforts.

This morning when weary Ghanaians made their way to work, the radio told them that the information – attributed in the hoax messages to the BBC and NASA – was a grand scam. Ghana has experienced light earth tremors from time to time but there has not been an earthquake here since 1939. And, the hoax was taken seriously at the highest levels. Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, the deputy Minister of Information, issued a statement assuring the nation that all was well.

“Government wants to assure the nation that it is just a rumour,” he told Joy FM’s breakfast show and a jittery nation early on Monday morning.

In no time at all the ruling National Democratic Congress – the NDC leadership spent the weekend locked in meetings at their annual congress – climbed on the bandwagon. Politicians and their shenanigans are constantly at the top of the news agenda and so no matter what the story, a political angle is never far behind.

Richard Quashigah, the newly elected Propaganda Secretary of the NDC (yes that is his official title), says detractors of his party are responsible for the earthquake scare. He maintains that rumours of the earthquake were a political ploy to take attention away from the peaceful congress that elected him and other high-ranking members of the NDC into office.

One radio station anchor asked Quashigah if the rumours did not start as a result of the predictions of one of Ghana’s many religious pastors. When the politicians take a break from the headlines, the charismatic reverends and their doings easily fill the gaps.

The most important lesson for me as a journalist, who is still getting to know the ropes in Ghana, is that the main source of trustworthy information in this country is now officially the mobile phone. It also tells me that while there is a proliferation of independent media – the relaxation of media restrictions in 1992 have led to 120 radio stations, 10 TV stations and 150 newspapers – credible information is not a given. In the absence of reliable media the people have taken matters into their own hands, where their mobile phones are trusted sources.

The rapid growth and development of the media has left quality journalism lagging far behind in some instances. A report from the ambitious Ghana Media Standards Improvement Project (GMSIP) states: “Ghana is among the small number of countries in Africa where democratic governance and political stability have been established. Much of this progress has been possible because of the work of the mass media in Ghana.  However, there are serious weaknesses in the performance of the mass media that limit their capacity to meet the demanding role in advancing the consolidation of the democratic process in the country.”

Another report from the respected Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ) states:

“The news agenda tends to be a partisan political agenda with coverage of political issues far outstripping other types of issues. This scenario portrays every issue along party political lines.

“However, there are other groups who’s views and positions are under reflected in some instances, but mostly not at all, and the bi-partisan and divisive political debates has tended to shut out and ignore the views and voices of all the other interests. Most importantly the heavy coverage given by the media to political issues has reduced the space available for issues that affect people’s lives at the micro level such as sanitation, poverty, agriculture and health, and hence their ability to influence decisions that affect them.”

In typical Ghanaian style the problem has been identified and a range of solutions – exemplified by the GIJ and GMSIP efforts – are being pursued with vigour. GMSIP, a project of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) plans to deliver a range of interventions from training to research and journalism publications. GIJ is on the brink of a long-term nationwide research project. But meanwhile the mobile phone and Citizen Kofi rules.