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MEDIA-GHANA: Unusual Bedfellows Push for Change

Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Mar 6 2009 (IPS) - There has been a clamour to tighten up oversight and regulation of Ghana’s broadcasters from unusual bedfellows – the state-sponsored National Media Commission (NMC) and the Ghana Journalists” Association (GJA). The bodies have, in separate initiatives, slammed attempts to “privatise” the state-owned Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) and have railed against the practices of commercial radio stations.

The trigger for this rare convergence was “unsubstantiated” news reports by two commercial stations, Radio Gold and Oman FM, that publicly backed rival political parties in the run up to the Dec. 7, 2008 national elections.

“These two stations nearly plunged the country into serious trouble with stories that were not substantiated and openly accused personalities of offences that are yet to be substantiated,” explained Bright Blewu, general secretary of the GJA.

“The way some of these commercial stations work has gradually produced a recipe for chaos in their handling of what they spew out to the listening public.” When the country’s airwaves were liberalised by the National Communications Authority over a decade ago, 130 commercial broadcasting organisations received licenses to operate in the country. It was widely hailed by Ghanaians of every stripe as evidence of the country’s growing democratic tradition.

“The whole spectrum of commercial broadcasting has become a jungle and the award of frequencies has come to serve the political interest of some politicians,” Blewu complained.

The election broadcast controversy, according to the journalist body, has exposed the need for a “proper” broadcast framework that would distinguish the public broadcaster from commercial services that “considered profit before the national interest”.

The GBC started out as a single station called Radio Zoy in 1939 under colonial rule. It now has one television channel with a national footprint and operates eleven regional radio stations that broadcast in six languages with coverage across the country.

“The GJA owes it as a duty to Ghanaians to ensure that the GBC is saved to provide a platform that would hold the country together,” Blewu told IPS.

“We want to see a broadcasting service that would be for the benefit of the people and which would not be based purely on commercial considerations. This means that news and programming content should not compete with adverts for airtime.”

Officials at the national broadcaster have hit back at their detractors, blaming the unregulated broadcast environment and scant government funding as some of the constraints to producing quality content.

“Currently we are forced to compete for advertisers with commercial radio stations and this has stifled our ability to get the necessary funding to improve our services, our programming and getting more and better equipment,” one official explained. Privatisation “has its good sides,” retort officials of the GBC who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity. “It would make the organisation more flexible and businesslike,” they claim.

But the journalist body has found an ally in the government funded NMC that has resisted calls to “privatise” the public broadcaster.

“When the former minister for public sector reform tried to privatise the GBC in 2007, we wrote to the board of directors of the corporation not to deal with the ministry on the subject since we have oversight responsibility,” maintained George Sarpong, the NMC’s executive secretary. He said the entire board was removed for ignoring the Commission’s advisory and has warned his staff that a similar fate would befall them if they “assist in the privatisation of the GBC”.

The NMC was set up under the constitution to oversee the operations of the GBC and other media activities in the country. In 1992, the NMC took the government to court for meddling in the appointment process of a director general for the GBC.

“We also resisted further attempts by former President [John] Kufuor’s government to control the GBC and as a result, the NMC has had to suffer from a lack of funding,” said Sarpong. He remains resolute though and told IPS that the Commission “Believes it is right to suffer than to go along with government.”

Sustained funding of the national broadcaster and rules and regulations to guide broadcast operations emerged as key findings of a nationwide public survey conducted last year by the GJA in partnership with the development agency, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. “During our rounds civil society has come to see the need for the GBC to play a serious role to integrate the country,” said Blewu.

“We have even suggested that a tax on mobile telephone operators be used to finance the operations of the GBC. Currently they rely on television license fees, which not many people pay anyway as well as government funding which has become inadequate.”

The report on their study to gauge public opinion on the broadcast sector has been presented to the minister of information.

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