Media ownership and independence: implications for democratic governance in the Fourth Republic of Ghana.

Author:Shardow, Mohammed S.
Position::Case study


This study examines how ownership of the media in a polarized political environment affects the media in the performance of their watchdog role on government. The Ghanaian constitution describes the media as a fourth estate; recognizing the media's watchdog role over the other arms of government. Indeed, many social science scholars have argued that the media's ability to hold government and other sections of society accountable to the public is the main justification for the unfettered media freedom found in many liberal democratic constitutions around the world (Roy, 2014; Tettey, 2001; Waisebord, 2009). Accountability is central to democratic governance as it gives citizens, civil society, and the private sector the ability to scrutinize public institutions and governments and to hold them to account.

Schedler (1999) denotes two forms of accountability. These are answerability which holds that office holders have an obligation to inform, explain and justify their actions to electorates, and enforceability that refers to the capacity of state institutions to monitor and sanction office holders who have acted beyond their public duties so that unpopular policies and abuses of power can be challenged and reversed. Key to answerability is the performance of the daily watchdog functions of the media over the actions of state officials. Several scholars have explained this all important function of the media. For instance, Tettey (2006) argues that due to the reality that citizens cannot monitor government officials on daily basis, responsibility for doing this has fallen to the media. In the words of Grabber (2002: 143), the media is to "serve as the citizens' eyes and ears to survey the political scene and the performance of politicians ... and barks loudly when it encounters misbehavior, corruption and abuse of power by public officials." In the view of Netanel (2001), accountability is achieved when the media equips citizens with quality information on a government's performance to empower them to either maintain or vote government out. It was this recognition that made Ghana to adopt a multi-party constitution with elaborate provisions that recognize and promote pluralistic independent media (Tettey, 2001).

Ghana was not the only exception, indeed almost all new and emerging democratic countries in the world adopted multiparty political systems with elaborate freedom that protects press freedom. The Ghanaian media is often referred to as the Fourth Estate of the Realm and mandated to play an effective watchdog role on governments in particular and the larger citizenry. To effectively do this, the Constitution removed what scholars have described as arbitrary barriers and impediments. These impediments included prohibiting all manner of censorship on the way of media particularly from owners-government or private (Afari-Gyan, 1998; Kumado1999). Additionally, the above legal framework coupled with other important milestones such as the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law in 2001 made Ghana an example of emerging democracy. Ghana today is seen generally as a democracy with the freest media in Africa (Freedom House, 2012; Berger, 2007).

From a situation of having zero political print or electronic media in 1992, the country now boasts of over 400 registered newspapers, magazines, and journals; 286 FM radio stations; and over 28 free-to-air/subscription television stations registered in the country. Additionally, there are other multimedia outlets including online newspapers, news portals and websites run by both traditional and non-traditional media (IREX, 2012).

However, these developments do not appear to match the watchdog role of the Ghanaian media as anticipated by the framers of the Constitution. This situation is not only limited to Ghana, but most media in developing countries (Kostadinova, 2015). The media has been criticized for failing to assert itself as the fourth estate over other arms of government (Muller, 2014). They have failed to exercise skepticism over the actions and inactions of public officials anticipated by the framers of the Constitution. The Ghanaian media has also been guilty of partisanship, unprofessionalism (Gadzekpo, 2008; Karikari, 2010). Above all, the media has even witnessed the phenomenon of politicians setting up and owning media establishments to pursue both business and political interests. More importantly, the media's watchdog role under Ghana's Fourth Republic cannot be overemphasized. However, not much work (in terms of empirical research) has been done. Most of the existing literatures available on this all important subject were scholarly opinion pieces, newspaper articles, civil society and anecdotal reports, which are often not reliable.

However, there are few existing studies which include The Press in Ghana: "Problems and Prospects" by Clement Asante (1996). This work did not touch on the Fourth Republic. It examined the relationship between the press and government in Ghana from 1822 to 1992. Two other works found were The Press and Political Culture in Ghana" by Jennifer Hasty (2005), and Ghana Research Findings and Conclusions in African Media Development Initiative. London: BBC World Service Trust (2006) by Samuel Kafewo. Even with these examples, it came out clearly that they were studies done by non-Ghanaian scholars who arguably lacked the right indigenous perceptual apparatus in examining the Ghanaian experience.

This study therefore attempted to fill this gap by looking beyond the direct control of the media by government. The study is guided by the tenets of the Social Responsibility Theory of the Press, propounded by Siebert et al in their 1956 seminal work: Four Theories of the Press. The study looked at the link between media ownership and media behavior with reference to their watchdog role over government actions. The Social Responsibility Theory postulates that media is a public trust and gives an important role to the state; so is the media able to serve the public good, rather than the interests of owners or funders (Nerone, 1995; Picard, 1985). Based on the social responsibility principle that the media is a public trust, we investigate (I) how the media is exercising this trust in terms of its watchdog functions over government, in other words, we investigate the extent to which the media are able to perform their watchdog functions in accordance with Article 162 (6) of the Constitution which requires the media to "uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people of Ghana" (Republic of Ghana, 1992), and (ii) whether the type of ownership of media has any role in this?


The study focused on two crucial periods in the Fourth Republic during which important political and institutional changes took place that affected the role and performance of the media in significant ways. The eight years study period starts from the second term of President John Kufuor (2004-2008) and ends with the first term of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) under President John Mills (2008-2012). The study focused on newspapers, rather than broadcast or cable coverage, for two main reasons. First, in Ghana, although the circulation of newspapers has dwindled in the last two decades, they continue to set the agenda and have great influence on other media such as television and radio (FES, 2011). And finally, it was in newspapers that media watchdog journalism in Ghana first emerged. The study compares state and privatelyowned newspapers in the performance of their watchdog functions. However, only newspapers that have covered political news since 2005 were included in the study sample.

Qualitative case study approach was deemed as the best method for gathering data in this study. According to Creswell (2013: 97), "case study research is a qualitative approach in which an investigator explores a real-life, contemporary bounded system (a case) or multiple bounded systems (cases) over time, through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information." Specifically, the study employed collective case study design with multiplemethods namely, content analysis, in-depth interviews and review of relevant documents. The multiple case study design as Creswell (2013) again points out, investigates several cases to gain insight into a phenomenon or cases under investigation. As Cresswell (2013) observes, data in case studies are largely drawn from documents, archival records, interviews, direct observations, participant observation, audio visuals, and etc. As stated above the study was aimed at measuring the contribution of the media (selected newspapers with different ownership structures) in the democratic governance process. The study conceptualized democratic governance into certain main variables: political accountability (watchdog role) and press freedom. In other words, how the selected newspapers covered governments and to what extent they are at liberty to do so? The study used largely qualitative data collected through review of documents, content analysis and in-depth interviews.

Documentary Review

Documentary review as qualitative data collection method was chosen because information on newspaper ownership is directly documented. Without reviewing such documents, proper analysis would not be possible. Documents reviewed were the National Media Policy, 1992 Constitution, the Inter-Ministerial Report on Ghana Telecom-Vodafone Sale Controversy (GTV) and court documents on Mabey and Johnson (M&J) Bribery allegations. Selected newspapers' articles on the GT-V Sale and M&J cases especially, were reviewed.

Content Analysis and Design Inquiry

Summative content approach, one of the three approaches of qualitative content analysis, propounded by Hsieh and Shannon (2005), was applied in analyzing the latent dimensions of coverage of Ghana Telecom-Vodafone Sale Controversy GT-V and Mabey...

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