Maintaining media pluralism is an essential condition for preserving the right to information and freedom of expression that underpins the democratic process. Media pluralism seems to pose a great challenge to the activities of the Ministry of Information especially in its management of government and public information. In the face of media pluralism, is the Ministry of Information necessary at all? This essay seeks to bring to the fore what can be done to make the Ministry of Information more proactive in its management of government and public information in the face of media pluralism. Let us begin with the definition of terms.
Media pluralism explained
In the three-step approach, the notion of media pluralism is much broader than media ownership; it covers access to varied information so citizens can form opinions without being influenced by one dominant source. Citizens also need transparent mechanisms that guarantee that the media are seen as genuinely independent. The analytical framework will contain three types of indicators:
• a first set of indicators will measure (the presence and effectiveness of) policies and legal instruments that support pluralism in Member States;
• a second set of indicators will measure the range of media available to citizens in different Member States and serve to define different types of media markets from an end-user perspective and in the light of socio-demographic factors;
• a third set of indicators will assess the range and diversity of media looking at the supply side and economic performance of the media (such as the number of media companies, concentration and profitability ratios, etc.).
To begin with, that media pluralism is essential to democracy cannot be over-emphasized. A vibrant democracy needs an independent and pluralistic media. Here, independent means media independent from governmental, political or economic control or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of media products and programmes. By a pluralistic media, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, periodicals and broadcasting stations reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community. In both cases the media should have the necessary investigative capacity to ensure its functions. They should have trained professionals and the facilities to gather and analyze information. Similarly they should have infrastructure and organizational capacity to sustain an economically viable media operation. If media is not supported to increase their investigative capacity, all the expectations about good governance, transparency and efficiency of service deliveries will be unmet. Whatever development investment the UN agencies and other donors make, desired results are less likely to be achieved unless there are sufficient media structures that could scrutinize and evaluate development programme implementation and feed forward the beneficiary concerns. International cooperation to promote free and pluralistic media therefore should become part and parcel of development assistance.
However, access to media channels and messages depends not only on the existence of channels, but also on their effective distribution, accessibility and affordability. Most media operations are normally concentrated in major cities and cover very few issues related to rural and underprivileged people .The recent survey "Who Makes the News" conducted by Manila-based Centre for Media Freedom reveals that nearly 80 percent of the news in national media outlets is focused on capital cities. Out of 1,393 new reports analyzed in this survey, only 285 featured issues outside of the capital city. Diversity or pluralism has become more and more part of how human communities live. And yet, according to this survey, national news media have lagged behind in the projection and reflection of this diversity. Therefore, pluralism in news and information sources is a crucial issue that needs attention and support.
Media pluralism is incomplete unless adequate structures to facilitate community voices at the grassroots level are assured. This is where community radio stations can provide the necessary support to the Ministry of Information. Some illustrations of this importance can be found in the way and manner in which for instance radio stations like Peace FM, Happy FM, Joy FM, Asempa FM, among others have created the fora where people can follow the budget allocations and discussions of their local council members because the local community radio broadcasts the Council meetings live on air. Others have been instrumental in mobilizing support for free and fair elections to the local governing bodies especially in the last election in 2008. There are many similar examples where community radio has contributed to transparent administration, created a better understanding of people’s needs and aspirations, voicing their concerns, demanding accountability and eventually building meaningful partnerships between development agencies and communities.
In the same manner, the Ministry of Information has been supporting and encouraging a number of Public Service Broadcasters to offer better public services like the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. We believe that public service broadcasters can contribute much to develop informed democracies in our own country. For instance, live parliamentary broadcasts by public service broadcasters can provide an opportunity for the constituents to appraise the conduct of their elected representatives. There is no doubt that such constant appraisal by electors is essential to develop effective, transparent and accountable representation in democratic governance at the national level.
In July 1998, the then Minister of Information interviewed regional directors and other professional staff at six of the stations. These informants described their stations' missions as mobilizing the public to solve their own problems; serving as a forum for discussion of local public affairs; offering entertainment in the language or languages of the area; and transmitting government information. These objectives closely follow the guidelines for improving the country's capacity to undertake developmental activities set out in the government's development plan, Vision 2020, which includes:
1. establishing free-flowing information systems in support of community initiative, innovation and private entrepreneurship
2. integrating public participation into the development and development planning process
3. raising the awareness of the population to the economic potentials of cultural practices and traditional festivities for community and national development
4. Promoting the development and use of Ghanaian languages and the Ghanaian cultural heritage in educational institutions. (Republic of Ghana, 1995, p. 81).
Therefore Ministry of Information must accept the fact that media pluralism is not a threat but an engine of growth as far as the dissemination of information is concerned and this can be achieved only through support to create a pluralistic media structure in which public, private and community media performs mutually exclusive and complementary functions.
It must be emphasized that the Ministry of Information has existed under its mission to play the key role of communicating government development policies and programmes to the people. No matter how impressive the development policies or programmes might be, it is imperative for government and its development partners to “carry along” with them the target beneficiaries and all other stake holders of the programmes. It is against this background that media pluralism is not only important but crucial in the development of any nation.
Furthermore, with the liberalization of the airwaves and print media, private radio stations and newspapers, which are situated in urban communities, have become rather choosy in message development, serving various political and commercialized interests. This is where the Ministry of Information must play a leading role in communicating government agenda to the rural communities where the air waves and print media, private radio stations and newspaper. To enable the Ministry of Information play the role of lead communicator for government, it has identified the need to develop a coherent outreach strategy for urgent implementation. Thus the formation of the Information Services Department (ISD) by the Ministry of Information is meant to serve as the Ministry’s main public information and outreach arm. It is thus mandated to create awareness of government policies, programs and activities; to promote Ghana’s international marketing agenda; provide public relations support to government ministries, departments, agencies and Ghana’s missions abroad; get feedback from the public to government for policy reinforcement or redirection.
However, it is sad to say that the Information Services Department of the Ministry of Information has been relegated to the background. This is as a result of the liberalization of the media resulting in the insulation of the media from government control and severe competition from private media houses. This problem has ended up creating a yawning gap and missing link in government’s outreach to people, especially in the rural areas where the department’s presence and impact were most felt.
The “Meet The Press” organized by the Ministry of Information is another way the Ministry has sold and continues to sell Government policies and plans to the populace. Again, this programme is only concentrated in the urban centres. More so, the programme is only in the English language. Therefore, in the advent of media pluralism, the Ministry of Information must employ the services of all the media houses especially the radio stations to disseminate government policies and programmes to the rural areas. Media houses like Peace FM, Happy FM, Asempa FM and the like always use the local languages to disseminate information. A case in point is the recent hullabaloo about the earth quake on the 18th of January, 2010. The Ministry of Information was overwhelmed by how the radio stations could disseminate this information so fast that the entire nation was living in fear. That is how fast media pluralism has come even though its report was false. The Ministry of Information can tap this zeal of the media houses to spread correct information to the entire populace.
In the case of the print media, the Ministry of Information can be more proactive in its management of government and public information when it regulates its activities especially those that prove inimical to public consumption. For instance, on our news vendors one will notice the kind of pornographic pictures that are displayed with impunity. Nobody cares about who is watching or not. Who regulates the activities of these media houses? In my ardent opinion, the Ministry of Information has the responsibility of monitoring what should be allowed for public consumption.
Media pluralism and freedom of expression promote transparency in developing countries
An interview with Wijayananda Jayaweera, Director, UNESCO's IPDC
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