Dysfunctional blackout or dysfunctional judgment?

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Blackout, blacklisting, demonstration, picketing are trappings of democracy allowed under the law

On February 9, 2024, the Chairman of the National Media Commission (NMC), Yaw Boadu-Ayeboafoh, waded into the media blackout imposed by the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) on two Members of Parliament (MPs), with a ‘bombshell’ that has caught fire in the Ghanaian media landscape.

Boadu-Ayeboafoh had his say (which he is entitled to under the 1992 Constitution) but the overwhelming public backlash against his unpopular views is a loud call by media gatekeepers that he cannot have his way because the path he chose is not a thoroughfare.

He may be a lone voice but cast as former Editor of the Daily Graphic, former Director of News of the Graphic Communications Group Limited, former Vice President of the GJA, former Executive Secretary of the NMC, current Chairman of the NMC (serving a second term as Chairman) and lawyer, he always possesses a deep, commanding voice that can influence opinion.

Thus, although his unpopular views on the media blackout have been extensively addressed in the public space over the past week, it still begs more critiquing to iron out some salient issues in the interest of media freedom and for the benefit of posterity.

Personal opinion

After his unfair attacks on the media blackout, Boadu-Ayeboafoh claimed it was his personal opinion (which he is entitled to) and not the NMC’s (which he chairs).

But it is important to put that ‘personal opinion’ claim in context for the sake of intellectual discourse.

The GJA invited Boadu-Ayeboafoh in his capacity as Chairman of the NMC (the letter of invitation addressed him as such); on the programme for the workshop, he was designated as Chairman of the NMC, and before he spoke, he was introduced as Chairman of the NMC.

Given all these acknowledgements, and with all due respect, Boadu-Ayeboafoh should have set the record straight by issuing a disclaimer to his acknowledgements and claiming personal ownership of his voice before delivering his speech; doing so after the speech is not apropos.

Be that as it may, there is a discord between the voice of Boadu-Ayeboafoh as a private person and as the Chairman of the NMC in discussing a trending media-related issue.

Indeed, that may raise a conflict of interest case against him, especially when the matter he speaks about, even if it is in his personal capacity, may land on his desk as NMC Chairman.

The National Media Commission Act, 1993 (Act 449) establishes a Complaint Settlement Committee for the settlement of complaints by, or against, media operators.

Section 12(2) of Act 449 provides: “The Settlement Committee shall consist of the Chairman of the Commission and six members of the Commission three of whom shall be persons not ordinarily employed or involved in the media industry”.

Now, if any of the parties connected to the GJA media blackout decides to lodge a complaint at the NMC, how would Boadu-Ayeboafoh, who has delivered what I deem to be a ‘dysfunctional’ judgment on the same matter as a private person, entertain such complaint as Chairman of the Complaint Settlement Committee?

Obviously, a question of conflict of interest may arise, and in the circumstances, either a party in the said complaint may object to his sitting on the Committee or he may recuse himself.

Whichever way, and even if he is able to override any objections to his sitting on the complaint, his personal views expressed in the public square, may cause grievous damage to the trust and faith in the Commission.

Unilateral or unanimous?

Boadu-Ayeboafoh describes the GJA media blackout on the two MPs as “unilateral”, but he misfires because the government of the call was unanimous rather than unilateral.

The GJA had consulted extensively with its media partners, key media houses and members, including its representatives on the NMC, before announcing the blackout.

Thus, the overwhelming endorsement given to the call by the Private Newspapers and Online News Publishers Association of Ghana (PRINPAG), the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA), the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) and many press freedom activists, as well as the round condemnation of his unpopular views on the matter, can only be described as unanimous, and not unilateral.

Dysfunctional and impunity tags

Boadu-Ayeboafoh also describes the media blackout as “dysfunctional”, admonishing that “We cannot fight impunity with impunity” and that “We must follow the law and due process”.

Unfortunately, he does not establish any legal basis of how the blackout violates due process or the law.

For the avoidance of doubt, blackout, blacklisting, demonstration, picketing and other similar actions are trappings of democracy allowed under the law.

Even lawmakers (MPs) who are representatives of ‘We The People’ and paid by the taxpayer have been staging walkouts in Parliament, sometimes on issues one may be tempted to consider as very trivial.

How could anyone then describe a call for media blackout to address life-threatening phenomenon against journalists as “dysfunctional” and “impunity”?

Boadu-Ayeboafoh’s advice for the victims to report the assault cases to the Police and/or the NMC is completely moot because the cases were reported to the Police the very day they happened, and long before he made his unfair comments against the blackout.

Perhaps, if he had been seized with the facts at the time of his comments (February 9, 2024) that the two assault cases had been reported to the Police on January 4, 2024 (in the case the Cape Coast assault) and January 27, 2024 (in the case of the Yendi assault), respectively, and that the Police had done nothing about the cases yet, he may have directed his salvo at the Police.

In my humble opinion, the rule of law is not necessarily about going to court; it also includes taking other actions that are not unlawful to seek justice.

In any case, Police investigation of a criminal matter is not a ‘bus stop’ to sit and wait for a means towards justice; indeed, Police investigation does not oust or freeze or estop any other cause(s) of action that one may deem necessary to seek redress for a grievance.

That is why a civil case may be pursued without recourse to Police investigation on the same matter.

For instance, in the Hajia Fati Case (an NPP activist who assaulted Ohemeaa Sakyiwaa of Adom FM at the NPP Headquarters in Accra on May 4, 2018), both the criminal and civil actions ran concurrently in court.

That is different from instances where the law may be categorical in asking for the exhaustion of a particular forum before taking action in another forum, such as provided in Section 13(2) of the NMC establishment Act – Act 449:

“A person who has lodged a complaint with the Commission shall unless he withdraws the complaint, exhaust all avenues available to settling the issue by the Commission before a recourse to the courts”.

That is why in the run-up to the locus classicus contempt of court case – Republic vrs Mensa Bonsu & Others (ex parte Attorney-General), the late Chief Justice I. K. Abban, after lodging a complaint at the NMC against the respondents in that contempt case, had to withdraw the complaint before reporting the matter to the Police whereupon the then Deputy Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Martin Amidu, filed the contempt motion in court.

The NMC Chairman, who hallows the rule of law and frowns on impunity, should direct us to the law that says when the Police are investigating a criminal matter, a party to the case or any other body cannot take other action(s) in pursuit of justice.

Blackout vrs. shutdown

Recently, the NMC initiated steps to shut down Onua FM, an Accra-based radio station in the stable of Media General, in reaction to what the Commission believes to be infringement on broadcasting standards by the station.

Media General went to court for an injunction to restrain the NMC from shutting down the station, claiming, inter alia, that the NMC had not given them hearing.

The shutdown of Onua FM could have caused financial loss to advertisers (that is why the NMC duly informed them about its imminent action) and also led to job loss.

I guess since Boadu-Ayeboafoh is the Chairman of the NMC, and he did not publicly denounce the action by the Commission, even in his personal capacity, he considers the shutdown moves to be in line with the rule of law, not dysfunctional and not an act of impunity to address impunity.

But I ask: Between the call for a media blackout by the GJA and the steps taken by the NMC to shut down Onua FM, both with their surrounding circumstances, which of them is unilateral, or dysfunctional, or impunity, or violation of the rule of law?

Middle East salvo

Boadu-Ayeboafoh also takes a flight to the Middle East and lands with a submission that although many journalists have been killed in the Israel-Hamas War, and whilst the international media have called for respect for international laws on the safety of journalists, none has called for a blackout on, or boycott of, Israel or Hamas.

Respectfully, that assumption is far-fetched, outlandish and hollow, especially when the circumstances are not the same.

But even if they were, the fact that no one has called for blackout on, or boycott of, Israel or Hamas does not mean it will be sinful for anybody to make such a call.

Also, as an editor in Ghana (we are also part of the international media), I SHALL NOT send a reporter to the Israel-Hamas War zone when I know the high risk involved; or, as a reporter, I SHALL NOT obey my editor if s/he assigns me to the war zone at the risk of my life.

The presence of journalists in the Israel-Hamas War zone may be based on some life assurances they hold, and the absence of others there may also be based on some common sense they have.

It is true that the primary mandate of journalists (and the media) is to serve the people; but the popular journalism maxims are also true: ‘A journalist must live to tell the story’ and ‘A journalist must bring the story and never be the story’.

Interestingly, Boadu-Ayeboafoh cherishes these journalism maxims and proclaims same in his speech when advising journalists to use ingenuity in information gathering. I quote him:

“That is why most international media organisations, when sending out their personnel on assignments to volatile regions, advise them to ensure that they bring in the news but never to become the news.”

The journalists killed in the Israel-Hamas War are not able to tell their story about the war; they have become part of the story being told about the war.

But the point really is that the particulars of the Israel-Hamas War and those of the assault against journalists in Ghana are like apples and oranges that should not be compared.

Culture of media blackout

Perhaps, what Boadu-Ayeboafoh fails to appreciate is that media blackout is a legitimate cause of action employed by the media across the world to address pertinent concerns.

In July 2023, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in Uganda threatened to boycott the coverage of all government events over a controversial decision by the government not to advertise in the private media.

Also, the Guyana Press Association (GPA), in February 2018, called for a media blackout on the Guyana International Petroleum Business Summit because the GPA considered as “burdensome” the decision by the organisers of the summit to leave the opening ceremony for full media coverage but restrict other sessions to only photo coverage for the first 10 minutes.

The Indian Newspaper Society (INS), in April 2008, threatened to boycott “the multi-million dollar” cricket league in protest against stringent media restrictions by the Indian Premier League.

Consider the grounds for the media blackout in the three instances above and bear in mind that the GJA’s call is not based on ‘light-weight’ justifications that informed similar actions elsewhere; it is a call to protect life!

In my humble view, any action to protect life can hardly be described as dysfunctional or impunity because life is non-negotiable in journalism.

According to Boadu-Ayeboafoh, he had expressed the view “many years ago” that blackout or boycott is not the most productive means to address the problem of attacks against journalists.

Since expressing that view “many years ago” and now, can he show how “the most productive” approach he believes in has helped to address the problem so we can beg for forgiveness of ‘sin’?

Certainly, Boadu-Ayeboafoh has had his say as the 1992 Constitution entitles him, but in this particular matter, he cannot have his way!

Source: Ghanaweb

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