The 2023 World Press Freedom Day was celebrated on May 3, 2023, as usual under the theme, “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all other Human Rights’.” The Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) contextualised the theme thus, “Freedom of Expression: A driver for all other human rights for Ghana’s development.”
According to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the environment for journalism in 180 countries and territories the situation is “very serious” in 31 countries, “difficult” in 42, “problematic” in 55, and “good” or “satisfactory” in 52 countries. In other words, the environment for journalism is “bad” in seven out of ten countries, and satisfactory in only three out of ten in the 180 countries and territories.
Norway is ranked first for the seventh year running. However, for the first time a non-Nordic country, Ireland is ranked second (up 4 places at 2nd), ahead of Denmark (down one place at 3rd). The Netherlands (6th) has risen 22 places, recovering the position it had in 2021, before crime reporter Peter R. de Vries was murdered. Ghana has continued its poor ranking on the global press freedom Index released by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The country drops two spots from 60 in 2022 to 62 among 180 countries listed on the Index.
There are changes at the bottom of the Index, too. The last three places are occupied solely by Asian (not African) countries. They are Vietnam (178th), which has almost completed its hunt of independent reporters and commentators; China (down 4 at 179th), the world’s biggest jailer of journalists and one of the biggest exporters of propaganda content; and, surprisingly, North Korea (180th).
The real threat
In Ghana the day was marked by excellent and thought-provoking speeches that pointed to the critical role of freedom of expression as a catalyst for the attainment of other rights; but with a caveat that unless traditional journalists and media organisations become responsible, no amount of freedom of expression will benefit Ghanaians. In fact, while global and local attention are on securing and guaranteeing freedom of expression for journalists and media, the real threat to freedom of expression is the ethical implications of social media, fake news and citizen journalism and the extreme politicization and commercialization of traditional media and journalistic content.
In a fast-developing digital media environment, with easy access to smartphones the previous audience and consumers of journalistic content have become journalists, but with little or no education and no obligations for cautious verification of news and information.
Studies have shown that what is currently described as citizen journalism emerged through a series of events within journalism and media practice. Scholars noted that there had been complaints that traditional journalists and new media were not only reluctant to respond to breaking news, but they continue to focus on powerful people in society.
During the 1960s, a significant review of journalistic output and values gave birth to the ‘New Literary Journalism project’, aimed at reforming the role of journalists. However, the project failed to integrate readers as key contributors to the newsgathering process.
Consequently, by the mid-1990s, additional criticism of professional journalism emerged within the news industries, which held that for traditional journalism to fulfil their role of empowering citizens’ news reporting must be transparent and participatory. It was argued that involving readers in news production would encourage them to assess the legitimacy of news content.
The early attempts at revamping journalism resulted in what became public or civic journalism. By the mid-2000s, the availability of digital cameras and smartphones enhanced the growth of citizen journalism. Subsequently, the growing disaffection with traditional media and journalists, and access to affordable mobile devices made citizen journalism popular and potentially powerful across the globe.
While the motivation behind citizen journalism is the desire of people to connect with others with similar interests or problems, there are growing concerns over ethical breaches, such as the publication nude pictures, the sharing of accident scenes without caution and the use of social media to peddle falsehood and to blackmail political opponents. A recurring critique of citizen journalism practices is the rise of morality without an ethical code. Furthermore, critics argue that many citizen journalists lack the necessary training to subscribe to the same journalistic values as professional journalists. This results to the publication of unverified information, sharing of gory accident scenes and indecent sharing of unsolicited photos. A recent example is the repeated sharing of the trapped body of Christian Atsu in his house in Turkey after the earthquake. The re-sharing continued until a family statement appealed to social media users to respect the sensibilities of the family and show dignity to the memory Christian Atsu.
However, proponents of social media and citizen journalism argue that traditional journalists and media have neglected their social responsibility and are increasingly disconnecting themselves from the audience they serve. In many contexts citizen journalists have become critical to enriching traditional journalism continent through eyewitness reports. They often arrive at many news spots before traditional journalist arrive. During the Appiatse explosion citizen journalists and social media fed traditional media and journalists with updates for several weeks. Small wonder that most those who lost their lives were citizen journalists, who wanted to be the first to share.
Fake news and websites
Fake news and fake websites are another dimension that proponents of freedom of expression should consider in their professional and scholarly discourse. Scholars generally describe fake news as news content that is false and has the tendency to mislead readers. Fake news is also defined within the broader context of misinformation and disinformation. While misinformation refers to “the inadvertent sharing of false information,” disinformation refers to “the deliberate creation and sharing of false information.” In all fake news refers to false information being presented as authentic news, but its presentation differs from traditional media format, such as promoting accuracy and credibility.
Contemporary discourse, on media studies seems to describe fake news as referring to viral information based on fictitious events which appear like authentic news reports. There are countless examples of some ill-bred Ghanaians using their social media handles to attack opponents in the name of freedom of expression. Sadly, these social media activists are operating abroad and cannot be held liable for peddling fake news, blackmailing prominent people and inciting political or ethnic hatred in Ghana. This is one development of social media and citizen journalism that makes them more of a threat to freedom of expression.
Therefore, the concern in both academic and professional cycles is how to combat fake news, while preserving free speech and freedom of expression in a democracy. A critical issue is that social media has become a dominant distributor of fake news and fake media. Some studies indicate that social media and citizen journalism content producers and distributors are responsible for a chunk of fake news and unethical publications than traditional journalists and news organisations, though the latter have gained notoriety for commercialising and politicizing their news content and creating fear and panic. Of course, in a country where many journalists are not paid decent salaries and have no conditions of service, they largely depend on politicians and corporate organisations for survival. Lately, some radio and television hosts have become notorious for using their consuls and agitating for military takeovers. So, traditional journalists, some politicians and news organisations are equally guilty of undermining freedom of expression as social media and citizen journalists.
Fake content industry
It is therefore timely that the 2023 Index put the spotlight on the ethical implications of fake news and the digital ecosystem on press freedom. According to the 2023 Index in 118 countries (two-thirds of the 180 countries evaluated by the Index), most of the respondents reported that political actors in their countries were often involved in massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns. This reflects the situation in Ghana, where politicians (not only journalists) have become active creators and sharers of misinformation and disinformation. Thus, the real threat is the ability to tamper with content to undermine those who embody quality journalism and weaken journalism itself.
The Index points out that the remarkable development of artificial intelligence is wreaking further havoc on traditional journalism and newspapers, which had already been undermined by Web 2.0 functions. The disinformation industry disseminates manipulative content on a huge scale, as shown by an investigation by the Forbidden Stories consortium, a project co-founded by RSF. Currently AI is digesting content and reproducing in a manner that flouts the journalistic and ethical principles of credibility, objectivity and reliability.
The 2023 Index revealed that an updated AI programme has been feeding social media with undetectable fake “photos”, including quite realistic-looking ones of Donald Trump being stopped by police officers, which went viral.
Media and the law
On the local scene, a former GJA President, Mrs Gifty Affenyi-Dadzie had cause to advise traditional journalists to guard against excessive politicization if Ghana is to consolidate her democratic gains. According to her the politicisation of the media was a threat to democracy which could lead to the inability of journalists and the media to demand accountability from office holders. Mrs Affenyi-Dadzie charged the media to take keen interest in the economic management of the country and demand answers to nagging issues, including corruption and incompetence, which have the potential to undermine economic development.
On his part, the current GJA President Mr. Albert Kwabena Dwumfour, advised journalists not to entertain politicians who poison the media atmosphere with provocative remarks. On several media platforms Mr, Dwumfour raised the red flag on the existence of the Electronic Communications Act and Section 208 of the Criminal and Other Offences Act of 1960 (Act 29) on Ghana’s statutes, arguing that they stifle freedom of expression and media freedom. According to the GJA President these laws have affected Ghana’s ranking on the Freedom of Expression Index; because a Ghanaian journalist is being prosecuted for publishing a fake news on social media, which the Police deemed to have caused fear and panic.
Media advocates led by the GJA are making a strong case for the use of defamation laws to prosecute journalistic breaches, rather than using criminal laws. On the contrary, the Minister of Information, Mr. Kojo Oppong Nkrumah argues that the Electronic Communications Act and Section 208 of the Criminal and Other Offences Act of 1960 (Act 29) are not targeting journalists per se, but all citizens, who fail to verify information before sharing on social media. Impliedly the laws impose moral responsibility on both traditional and citizen journalist, and social media activists to uphold the highest standards of mass communication. “Journalists have nothing to fear when they verify before publishing their news”, he said in an interview On Oman FM.
A few weeks ago, Mr. George Sarpong, the Executive Secretary of the National Media Commission was quoted in the media as advocating for laws to regulate social media, since according to him social media and fake news are promoting misinformation and disinformation.
In sum, while the global and local campaign for freedom of expression is worth the support of all stakeholders in the media and journalism ecosystem; what society needs more is ethical journalism to counter fake news and fake media and sanitize journalism practice.
The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate. All views expressed in this article are his personal views and do not represent those of any organization(s).