Ghana: Why Some Ghanaian Private Media Fight Corruption – Reasons, Rules and Resources

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Corruption involving the abuse of entrusted power for private gain can have devastating consequences for society. As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said,

When public money is stolen for private gain, it means less resources to build schools, hospitals, roads and water treatment facilities … Corruption allows counterfeit medicines to be thrown on the market or substandard and hazardous waste in landfills and oceans.

The media are considered to be essential actors in the fight against corruption. My previous work has shown that parts of the Ghanaian media investigate and report corruption. They create awareness, provide platforms for discussion and demand accountability.

Investigative documentaries like Cash for Justice and Contracts for Sale also show how the media can help uncover corruption. And how they can create pressure for accountability and reform.

But the Ghanaian media have for the most part abandoned their watchdog functions in the Fourth Republic. My research has shown that some of these measures help rather than fight corruption. This is thanks to a combination of partisan reporting and weak journalism.

My most recent research examines why some private media outlets in Ghana expose political corruption and others do not. I was inspired by the work of Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist and theorist, to explain this.

Giddens talks about three things that shape social actions.

  • capacity of individuals to act
  • their reasons (interests or motivations); and
  • their structural environment (resources and rules).

My interviews with Ghanaian media professionals, academics, politicians and anti-corruption activists have shown the role they play in the fight against corruption.

The results show what can be done to increase the motivation of the media to take action against corruption and maximize their impact.

Reason to intervene

This study showed that different agents had different motivations that influenced whether media organizations exposed political corruption. These included media owners, journalists and politicians.

Some media owners and managers wanted their businesses to be independent and committed to an anti-corruption cause.

A media can also have a strategic reason. Most participants said some media companies are looking to build a reputation for integrity and balanced coverage. This allowed them to attract an audience and publicity.

A few media professionals fighting political corruption were motivated by their determination to make a difference in society. For example, an investigative journalist explained that his determination stemmed from his exposure to human suffering in Ghana.

Another said that despite his poverty, he turned down offers (in cash and in kind) from corrupt politicians to silence him.

Anti-corruption activists and media experts in the study confirmed this personal experience and determination to fight corruption.

Structural conditions

The motivations of agents for their actions were also shaped by the structural context.

Giddens argues that the most important elements of the structure are the rules and the resources of the institutions. Rules define and guide the legally accepted social, economic and political relationships within a given political community. These rules can be formal and informal and can be weakly or strongly enforced.

Ghana’s 1992 constitution granted democratic freedoms. One respondent, a journalism and communications scholar, spoke about

the favorable political environment … which allows civil societies, citizens and the media to work.

Media workers also said Ghana’s transition to democratic rule in 1992 facilitated critical journalism. They said the freedoms introduced by the changes created a favorable climate to hold political leaders accountable without fear of arbitrary arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.

But the threat of violence against anti-corruption media personnel remains. The 2019 murder of investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein Suale is a shocking example.

Resources matter too. The power of social actors depends on their control over material and human resources. In Ghana, the work of state anti-corruption institutions has encouraged some private media to critically report on political corruption. This includes the Department of the Auditor General.

As one editor pointed out:

The Auditor General’s annual reports reveal how some officials are wasting Ghana’s resources. The media help to publicize these reports by discussing them and holding them to account.

These reports also allow journalists to identify areas where further investigation is essential.

In addition, state ministries and departments contribute to the leakage of information about allegations of political corruption in the private media.

But the private media need resources for their anti-corruption work. A media professional pointed out that “corruption investigations take time and are expensive”.

The study found that democratic freedoms alone are not adequate guarantees for anti-corruption media work. Structural conditions can provide agents with resources and rules that constrain and hold them accountable. But it’s the agents who decide how to use their agency and resources to pursue specific goals based on their interests.

Thus, anti-corruption work should target not only the structural conditions but also the behavior of the agents.

After that

The media and practitioners involved in investigating and exposing corruption must be supported by government, media owners and civil society.

Participants said financial, systemic, legal and security support was needed to protect investigative journalists. For example, the Ghana Bar Association can provide free legal assistance to media companies and personnel prosecuted for their investigative work.

The government can create a fund to be managed by an independent body to support investigative media. Security agencies can provide protection to media companies and personnel facing attack threats as a result of their investigative work.

Without it, only a handful of businesses and private media personnel will be truly engaged in critical journalism, including investigating and exposing corruption.

Joseph Yaw Asomah, Assistant Professor, University of Manitoba

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