Pressing on: A dynamic media environment continues to see progress

The media market in Ghana is one of the region’s more dynamic, and is continually evolving. It is regarded as one of Africa’s freest and most competitive, with a variety of outlets across several media.

Though the sector is adapting to the internet age, traditional sources like radio and print continue to play a central role in disseminating information. Historically, radio has been the population’s primary source of information, due to its ability to reach every part of the country, regardless of education or economic standing. Television has increased significantly in recent years as a source of news and entertainment programming and is expected to continue expanding going forward, even challenging radio more frequently in rural areas. Meanwhile, the print segment faces the significant challenge of competing with both television and radio, while the spread of internet begins to accelerate.

Finally, the sector overall suffers from a lack of transparency in terms of both ownership and audience figures. There is no clear ratings system, which hinders moves to help strengthen independent outlets or improve advertising revenues.

GOVERNMENT INVOLVEMENT: The Ministry of Information is charged with disseminating all government-related information, as well as managing the Information Services Department, the state-news provider Ghana News Agency, the state-television broadcaster Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, and the National Film and Television Institute.

As such, its primary role is more of a government spokesperson than an industry watchdog. That role is reserved for the National Communications Authority (NCA), at least for broadcasting. The NCA licenses all television and radio media operators, monitors their quality of service, ensures fair competition and also supervises international frequency coordination with neighbouring countries.

While the NCA deals with the more technical aspects of broadcasting in Ghana, the National Media Commission (NMC) is the independent government agency broadly responsible for general media oversight. Its responsibilities include supervising private and public sector media outlets, an especially vital task when elections are taking place. Wary of the role the media has played in harming political discourse in other African nations (often with violence as a result), the NMC has cautioned media owners in 2012, both public and private, against allowing political bias to creep into programming.

In 2011, the international media rights watchdog group Reporters without Borders ranked Ghana 41st worldwide in its Freedom of the Press index, behind just six other African countries and ahead of several more established democracies, such as the US (47th) and South Korea (44th).

In a sign of its seriousness, the ruling National Democratic Council (NDC) government announced in the first quarter of 2012 it had decided to ban the Multimedia Group, a radio, television and online news broadcaster, for allegedly providing biased and unfair media coverage. The government has ordered all agencies not to grant interviews, place advertisements or allow employees from the privately held Multimedia Group to attend state functions.

THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION: Though Ghana’s 1992 Constitution already recognises the right to information, providing a strong basis for media oversight and access, the national parliament is now considering a draft law, called the Right to Information Bill, which would provide a concrete legal mechanism by which citizens can exercise their right to access government information.

Introduced in February 2010, the bill was referred to a parliamentary sub-committee for further scrutiny. After national meetings throughout 2011, the committee decided certain measures needed to be taken to ensure the bill adequately brings Ghana up-to-date with international human rights standards and best practices on the right to information.

The country has also moved to repeal some of the most constrictive criminal libel provisions. For most of Ghana’s post-independence period, the 1960 Criminal Code has allowed for strict interpretations of libel that led to a number of court appearances by publishers and journalists, but in 2001 the provisions were overturned by the government.

DOMINATING THE AIRWAVES: Radio is the country’s most prevalent media outlet, with 75% of homes having radios in 2009. Indeed, radio has dominated the media scene since being introduced by the British colonial government in 1935.

Radio broadcasting began as a monopoly and remained one through independence in 1957. The service became a public corporation with the creation of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) in 1968. In 1996 reforms finally allowed for limited private commercial radio in urban centres. By mid-1999 private radio had spread to rural areas, with a total of 31 stations established.

As of the second quarter of 2012 the NCA reported a total of 276 authorised FM radio stations across the country, though only 228 were operational. They were made up of 192 commercial stations, 39 community stations, 34 public stations and 11 campus stations. GBC is still a dominant player, maintaining 11 stations, one for each region, as well as Accra and Tema. However, private radio’s emergence has brought with it a host of new stations, including Peace, Gold and even the BBC.

Radio’s pervasiveness comes from its ability to cheaply and efficiently communicate with the population, even in rural areas where television broadcasting and print media outlets are hard to come by. Due to low literacy levels, restricted financial means, connectivity and infrastructure, radio often remains the only way to reach many areas of Ghana. Broadcasts are generally conducted in English, although local languages are also used.

TELEVISION: Despite radio’s historical dominance, television is providing increasingly stiff competition, particularly in urban areas. “Television programming has grown and diversified significantly in recent years thanks to increased penetration,” Alhassan Haruna, the deputy chief executive of Metro TV and a member of the NMC, told OBG. There are between 6m and 7m television sets in the country and urban penetration is roughly 70%, according to Haruna.

At the end of 2011 the NCA had authorised 28 television stations, 20 of which were free-to-air, seven of them pay-per-view channels and one of them authorised for research purposes. State-owned GTV, which is managed by the GBC, is the largest station televising nationwide. Metro TV, TV 3, TV Africa and e.tv are among the leading private free-to-air channels present. Meanwhile, Sky, Cable Gold and Multi-TV lead the pay-per-view segment.

There is a reasonably large number of local production companies, roughly 20 in total, including firms such as Channel 2 Productions, Charterhouse Productions and Point Blank Media. All of the production houses are independently owned. Their programming consists primarily of a mix of documentaries, investigative features and talk shows, as well as a smattering of infomercials.

For more entertainment-oriented programming, the country sees a large number of imports from Nigeria’s sizable Nollywood scene, including full-length films and serialised soap operas.

DIGITAL SWITCH: In 2006 the NCA signed the Geneva Agreement with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to kick-start the process of migrating from analogue transmissions to digital for both radio and television broadcasting.

Digital broadcasting more efficiently utilises frequency, while also simultaneously providing better quality audio and video. In television, for example, several stations can be carried on a single frequency bandwidth (under analogue the same frequency would support just one), all the while providing better quality. The complete digital migration for both segments should be completed by 2015. The National Digital Broadcasting Migration Technical Committee (NDBMTC) is supervising the process.

Terrestrial TV migration will see the introduction of second generation DVB, known as DVB-T2, which will allow the transmission of both high definition (HD) and standard definition (SD) programming. New standards are also being set for compression technology, with the NCA requiring advanced video coding (AVC)/MPEG-4 and high efficiency advanced audio coding (HE-AAC).

The digital migration for television is currently running ahead of schedule, and should be completed by early 2014. Vendors and suppliers have been ordered by the NCA to halt importing digital terrestrial television set-top boxes and decoders in preparation for the national digital television roll-out. Radio’s migration from analogue to digital will, in all likelihood, take slightly longer, however, in part as a result of its larger and more fragmented market.

Though the 2006 agreement stipulated radio migration should be completed by June 2015, Ghana has taken a five-year extension in order to complete its very high frequency (VHF) band (174-230 MHz), or FM radio, transition. A special task force has been established, with representatives drawn from the NCA, GBC and the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA), to work on the strategy and technical implementation plan.

NEW LEGISLATION: The parliament has assigned a sub-committee to review a new piece of legislation designed to add structure to the industry, known as the Broadcasting Bill. The bill seeks to standardise practices within the industry, thus creating a more professional environment. In particular, it seeks to define the allowable parameters regarding ownership structures for broadcasting organisations, essentially providing a framework for the industry. The bill would not affect content, which is protected under the 1992 Constitution, although topical censorship has been receiving increasing attention recently.

Specifically, the law would bring about equity in the allocation of frequencies to public, commercial and community radio stations, according to Akoto Ampaw, a member of the Coalition on Right To Information. Ampaw told participants at a June 2012 debate – organised in Accra by the Institute for Democratic Governance – that the law would provide the important mechanism for the elimination of political patronage in the allocation of frequencies.

Though there is overwhelming opposition to censoring national media when it comes to news and journalistic matters, a national debate over censoring television programming has been ongoing for some time. Much of the debate has centred on the broadcasting of films and programmes depicting acts of violence, crime, and drug and alcohol abuse.

PRINT: Currently, there are more than 450 registered periodicals in Ghana, although the reach and range of the publications – some of which are now long-dormant – varies widely. The most prominent actors are the 11 national newspapers, which, like radio, have been long-dominated by state-owned organisations. Newspapers played an important role during the independence struggle of the 1940s and 1950s. However, it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that privately owned newspapers and magazines began to appear on shelves. Unlike radio, which has seen a slew of privately run stations become leading sources of information, the state-owned, though editorially independent, newspapers still lead in terms of audience.

The two primary news corporations publishing daily editions are the state-owned Graphic Communications Group (GCG) and the state-owned New Times Corporation (NTC). Both publish almost all their editions in English. GCG’s Daily Graphic is the best-selling daily, while it also publishes a weekend edition, the Mirror, as well as Graphic Sport, Graphic Showbiz and some smaller publications. NTC also puts out a popular daily, the Ghanaian Times, along with its weekly edition, the Spectator, and its sports edition, the Sporting Times.

Official, certified circulation figures are tough to come by, though the two main dailies, the Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times, claim to sell roughly 70,000 and 50,000 copies on average.

Both corporations act autonomously of the federal government and maintain a substantial degree of editorial independence, although they are by law obligated to cover government affairs, which generally take up the majority of column inches.

There are over 100 independent newspapers in the country as well, though they boast much smaller numbers. The Daily Guide, the Enquirer and the Ghanaian Chronicle are among the more successful independents, though circulation figures are much lower, at around 10,000-20,000 copies. Due to the fact that state-owned outlets tend to dominate the print advertising market, independent newspapers must rely much more heavily on subscription and sales, which leaves them more vulnerable to irregular financial inflows. Distribution for these firms must be done through vendors, which, in turn, can take up to a quarter of total profits from the sales.

Independent privately owned newspapers generally lean much farther from the centre than their more conservative government-owned cousins. This may in part be due to a combination of willingness and capacity to do so, along with a desire to capitalise on the relative lack of scandal and government criticism in the dominant newspapers. Two private sector media organisations, the Ghana Journalism Association and the Private Newspaper Publishers Association of Ghana, work to increase the quality and distribution of private sector media.

Finally, there is no shortage of international periodicals in Ghana, and a wide number of major international titles are present, including The Economist, Time and African Business, can be found at most supermarkets, gas stations and even corner stores.

The print media market in Ghana faces several challenges. First, the country’s literacy rate was last reported in 2008 by the Ministry of Education at 62%, with the figure dropping to as low as 35% in some rural areas. Therefore, a large portion of the population is unmarketable. Another issue is a lack of media engagement among citizens, especially in rural and impoverished areas. Progress in addressing both these problems will likely continue alongside economic growth and increased connectivity. That increased connectivity, however, may come in the form of the internet, which poses a larger and more long-term threat to the print industry.

Finally, high production costs are a significant concern. Printing inputs – including paper and machinery – are taxed, and when combined with the high overheads for operations, along with a competitive market for advertising revenues and a challenging distribution network, the outlook is a worrying one. As a result, some newspapers operate on an irregular basis, often printing most frequently during the advertising-heavy election season.

INTERNET: The print market is not threatened by the internet currently, primarily due to its low penetration rate. All the major newspapers already have an online presence and have plenty of time to plan how to monetise their online offerings as internet connectivity spreads. The UN’s ICT development arm, the ITU, reported internet penetration as 9.55 users per 100 habitants in 2010; the government is now seeking to increase the rate of broadband penetration to 10% per year. This may be possible in the medium to long term, with the arrival of additional bandwidth from undersea cables – Ghana will see its bandwidth capacity increase sizeably by the end of 2012. However, the development of the terrestrial broadband network, along with Ghana’s blogosphere, is clearly still in its infancy.

FUTURE CHALLENGES: Although relatively free of content-related hurdles, such as censorship, Ghana’s media organisations do face several issues.

First, journalists in the country are often poorly paid and under-resourced. Training was once a challenge as well, though standards have improved over the last decade thanks to efforts made by the Ghana Journalism Association, as well as the 2006 transformation of the Ghana Institute of Journalism into a tertiary degree-awarding institution.

The Ghana Journalists Association has developed a 17-point code of ethics for registered members, although compliance tends to lag due in part to the fact that membership is not mandatory.

Journalists’ incomes are also relatively low, and this tends to weaken overall professionalism and lead to concerns over influence in coverage. As is often the case elsewhere in Africa, gifts for journalists – sometimes known as soli, slang for solidarity, and consisting of a small cash donation in exchange for positive coverage – are not uncommon.

The government is also in the process of approving seed money for the Ghana Media Development Fund. Though the initial funding may be quite small, if successfully allocated it could help increase training and capacity building.

The country’s least developed media segment, the magazine industry, also faces numerous obstacles. Domestic publications that print on a regular basis are rare and those that that do have a relatively small circulation. Low penetration in the market inherently indicates plenty of room for growth; however, high printing costs and a lack of established distribution networks often stand in the way.

OUTLOOK: Like everywhere else in the world, print journalism faces the difficult task of staying relevant with rising internet usage, though in Ghana this will take some time because of underdeveloped infrastructure. Radio should continue to lead information dissemination and political dialogue due to its overwhelming penetration, though television will continue to slowly erode its grip over the next decade.

Though the noticeable presence of state-owned media is unlikely to disappear in the near future, Ghana nevertheless boasts a vibrant, dynamic and competitive private sector. Moreover, the private sector is, for the most part, left to its own devices. Journalists are free to criticise public policy and even individual politicians without fear of retaliation, at least on a personal level.

“Media creates enlightenment and awareness in the populace, while it keeps the government in check when necessary and enhances it when not,” Haruna told OBG. He went on to explain that an open and free media market not only supports economic growth, it is often a necessary part of it.

Indeed, much of Ghana’s economic growth is a result of its stable political environment, which in turn owes a great deal to the media’s ability to influence public discourse and to hold the government accountable for its actions. In this sense Ghana is most certainly ahead of the curve, although obstacles to its future development remain to be tackled.

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The Report: Ghana 2012

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