9th February, 2013

I have diagnosed the disease affecting Ghanaian journalism before, and I do so again: it is the total commercialisation of the media in the country. If someone sets up a newspaper or radio station for the sole purpose of making  money with it, he will only employ people who know how to make money with the media and nothing else. Yet the media, as the most potent means of disseminating  information in a modern democracy, ought to have more concerns than merely making money. 
The example often quoted in schools of journalism to illustrate the point that there is no such thing as absolute freedom of the press is that no-one can be allowed to shout “FIRE!!” in a crowded public meeting place, such as an enclosed  theatre or cinema. 
This prohibition was not revealed to men by the deity in a dream. It was just common sense: if you shout “FIRE”! in a crowded public place, people will automatically run in panic  towards the exits, and in doing so, they will risk crushing others to death and being crushed to death in their turn by the escaping hordes of humanity.. 
In the same way, common sense obliges journalists not to publicise the words of people of certain professions unduly. These include  priests and other people who are paid solely to carry out the  duty of propagating one 
unchanging — and unchangeable — message or the other. 
The reason is that the media’s output is potentially directed at every member of the community served by the media. Yet the propagators of messages are only interested in relaying the  messages of their own sect(s). 
Sometimes, the propagators of such messages hold people who do not share their beliefs in contempt, or even consider them as mortal enemies. So, giving them the facilities of the  media to propagate their messages can constitute an incitement to those who are hostile to them to take action against them, or the media which give them a platform for their views. There have been cases in Holland and other places where newspeople have been murdered by religious bigots who felt that the journalists’ media had offended their religion. 
Of course, the propagators of religious messages are not forbidden to set up their own media to propagate their message. 
Now, anyone who picks up a religious newspaper, or tunes in  to a TV or radio station that carries religious messages, would know what to expect and won’t be surprised when he discovers the message of the organisation that set up the media being preached in the media. 
But a general-purpose newspaper or radio station does not carry any such “health-warning” and must not be turned into such an organ of propaganda. It is not offering itself to the public as a sectarian organ and must not deceive the public by turning itself into one. 
Thus, unless there is a special national occasion – such as the celebration of Independence Day or something similar — religious officials hardly ever get their messages carried by the national media, and if they do, care is taken to balance what  the Christians (for instance) preach, against what the Muslims also say. In the electronic media, “slots” are often allotted to the religious propagandists, so that no-one can claim that those media are biased against them.
Even that broad sweep of coverage  is often criticised, for the propagators of ‘indigenous’ religions are never allowed to preach over the national media. And, in any case, there are divisions in even all the major, “recognised” religions. The Christians are divided into two broad categories – Protestants and Catholics (though “charismatic” churches are striving ever more  to be included in the classification, if not to take it over entirely!) 
The Muslims too have their Sunni and Shia sects, as well as the “Salafis” and others who find orthodox Islam not to their taste. 
Religion  being so full of schisms, when journalists keep religion out of their pages and airwaves, the  journalists are acting in their own enlightened self-interest. They are doing themselves a favour, for if they allow religious debates to be  infiltrated into their content, the resulting debate will never end and their non-religious audience will jump ship very quickly indeed. Media proprietors should be wise enough to realise that this will affect the circulation of their newspapers and the audience of their electronic media, in the long run.
These are elementary truths which properly-trained journalists are aware of and try to take into account when they are considering what is “newsworthy”.  More important, their proprietors trust them to observe the rules of the game, when they employ journalists as true professionals.
Of course, the temptation to disregard the caution that tells journalists to lay off religion is immensely strong. You see, journalists are the people who can ensure that a preacher’s words move beyond the confines of his church or mosque to a wider audience. In other words, journalists are the means of advertising people and messages. But while some journalists won’t go near any material that appears like an advertisement, the dishonest ones  don’t care. Especially if they know they will benefit financially by advertising the words of someone not on the advertisement pages, but in the news columns. The practice is facilitated by the use of “brown envelopes” which the would-be advertiser or his agents  secretly hand to the journalist, after the advertiser  has publicly delivered his message. 
This is where proprietors come in. A media proprietor ought to have enough “savvy” or knowledge about the business to be able to detect that despite his paying them a salary, his journalists are being bribed to offer “cheap publicity” to purveyors of one message or the other.
 They should sack such people. And make known to their other employees, the reasons for the sacking. That will convey a message that advertisements passing for news will not be allowed to get into  the proprietor’s media. 
Otherwise, it will continue, for there will always be people who need to advertise something but who would rather use journalists to do it for them than be straight-forward and buy space in newspapers or in the electronic media. 
I am of the view that whoever first published or broadcast the news that a certain “prophet” had made a “prophecy”  that our President would die unless ‘xyz’ was done, falls into the category of an advertising agent posing as a journalist. The reason is that that “journalist” ought to have known that such a “prophecy”, if given publicity, would cause a major sensation. It would be discussed endlessly: would the President die because he had been accused of having stolen the election? On whose behalf was  the “prophet acting? Was he merely trying to shake the President down? And so on and so forth — and not ignoring the credentials of the “prophet” qua prophet!
The sensation caused by such speculations  would not be in the national interest. There are always insane cranks lurking in every society, who can be influenced by the lunatic rantings of any one who wears a red-cloth band across his chest, and declares “I am The Prophet of God sent to continue the works of Elijah and Elisha together, plus those of Moses and Aaron — bring me a stick and see me turn it  into a serpent, but only if  you agree I must do it in secret!”. Yes, some individuals can be persuaded by such charlatans  into seeking to take action “under divine guidance”. Indeed, half the people in any mental hospital anywhere in the world would tell you that they hear “voices” which they sometimes take to be the Almighty urging them to take one action or the other, including killing people whom their illusionary ”visions” identify as ‘The Anti-Christ’ or something similar.
If an uncertified lunatic can hang what his or her  “voices” tell him/her on to the lapels of an “authority figure”, such as a dyspeptic-looking “prophet” who wears an impressive, self-designed, luminous  red sash on his chest, and several occult-looking  rings on his fingers, then he or she is ready for action. 
The insanity bit apart, why should a journalist who is supposed to be the “watchdog” of the public interest, be the one who peddles nonsense to the unsuspecting public? Shouldn’t a journalist ask himself: “When the “prophet” was spoken to by the Almighty, was anyone else there? The Almighty knows everything, so why didn’t He  — if it was really Him — realise that the prophet would need a witness to corroborate his statement that the Almighty had spoken to him? If the Almighty wanted to convey a message to our President, why didn’t He speak directly to the President? Or – at the very least – why didn’t the Almighty reveal the secret to the entire  congregation of the “prophet” at large, so that he could have some witnesses to testify that indeed, they heard a loud voice from heaven asking the “prophet” to ask the President to do this or that or else die? 
But even more seriously, how could a person who calls himself a journalist be so stupid as not to understand that if the President were to “obey” what the prophet had said, it would open the President up for eternal blackmail by the “prophet”? The “prophet” says fast and pray or die! And the President fasts and prays. and gives a BMW limo to the prophet to thank him for having alerted him to the message from the Almighty. 
What about when the “prophet “ next tells the President “Send me with the Black Star team to South Africa or Ghana will lose its important matches?” Or “make me Ghana’s Ambassador to  Country Z or Y or Q, or one of your beloved children will die?” 
The public depends on journalists to read widely, educate themselves deeply and in general, cultivate a good sense of judgement so that no-one can take them for a ride and in doing so, take the gullible public for a ride too, through them. If the “prophet” had made his prophecy about say, Queen Elizabeth or President Obama, no journalists in Britain or the United States would have reported it. This is because the enlightenment threshold of journaslists in both countries is relatively high indeed.
 Indeed, the security agencies in those countries  are so alert that they would treat the “prophet” as someone “of interest” to national security,  who should be subjected  to covert  interrogation by professionals  to establish his true mental state and if necessary, ultimately send him to a place where he could not harm either man or beast and probably fast often enough to make his haggard appearance and haunted look even more pronounced. 
But in Ghana, as soon as the “prophet” used the President’s name and other priests and priestesses realised that there was a great deal of mileage to be trodden by the story, they  jumped into the fray. The prophet was a “false prophet”, some said. (As if they had never  heard from the Bible, the admonition that: “Judge not, and be not judged!”) Others  suggested, with true Christian charity, that  the “prophet” was a “liar”.  One very famous fellow-“prophet” insinuated that the “prophet” in question  had not been “properly ordained” by an authoritative-enough ‘Man of God’! Whereupon, the “prophet” retorted publicly that he had in fact been ”ordained” by that very ‘Man of God’!  Ah? I told you it was a dangerous folly  to dabble in religious matters in the media.
The interesting thing is that  all those who were saying these things were themselves mostly self-promoting mountebanks — just like the “prophet” they were pillorying. And people with rational minds sat on the sidelines and laughed — laughed at the “inter-prophetic” war, but also — especially –  at the journalists who opened their facilities up  to this unedifying debate but who  would never dream of provoking such a heated and prolonged debate in their media over the erratic supply of electricity; or the presence of dry water-taps in so many homes in  our country; or the smelly gutters in our cities and towns; or the ruination of our countryside by galamsey operators; or the many schools under trees where our future nation-builders are condemned to study; or the babies and mothers who die needlessly of  tretable disesases each day in our village and towns. 
  Such is the harm that one or two  thoughtless journalists can do to their alleged profession. For who is to trust journalists if they  continue, in this vein, to parade themselves regularly  as ignorant twerps?