‘GBC must be there for them’: Maintaining balance ahead of a crucial Ghana election

13th June 2024
The Director General of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation tells PMA about how it plans to cover December’s presidential election across a vast country amidst economic pressures, the role GBC has had in Ghana’s democracy, and the modern pressures it finds itself under. 
Header Image: Filming GBC’s Breakfast Show. Credit: Ghana Broadcasting Corporation / Facebook

More than 80 countries will hold elections this year, at a time when democracy finds itself increasingly threatened, with rising authoritarianism, apathy, and mis- and dis-information.

It is something we covered in the latest episode of our podcast, Media Uncovered, looking at several countries and how public media plan to cover them from the frontlines.

One of them was Ghana where, in December, 30 million people will vote in an election that’s already been defined by a severe economic crisis and concerns about the strength of press freedom.

Jamie Tahana spoke to Dr Amin Alhassan, the Director General of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), about how it’s juggling the pressures, while also maintaining balance and upholding its constitutional duty. He started by explaining the state of play for the election.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Amin Alhassan: It’s a very interesting time for Ghana, we are preparing for the four-year ritual which is to go for general elections, where we will be voting for a new president and some 270 parliamentarians across the country. We at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation are very excited to cover the elections because of the constitutional mandate we have to ensure that all political parties, all opposing sides, have equal media opportunity to tell Ghanaians why they should be deserving of their vote.

JT: How are you doing that, ensuring that balance?

AH: In an election year, we put together what we call the Political Broadcast and Monitoring Committee, and it’s normally chaired by a board member. This Committee does not include myself; I am out of it. If somebody has a grievance that they are not being well served, they can petition the director general, and I will go back to this committee for them to assess and see the merit in their petition. If we need to put in remedial measures to compensate for the shortcoming then we will do that. If, however, we are convinced that we have been very fair to all parties we will respond by telling the petitioners that they don’t have a case. So, as it sits now, this committee has already been inaugurated for this season and their job is to ensure that all programming is shared among all the political parties.

PODCAST: How are public media covering elections?

JT:During an election, political candidates are often sensitive over such things. How many petitions would this committee normally get, and how many are upheld?

AH: Oftentimes political parties are reluctant to submit formal petitions. What they end up doing is bickering over the media and other platforms saying that we are not fairly treated. We tell them to please submit it into writing, and we will respond. Then they don’t, so it gives us a feeling that we are doing the right thing because if you really have a basis for your grievance, you will go ahead to submit it officially. In the previous election, we did not get any written report of a complaint to the committee. We did our best to give everybody equal airtime and that is what we did.

JT: Ghana is in the midst of a financial crisis that GBC has not been immune from. It’s also a very big country. How are you looking to cover this year’s election?

AH: Logistics wise we are very challenged. Our current fleet of vehicles is highly inadequate. We knew this was coming so we started working around to raise money to procure new vehicles. So, as we speak, we are in the process of procuring at least six new saloon cars and one pickup truck and a minibus to augment our transport fleet. We are also in a process of procuring more cameras and studio equipment to ensure that we have the resources, the equipment to do the coverage. About two weeks ago we had to replace at least four of our radio FM transmitters with brand new ones, which we did.

“I can confidently speak to the last election. The last election was our best coverage ever” – Amin Alhassan, Director General of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.

JT: How many of Ghana’s elections have you covered, and what changes have you seen, both politically but also with how the public and the media interact with elections?

Amin Alhassan
Amin Alhassan is the Director General of GBC and a PMA Board Member. Credit: GBC.

AH: We had our first election in this republic in 1992. Ghana Broadcasting Corporation has always covered it. I took a break from the GBC and Ghana for some 15 years of this period, I was out the country. Now I must say that I can confidently speak to the last election. The last election was our best coverage ever in terms of logistical rollout and staff rollout, in terms of real time reporting of developments in the elections. We were able to invest in a very fantastic software. I think that we just want to see how we can probably increase our performance, improve upon it.

Ghanaians are getting more and more understanding of the concept of ballot box democracy, that you have to come in and vote and then go back and make sure that you wait till the next election before you can interfere with the process. And politicians have also learned to do that. So, we in Ghana have no doubt or fears in our mind that any incumbent president can be foolish enough to want to say that ‘I’m not going to allow for elections’, or ‘I’m not going to step down if I lose elections’. It has become a norm that when you lose elections you pack and leave, When you win elections, you are expected to be sworn in as a president and you govern and you are aware that you will have to leave office when your term is up. And this current president has repeated his commitment to the outcome of the election results.

JT: Do you think the Ghanaian media and journalism has had a role in fostering that understanding?

AH: Very much so. I’ll give an example. Ghanaians tend to listen to other private media for election results. But when they don’t hear it from the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, they don’t think it’s over. So, I will say that when it comes to election reporting, the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation’s network of television or radio stations become the media of reference point. When it comes from the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, they believe it. Across the country, they know that ‘yes, it’s over’.

Private media bodies will try to rush to announce results, but sometimes these same media organisations come back and retract and apologise for wrong reporting. GBC has never retracted a report in an election. Whatever we announce we stand by it, and it is what it is because of the rigorous process of fact checking, because of the rigorous process of editorial controls we have put in place to ensure that by the time the report gets out the necessary cross checking has been done to be sure that this is the validated results. Our role in this election and every elections since we started is very critical.

JT:Are you seeing the same patterns of misinformation and disinformation in Ghana?

AH: Yes, we have a serious problem with the rise in misinformation and disinformation, and the interesting thing is that we have observed that almost all the political actors are guilty of this practice. But what is critical is that we have made sure that we don’t become tools as purveyors of misinformation. But because of this, even when disinformation is widespread, Ghanaians are always checking to see ‘have GBC also said it?’ So we take pride in our role as the media of last resort in terms of fact checking and verification of information.

“When it comes to election reporting, the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation’s network of television or radio stations become the media of reference point. When it comes from the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, they believe it.” – Amin Alhassan.

But I must say that when you look, the challenge of the future is the fact that the very economic foundation of the GBC is being eroded. The media market model we have been running is being challenged by tech platforms that do not maintain any journalistic values or ethics. It is something that is a bit scary about the future of journalism or public media in our country, that if we do not take pay particular attention to how media organisations are funded, at some point in time the source of revenue for these organisations will completely dry out in favour of tech platforms. See, we must remember that media organisations are institutions of democracy as much as they are also business organisations. The two must always go together, and if we want them to continue becoming instruments and institutions of democracy then we should be very careful and very interested in their structures as business organisations and how they perform.

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JT: It’s an interesting dynamic to be in, your fate in the hands of [politicians] who can be quite antagonistic to the media. Do you think it’s something they’re aware of or doing enough about?

AH: I’ll put it this way. One interesting dynamic that we have in Ghana is that almost all key political actors who matter have private investments in media organisations. They set up these media organisations not as businesses. They set them as instruments of influence, and they will fund them. They don’t expect them to make revenue, they will use other resources to fund them [to] keep operating because they are using it in their interest. So, when we speak about these challenges, they really are not interested and sometimes you have a feeling that they wish the public service broadcaster will die off, collapse and go away and their media organisations will occupy the space which I think is a delusional mindset that must be cured. They are wrong and it should never happen, because when public service media ceases to exist in a country like Ghana, our democracy would be highly jeopardised and might not survive beyond two or three elections. That is a fear we must bear in mind, that we cannot count on the politicians to salvage our precarious economic situations, we must find other means of resolving these issues of how you fund the public interest media.

“When public service media ceases to exist in a country like Ghana, our democracy would be highly jeopardised and might not survive beyond two or three elections” – Amin Alhassan.

JT:You spoke about the high level of trust GBC has. With these challenges, how is important is having that public trust to give GBC momentum to say, ‘we need something here’?

AH: We’ve started a serious campaign to remind Ghanaians that the TV licence fee is one of the surest ways of ensuring that GBC remains a credible media outlet. In Ghana, unlike in the UK, Ghanaians are not really paying their TV licenses and we have a challenge with enforcement. The political class that would have helped us enforce are against it, so we are really in a very tight corner. We keep on talking and letting our audience understand that we are a public body that must be protected and preserved, so we are hoping that our campaign will catch up so that Ghanaians will see the need to keep on paying their TV licences so that we have a very solid and sustainable source of funding to keep us going.

But, for us, we think that the future is good for us despite all I’ve just recounted. Ghanaians believe that GBC must be there for them. And there’s something else we do. Ghana has over 50 language groups. GBC is the only media organisation that broadcasts in at least 27 of these languages. We are looking forward to increasing the number of languages that we broadcast in and that is one of the streams that we sell to Ghanaians to tell them that we believe in diversity of content and universality of access.