Fourth Estate of the Realm Standing on Shaky Legs in West Africa
Lagos, Nigeria – Jul 2007
The media has been touted as the fourth estate of the realm all over the world; the fourth estate, coming after the executive, the legislative and the judiciary in a model democratic government.
In West Africa however, this estate stands on very weak and shaky legs. This is due, among other things to the disrespect and disdain of many governments in the sub-region for the media; the absence of specific press freedom legislation on the statute books; the existence of criminal libel and secrecy laws and at times the churning out of legislation to punish targeted media houses.
Countries in the West African sub-region with the exception of Ghana, do not have legislation that specifically protects media freedom. What obtains in most of these countries are imprecise laws that purport to protect freedom of expression and the press. None of the countries have a ‘Freedom of Information’ or ‘Access to Information’ law.
Ghana has international standard media laws. Article 21 (1) (Chapter 5) of its Constitution says: “All persons shall have the right to – (a) freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media”. This freedom is further elaborated in Articles 162 to 173 (Chapter 12) which guarantee, in specific terms, the freedom and independence of the media in that country. It also has an independent ‘National Media Commission’ which is mandated to ensure adherence of the guarantees of press freedom enshrined in the constitution.
Because of the disrespect and disdain among West African governments for the media and its practitioners, it is a region where attacks on journalists and media houses occur. The inclement political, legal and even economic environment in which the media operates in the sub-region makes it an endangered estate.
It will take the combined efforts of local and international stakeholders to advocate for a better operating environment in order for media to fully play its part in ensuring good governance, transparency and accountability in the region.