One Eye on the Ballot
One of my most unforgettable experiences working on radio in Ghana was using this great tool of mass communication to help democracy gain firm roots in the country. This has been radio’s major contribution to the development of the country over the past two decades. The best times to observe the indispensability of radio in Ghanaian democracy is the period just before elections, when the polls are actually underway, and shortly thereafter. I have seen it several times, wearing either the hat of a reporter or producer. What I remember most about each experience is the adrenaline rush coupled with the feeling that we are helping safeguard the democratic process, which is the very foundation of nation-building.
In 1992, after almost a decade of presiding over Ghana as a military dictator, Jerry Rawlings decided to shed his military fatigues and put on the suit of a civilian democrat. At the time, all Ghana had was what we call “state media,” the most popular being the state-run TV channel and its crackly sister shortwave radio network. It was supposed to be performing a public service, free of governmental control, but state media was extremely tightly controlled by the incumbent dictator, who was also in the race to the Castle. He was a constant feature on their news programs, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a story about him, say, cutting the sod for work to start on a road project, taking well more than a third of a 30-minute TV bulletin.
After the polls, Rawlings was declared the winner amidst allegations of vote-rigging and opposition complaints that they were not allowed sufficient space on state media to get their message to the citizenry. The main opposition party at the time, the New Patriotic Party (NPP), then boycotted the parliamentary elections, which followed the presidential poll. By the time Rawlings completed his metamorphosis from an autocrat to a democrat, the NPP had published a bulky document titled “The Stolen Verdict,” chronicling how ballots were stuffed, along with several other electoral improprieties.
Four years later, when Rawlings ran for re-election in 1996, the media landscape had started changing and there were legions of journalists, mostly working on radio, determined to help safeguard the poll. In the spirit of democratic free expression, Rawlings’ new civilian administration had liberalized the airwaves and allowed businessmen to set up a number of FM radio stations. These stations were mostly based in the capital, Accra. By the time the elections came around, they had built networks of reporters and volunteers around the country to literally keep an eye on the electoral process to ensure that the people’s verdict was not “stolen” again.
Rawlings won that election, too, but this seemed a much cleaner victory for him than the previous one. There were fewer complaints of vote rigging, partly because the elections were conducted under the watchful eyes of journalists, some of whom reported live on irregularities from different parts of the country. Such live reportage by journalists and volunteers with mobile phones almost always caught the attention of the Electoral Commission, which came in to rectify whatever problems there were.
The next elections came around in December 2000. By this time, more radio stations had been opened around the country. They all had “breakfast shows,” which discussed pertinent issues of the day both in English and the dominant local languages. Government officials who were previously hard to reach (not to mention feared) were answering tough, often embarrassing questions on radio. Analysts were explaining policy to the citizenry, often in English, while very articulate local-language presenters intelligently translated such analyses into languages people understood. There were lively debates. There were scandals. And the news broadcasts were more exciting and informative than they had ever been in the country’s history. It was a great time to be a journalist.
When campaigning started for the elections in the year 2000, I had been out of journalism school for only a few months. The radio stations were staffed by young people, mostly under 30. I was much younger than 30, and I was interviewing government ministers whose names struck awe in my grandparents’ generation. There were many like me. But we were doing a job, helping everyone decide who our next crop of leaders should be. After two rounds of voting, Rawlings’ National Democratic Congress (NDC) lost to the NPP for the first time. It was the end of the Rawlings era, and the dawn of a new Ghana in which radio would become an indispensable tool for democratic governance.
There are now more than 100 privately owned radio stations in Ghana. New ones start transmission every year. To the uninitiated tuning in to any of the stations, the output may sound like a cacophony. But listen very carefully, speak to the people, and you will realize that Ghanaians love their radio stations. Even the poorest of the poor have portable, battery-operated radios, which they carry to the farm or the market. Radio provides entertainment, but it is also their window to the world. It is what tells them how they are being governed. It is what explains government policy to them and helps them decide who should be making those policies. It is also how they talk back to the government.
A “listening government” is a popular phrase in Ghanaian political dialogue. Over the past decade, any government that has shut its ears or pretended not to hear what the people are saying on radio has gotten kicked out. The NDC learned that lesson with shock in 2000, and a complacent NPP swallowed the same bitter pill eight years later.
With elections a few weeks away (they are due on Dec. 7), I sometimes wish I were back in Ghana. Elections are one of the best times to be working on radio in the country. It is the best time for the radio stations to boost their ratings. It’s a dogfight as they struggle within acute financial and logistical limitations to cover the issues, keep an eye on the ballot, and, ultimately, be the first to tell the nation who won and who lost. But it’s all in the service of democracy. And the country is all the better for it.