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Safeguarding Press Freedom, Is Self-Regulation the way?

The National Communications Authority is sanctioning about 131 radio stations for violating certain aspects of the Electronics Communications Act (2009), ACT 775. The state regulatory body has given indications that it would go ahead and take any station, which does not comply with its regulations off air. Maybe this provides a fine opportunity for the country to discuss the kind of regulatory mechanism for the media at this level of our democratic dispensation.

The term Regulation explains the kind of systems or regimes in terms of rules and standard practices about a particular industry and how it conducts its work. Regulation has three main components: legislation; thus defining the appropriate rules, enforcement; such as initiating actions against offenders and adjudication; thus deciding whether a violation has occurred and imposing an appropriate sanction.

Regulations are very important, as they are required to respond to the circumstances of the time. In this regard, media regulation is particularly important, as the industry has to deal with several challenges such as the challenges of the ‘new media’ otherwise known as ‘Social Media’ as well as making sure that the media landscape operates within the confines of a certain legal framework.

It is argued that statutory regulation of the media is important for the fear that if the media is allowed to regulate itself it might subvert statutory goals to suit its own business interests or aspirations. So, because of this fear of a possible conflict of interest, it is often advised that statutory regulation of the media is preferred over self-regulation.

There is also the question about the adequacy and effectiveness of enforcement in self-regulatory regimes. The fear is that the industry may not be willing to commit the necessary resources for the purposes of enforcing ethical standards. There are even doubts as to whether the media will even exhibit that courage to impose severe punishment to errant news houses.

Finally, though it is acknowledged that industry players such as the media has the appropriate expertise that would be useful in formulating the right regulations to guide the operations of the media however, the fear again is that the press is likely to exploit it to its own advantage at the expense of the general public interest.

Despite these few fears associated with self-regulation of the media, the benefits of self-regulation far outweigh the supposed challenges and the government through the NCA is better off allowing the media to regulate itself. First, in determining what regulatory mechanism is appropriate, one has to put in mind the global inventory of press regulation and press freedom indices. For example, the ranking by the Reporters without Borders, which ranks 180 countries of the world according to things like media independence, self-censorship, rule of law and transparency, highlights the danger of a tipping point in the state of media freedom, especially in leading democratic countries.

Despite the fact that there are no recorded incidents of government repression of media or journalists in Ghana in 2017, the country’s position on the World Press Freedom Index 2017 released recently has not changed. The country is ranked 26, the position it occupied in 2016. The country also had the same score of 17.95, the same as in 2016. This feat ought to be protected.

Beyond the gradual global acceptance of self-regulation as the best form of press regulation, there are other inherent benefits associated with allowing the media to regulate itself. Direct state regulation has been criticized as being inflexible, excessively expensive, inadequately desired, poorly enforced and vulnerable to special interests. A system in which the media takes the responsibility of regulating itself also goes a long way to entrenching the freedom of the press since the media is devoid of coercive force from external sources thereby allowing for journalistic and editorial independence and freedom of expression.

More so, the appropriate people to design the right policies or regulations for the operations of the media is the industry players themselves. The argument here is that, those in the press industry possess the required knowledge or experience than the government; therefore, it is more efficient for the government to rely on the collective expertise of the media industry in designing the appropriate framework for regulating the press.

Self-regulation is cherished over state regulation of the press for reason of flexibility, thus the ability to respond to changing conditions by modifying the rules and procedures to meet new and emerging situations. The logic here is that, if the state regulates the media it might not be able to respond quickly by modifying rules that suit the prevailing conditions.

Furthermore, the possibility of compliance is much greater when the rules and regulations are developed by the industry itself. The assumption is that journalists are more likely to respect guidelines developed by their peers and perceive them as reasonable than those developed and imposed by an outsider such as the state. Finally, it is even less costly to the government because the cost of developing the rules and standards as well as the enforcement of those rules would then be shifted from the government to the media industry itself.

By George Akeliwira

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