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THE BALANCE BETWEEN FREEDOM AND REGULATION IN THE VIRTUAL PUBLIC SPACE: WHAT DO WE DO?

THE BALANCE BETWEEN FREEDOM AND REGULATION IN THE VIRTUAL PUBLIC SPACE: WHAT DO WE DO?

Background

On July 8th, 2020, the Institute of Democratic Governance (IDEG) held a Webinar to explore the opportunities and challenges presented to Ghana’s electioneering processes by the new normal, i.e. the virtual public space. Much of Ghana’s electioneering processes in the run up to the December 2020 Elections and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country are being carried out in both the old and new media. A major issue of concern justifying this Webinar was the largely un-regulated character of the virtual public space, especially the new media, in which the phenomenon of fake news, misinformation, hate speech and verbal attacks on personalities was growing.

The July 8th Webinar drew attention to deep capacity challenges faced by media regulatory institutions in their efforts at maintaining responsible use of the virtual public space while maintaining a balance between regulation of the media space and protection of the freedom of speech concurrently. While the apparent non-regulation of the public virtual space fosters irresponsible journalism and commentary in both the traditional and social media, enforcing strict regulations could also hinder free speech. The roles of three key institutions, the National Communications Authority (NCA), National Media Commission (NMC) and the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) were highlighted in the discussions in the July 8th Webinar as follows.

The NCA is the body responsible for ensuring fair competition among media and telecommunication companies. However, it has not been able to discharge this function effectively so far. By the NCA Act 769 (2008), the NCA has the power to grant radio frequencies and television licenses to media companies. It also has the authority to exercise disciplinary control in the form of monetary fines, suspension or revocation of licenses. The NCA however does not monitor content on the media and is confronted with widespread public perception that it is government controlled; thus, its decisions tend to raise diverse suspicions in the public. The NMC, on the other hand, monitors media content and operates under the National Media Commission Act, 1993, and Chapter 12 of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana. In pursuance of press freedom and independence of the mass media, the NMC addresses media content and acts on complaints. However, the NMC neither has the power to censor nor control editorial content of media houses. Its regulatory framework was also not designed to address digital platform issues.

CHRAJ has the constitutional mandate to promote and protect human rights and prove remedy through investigations of human rights violations committed by state actors and private enterprises. As an investigative body, CHRAJ is empowered to receive all complaints that violate rights in the context of international human rights law and the relevant provisions of the 1992 Constitution. These are Articles 12, 17 (right to non-discrimination); 15 (respect for human dignity); 19 (right to fair trial/hearing; as well as article 33(5) of the Constitution which relates to the abuse perpetrated by internet access providers, particularly their local collaborators/agents.

The mandates and challenges of the above institutions of the State have fostered a situation in which regulation of the virtual public space has become practically impossible, particularly within the COVID-19 context in which electioneering towards the presidential and parliamentary elections on 7th December 2020 is taking place.  

Against the backdrop of the roles and challenges of these key institutions in regulating the media space, IDEG held a follow-up Webinar to delve deeper into these issues and to explore solutions to the dilemma of protecting freedom of speech while also protecting citizens from irresponsible usage of the virtual public space.

The follow-up Webinar took place on Wednesday, July 29, 2020 from 3:00pm – 4:30pm. It was funded by the Danish Embassy in Ghana.

A key recommendation that emerged from the discussions during the Webinar was for media literacy and public education to be intensified to enable citizens to understand and speak out against the violation of their rights and take action to remedy abuse of the virtual public space. CHRAJ, for example, should consider working together with the NCCE and CSOs, who are interested in the sanitization of the virtual public space, to intensify human, civil and political rights education and strengthen their collective watchdog roles as electioneering and elections in December 2020 takes place in the COVID-19 pandemic context.

The NMC and NCA, as key media institutions, should also collaborate in issuing and enforcing Guidelines aimed at sanitizing the virtual public space for electioneering and media reportage on the presidential and parliamentary elections on 7th December 2020. Ahead of the 2012 and 2020 elections, the NMC and NCA issued joint guidelines for media reportage. However, those elections did not occur in the unique context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequential enactment and enforcement of the Imposition of Restrictions Law 2012 which has limited political and civil rights in the country.

The Webinar was designed as panel discussion and was moderated by a seasoned broadcast journalist with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), Mr. Abdul Hayi Moomen. Panelists were Nana Kwasi Gyan Appenteng, former Chairman of the National Media Commission; Mr. Prince Hari Crystal, Executive Council Member, Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association; and Dr. Isaac Lartey Annan, Director, Human Rights Department, Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ).

Among the participants were Civil society organizations (CSOs), political parties, the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy, the University of Ghana, the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association, the United Nations, the Ghana News Agency, and civic minded citizens and advocates across Ghana.


Documents

Title Type | Size
IDEG-CHRAJ-Presentation
pdf | 174 KB
IDEG-Using-the-Virtual-Public-Space-for-the-2020-Electioneering-Campaign-Mr-Ahiabenu
pdf | 889 KB
PHC-Presentation-IDEG-Webinar-on-Virtual-Public-Space-and-the-2020-General-Elections
pdf | 385 KB


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