The Dangers of Talk Radio…

BBC – one of the few globally-visible media sources which provides thorough coverage of African issues – has a regular feature, called “Have Your Say” which asks readers to comment on key issues. To the BBC’s great credit, they frequently pose Africa-focused questions.

A current question asks whether radio phone-in shows in Africa should be banned. The question explicitly alludes to an ongoing conversation in Ghana over whether talk radio should be, somehow, constrained, leading up to the December 2004 election. The National Committee for Civic Education is suggesting that, since there is no mechanism to prevent defamatory or incindiery speech on talk radio, statements made could lead towards violence.

This has evidently been a concern of the NCCE for some time. I heard rumors of a talk radio ban when I was last in town in June. I raised the issue in a conversation with the deputy minister of communication, but couldn’t get a clear answer on whether the ministry was or was not concerned about the issue.

In my opinion, talk radio in Ghana has been one of the most profound forces for positive change I’ve ever seen in a developing nation. When I lived in Accra in 1993-4, radio was a dead medium. You’d walk down a street in Accra and hear the same music coming from every single radio – it was oddly Orwellian. A year or two later, there was competition to GBC, and when I returned to the country in 1999, there were dozens of competing stations in Accra, including several dedicated to news and public affairs.

The importance of this became clear during the 2000 elections, when a number of my geeks in town reported that citizens used radio talk shows to help monitor polling places. When people saw violence, or people being prevented from voting, they used cellphones to call radio stations. The stations aired the reports, which precented the police from being able to claim they hadn’t heard about possible voting rights violations. So the police showed up and ensured people could vote. The result: a free and fair election in which the opposition won. Which, historically speaking, is quite amazing for an African nation.

Every morning I’m in Ghana, taking a cab from wherever I’m staying to my first meeting, my cab or trotro driver is listening to talk radio. Usually, there’s a minister or parliamentarian on the program, taking calls from the general public. My Ghanaian friends marvel when I tell them that this rarely happens in the US – they’ve quickly grown to expect the right to ask their politicians hard questions and get immediate, public answers.

There’s an interesting diversity of views expressed on this subject on the BBC site. Many responders point out that there’s a scarcity of free speech in many developing nations and that radio talk shows should be encouraged. A few readers point out that the people able to afford to call into talk shows are usually wealthier than average and therefore there’s a skew to the dialog that takes place. I don’t see a lot of concern that allowing free political speech in Ghana is going to lead to widespread violence, though. Let’s hope that the Kufour government continues to trust its citizens and allows open discussion up to and throught the elections.

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