Remarks by U.S. Ambassador to Ghana Virginia Palmer
The Ghana Journalists Association Awards 2023
Sunday, October 29, 2023
Ghana International Conference Centre
As prepared for delivery
It’s a pleasure to be here with you, once again, to celebrate the best of Ghanaian journalism.
Today, as we honor journalism and press freedom, we acknowledge their centrality in defending and enhancing democracy. Your role as journalists is essential to ensuring that Ghana’s democracy is fully accountable to its people. Many of the awards tonight will honor reporting in critical areas such as governance, corruption, human rights, and peace and security – reporting that has made a difference.
Journalists have an important role to play in reporting on corruption, human rights, governance, and peace and security.
Press freedom is not just being able to write a good story, it’s about the journalists who risk their safety to uncover the truth, the editors who uphold ethical standards, and the media organizations that support investigative reporting. It is also about the citizens who read, listen, watch, and think about what you are reporting and, in so doing, actively participate in the democratic process.
In the past two years, several countries across West Africa have experienced coups and other forms of democratic backsliding. Those setbacks were often previewed by assaults on press freedom and limits on the practice of journalism. We know that when journalists come under attack, democracy suffers – and sometimes grave events follow.
Ghana has also recently experienced attacks on journalists and their reporting. We saw that earlier this month at UTV and again when a Citi News journalist was attacked while reporting on a political party’s candidate selection. Such attacks and violations of the law are unacceptable. Even when incidents appear to be isolated, they can have a chilling effect on press freedom. Journalists should not have to fear physical attack just for reporting the news.
Of course, journalists also have a professional responsibility to report the facts fairly and accurately. And to remain independent and neutral in their reporting, upholding the highest standards for reporting and ethics. A free press must shoulder serious responsibilities in order to merit trust and confidence.
Ghana’s constitution specifically allows for the National Media Commission to address and resolve complaints against the media. Vigilante acts – like invading a TV studio or attacking a reporter because you disagree with her reporting – simply are not the way to go about registering discontent with reporting that is seen as unflattering or unfair.
Ghana must fiercely protect its hard-won press freedom and avoid legal encroachment on journalists’ rights. Parliament is right now considering a bill that would prohibit journalists from reporting on a minority group in the future.
It is of course up to Ghanaians and their elected government to make decisions about what laws to pass. But as friends we also believe it is important for us to share our perspective on matters of mutual interest. Read the draft bill. Report on it. It should matter to you that the bill could stop you from reporting about this group in the future. But in the midst of emotional debate about the bill, the potential threats to press freedom – your freedom – do not seem to be well-understood. It is your job to report on these aspects to help people understand the dangerous precedent posed by such a bill.
Even with some setbacks, Ghana has also made significant strides in supporting journalists. The Right to Information law, passed in 2019, is paying dividends. Investigative journalists and even community members are using the RTI to seek information and hold government and local officials accountable. That’s exactly how democracy should work. Information is power. And access to knowledge and information must be as streamlined as possible.
That’s where you all come in: making the essential connection between important information and the public. Helping the public understand important policy issues; reporting on corruption, abuse, and human rights violations. It’s with this type of reporting that governments – including my own – can respond and improve. Governments, including mine, make mistakes. A free and vibrant press helps us identify those mistakes and correct them. One of the best ways to quote/unquote “keep them honest” is to make them answer difficult questions, questions journalists like you – and the awardees tonight – ask every day.
And it’s that type of accountability that allows democracies to flex and thrive, allowing the government to be responsive to gaps in public services. When democracies address those needs, they close the gaps that enemies of democracy have used across the region to sew doubt and discord.
Your theme tonight “Leveraging Media Freedom to Sustain Democracy and Security Architecture” is apt considering the fact that Ghana will go to the polls in 2024. Your role is never more essential than when the country goes to vote. Ghana is already in full campaign season. Your role is to report the facts as best you understand them, to ask tough questions, and get the answers Ghanaians need to cast their votes based on the best information available. You are also critical to providing citizens with actionable information on how to register to vote, where to vote, when to vote, and how to analyze the issues to help voters identify their preferred candidate.
The United States is a steadfast supporter of press freedom. This year, the U.S. Embassy along with media support organizations, will provide a variety of training and professional development opportunities for working journalists, focused on independent, accurate, and ethical journalistic standards.
In just a few weeks, alongside GJA, we’ll help launch a nationwide program for journalist training related to next year’s elections. Then, with Media Foundation for West Africa, we’ll support training for 100 journalists in northern Ghana focused on peace, security, and conflict resolution. With Dubawa, we’ll once again support fact-check training for rural journalists in various regions of Ghana. And later this month, with the Dikan Center here in Accra, we’ll welcome renowned photographer Pete Souza for a workshop with some of Ghana’s most talented photojournalists.
What’s obvious tonight is that there is a great deal of excellent journalism taking place in Ghana. And a great deal of support for press freedom.
As we celebrate the achievements of those being honored tonight, let us also remember that the work is far from over. Democracy is not a one-time achievement; it must be protected and nurtured every day. Just like press freedom must be. Let us commit ourselves to the continued growth of an informed, engaged, and secure society in which transparency and accountability flourish.
In closing, let me extend my thanks to GJA for this event, my warm congratulations to all awardees, and my deepest gratitude to all that stand for media freedom and democracy.