( A GNA feature by: Mohammed Nurudeen Issahaq)
Accra, Jan. 26, GNA – Without a shred of doubt the emergence of the Internet, the digital revolution, the proliferation of new forms of media and the rise of online social networks have reshaped the media landscape both locally and globally. So, are national news agencies such as the Ghana News Agency (GNA) still relevant in a world ruled by the Internet? With the option to simply go on to the net and access whatever news or information one may require, do subscribers and readers still need news agency files? This specific question would be addressed in here later, but for now a general look at the issues at stake.
Historically, state-owned news agencies in Africa were established around the independence era and were seen to be playing an important role in nation building, as well as galvanizing citizen support for the ruling government. The national news agency was well catered for then, and was accorded due consideration in the allocation of resources. Today, however, the story is not exactly the same. Throughout Africa, national news agencies appear to have lost the support of their respective governments; they are now given the kind of treatment one would give an analogue gadget on the acquisition of a digital version, and are apparently being regarded more as liabilities than national assets.
As if that is not enough, the wider society whose interest the news agencies have relentlessly championed over the decades neither seems to know nor appreciate the effort.
National news agencies are relatively unknown to the majority of the people, and their problems do not attract the same intensity of attention as the problems of the audio-visual media. In deed, even among the relatively enlightened segment of society, a vast majority are yet to comprehend the relevance/workings of the news agency. There was this interesting incident when a man in a heated argument with a journalist from the Ghana News Agency, burst out sarcastically: “You say you are from GNA. You GNA people, where is your Graphic?” What the man actually meant was that the GNA had no publication of any sort, so it had no place on the list of media houses that mattered in the country.
That angry man is not alone as far as this perception is concerned. Once in a while you come across senior public servants, including Members of Parliament and Ministers of State (no offence intended) who display the same lack of understanding about the operations/importance of the nation’s Number-One wire service – which is quite understandable. Almost all national news agencies in Africa do not provide television coverage, yet television is the one thing to which most people are exposed in the contemporary era. The appeal of television cuts across the entire society, making it the most preferred medium by all – farmers, doctors, marketwomen, students and, above all, politicians to mention but a few. There have been occasions when public functions have been put on hold because the television crew invited to cover the event has not arrived on time. To most politicians, especially, the television holds the key to fame.
The plight of news agencies anywhere on the African continent today is identical and unenviable. In times gone-by the national news agency was ranked alongside the national flag, the national anthem and the national airline in terms of importance. They were the hub for well trained professional staff, about three-quarters of whom have had to leave subsequently mainly because of poor conditions of service. The wages they offer have tended to be considerably lower compared to those given by private newspapers or other independent media organizations that pay more respectable wages.
The subventions most national news agencies receive monthly are barely enough to keep them operating efficiently. There was an occasions when all printing works in a particular news agency had to come to a standstill for several weeks simply because the printers had run out of toner and the office could not afford to purchase any. Even the most ignorant appreciates the importance of mobility in the news-gathering effort yet in another shocking instance, one of the few operational vehicles of a national news agency had to be parked for a whole month for no other reason than the lack of a battery whose cost did not exceed 250 Ghana Cedis.
Technologically, most of Africa’s national news agencies lack the resources to buy up-to-date equipment, or to maintain and upgrade what they have. Telecommunication links are slow and unreliable, and in many instances clients have difficulty in establishing connectivity or gaining access to news agency material.
Also, there is virtually no budget for providing in-house training for news agency staff, and in the specific case of the GNA, opportunities offered by other organisations such as UNESCO and Friedrich Ebert Foundation for training their personnel sometime ago were quite beneficial. In recent times, however, even those cherished opportunities extended by international organizations have become few and far between. The last time the GNA held a training/refresher workshop for reporters was in 2005. Simply put, the plight of the national news agency in the majority of African countries today can be likened to that of the proverbial orphan, with very little thought about its existence.
Diversification is one avenue by which national news agencies could gain a new lease of life. Reuters news agency provides a shiny example in this regard, with less than five per cent of its revenue accruing from the sale of general news to traditional news media. Most of the rest come from its specialized services. To achieve this, however, news agencies have to become more professional which, in turn, requires substantial investments in building the capacity of staff and in the acquisition of more efficient technology. The issue of diversification is essentially linked to professionalism as there is a critical need for more training in specialized fields.
Another point worth considering is that of effective collaboration and cooperation among news agencies in areas that could provide the potential to generate revenue for the benefit of all partners. Initiatives such as the WANAD (West African News Agency Development) and CEANAD (Central and East Africa News Agency Development) projects could be well positioned for such collaboration if they would become more proactive and well focused, particularly on the issue of finding solutions to the problems that threaten the existence of national news agencies in their various sub-regions. The example presented by Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) which emerged from a strategic merger between the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) and the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) is another case worthy of mention.
It is useful to recognize that commercial activities can be of benefit by helping agencies to achieve greater financial and possibly editorial independence, and helping them compete against private media organisations. However, commercial activities should not in any way impede the basic mission of news agencies, which is to report on and to distribute news about the nation as a whole, for the benefit of local and international news consumers.
More importantly, government funding should be both adequate and continuous, to ensure that that basic mission of a national news agency is fulfilled. Inadequate financing destroys the usefulness of the news product, and undermines the credibility of both the news agency and the government whose responsibility it is, in these circumstances, to support it. Obviously, therefore, financial autonomy of news agencies stands to benefit governments by relieving them of a huge responsibility.
Many news agencies have been constitutionally or legally inhibited from venturing into commercial services. Such impediments need to be reviewed and if possible removed, provided that national news agencies continue to perform public service functions in the interests of the nation and the nation’s media. In 1999, under the Public Sector Management Reform Programme (PSMRP) initiated by the ruling Government then, there were plans to re-tool and re-capitalise the GNA to enable it to stand on its feet, after which the Government would take it off the dole. The idea, laudable as it was, has since died away.
The danger of relegating or sidelining national news agencies has become greater now more than ever before, considering the growing economic challenges facing governments across Africa and the world. It is high time, therefore, that an advocacy campaign was waged to draw society’s attention to this threat of extinction and to persuade influential persons, countries and governments that are in the process of abandoning their national news agencies to appreciate the fact that contrary to any misconceptions out there, the agencies do have an important role to play. Regular meetings could be arranged in each country between important stakeholders including media experts, civil society and politicians, at which the importance of saving the national news agency from extinction would be articulated. Significantly, the National Media Commission and its counterparts across Africa which are the constitutional bodies mandated to ensure social responsibility and high professional standards in the media, also ought to get involved in the advocacy.
The essential point of emphasis here should be that there is no substitute for a national news agency, and that retail news media are hardly substitutes for national news agencies acting in the national interest. They can and do provide important functions that benefit governments, nations, organisations and the citizenry – functions that are not easily substitutable by other institutions. Invariably, commercial media tend to give more consideration to the profit aspect of the news business than pursing the concerns of rural or marginalised populations; yet for many decades to come the majority of Africans will continue to be rural dwellers. Besides, national news agencies are ever so important in providing a full and balanced picture of their respective countries to clients both locally and overseas.
Now, back to the question raised at the beginning of this write-up. The Internet is indeed a great device but it does not generate information automatically. Consider an important newsworthy event such as the submerging of people’s houses and farmlands due to heavy floods that occurred in 2007 at Yikpabongu and other villages in the “Overseas” area of West Mamprusi District in the Northern Region. How would news about that catastrophe get posted on the Internet except for the GNA reporter or stringer on the ground there who forwards the story to the Regional Office in Tamale, from where it is transmitted to headquarters in Accra! Only then would other media networks including GhanaWeb be able to have access to that particular news story. So, take the News Agency file out of the equation and there would be very little or nothing at all left of the Internet as far as local news is concerned.
The scenario in the Internet versus News Agency question presents pretty much the same kind of argument over supremacy between the lake and the rain god in a native folklore. To resolve the issue, the rain god eventually decides to demonstrate his might by withholding rainfall for a number of months, resulting in the lake’s near extinction – and compelling it to render a quick apology.