Ghana’s media need to up their game in covering the presidential election court case

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Ghana, touted for its democracy and peaceful transfer of power since 1992, faced its first presidential election dispute in 2012. This was the sixth election of the country’s fourth republic.

Six months prior to the elections, the sitting president, John Evans Atta Mills, passed away and the vice-president, John Mahama, was sworn in as president.

When the Electoral Commission declared the incumbent the winner of the presidential poll, the outcome was disputed by Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, presidential candidate of the leading opposition party, the New Patriotic Party. He petitioned the Supreme Court to annul some 3,000,000 votes.

The Election Petition Case, as it was called, was heard publicly. In August 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the president had been validly elected and dismissed the petition.

Ghanaians went to the polls again in December 2020. Akufo-Addo was re-elected in the first round after securing a majority of the votes. But Mahama contested the outcome and has petitioned the Supreme Court.

Presidential election petitions are important because they trigger all three arms of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. They provide an opportunity for citizens to understand the political and legal issues at play and affirm the strength of national institutions.

Given the significance of these petitions, the media’s role in portraying them matters a great deal. But how have the media covered presidential election petitions and what should we expect in media coverage? My research into how the Ghanaian media framed the 2012 election petition provides some insights.

It was expected that the media would explain the constitutional and electoral issues at stake and why they mattered, to help Ghanaians understand and participate in the democratic process. But I found that the media did a poor job by covering the election petition like any other political campaign. They failed to explain all substantial aspects of the case and depended mainly on partisan sources to the detriment of other legal voices.

I suggest that the media in Ghana and by extension other developing countries need to educate citizens about these judicial processes, issues and implications for the voter. Journalists need to include sources who can clearly explain the judicial and constitutional issues at play.

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