ISSN: 1570-016X

Volume 4, Issue 1 (18 November 2005)

Book review


Jennifer Hasty. The press and political culture in Ghana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2005. xiii, 189 pp., 14 b&w photos, bibliography, index. Paperback, $ 22.95 ISBN 0-253-21748-2. Cloth, $ 55.00 ISBN 0-253-34524-3

Reviewed by

Marleen de Witte

Amsterdam School for Social Science Research


Amsterdam School for Social Science Research
Kloveniersburgwal 48
1012 CX Amsterdam
The Netherlands

© Marleen de Witte



During the past decade anthropologists have discovered media as a new terrain of inquiry, with fruitful results. Surprisingly, however, amidst the rising anthropological interest in film, video, television, radio, audio tapes, Internet, posters and advertisement, there has been a remarkable lack of attention to the press. Would technological and visual media lend themselves more easily to anthropological methodologies or theorizing than does the written press? In The press and political culture in Ghana Jennifer Hasty (Pacific Lutheran University) shows that this can certainly not be the explanation. This book is an excellent example of stimulating, ethnographically and historically grounded anthropological analysis of journalistic practice. Drawing on her personal experiences as a working journalist for both state-owned and private Ghanaian newspapers, interviews with journalists and close reading of news texts, Hasty presents an enlightening account of the everyday practices of journalism and newsmaking at the nexus of global discourses, national imaginaries and local cultural dispositions. She does so without taking any of these for granted or lapsing into all too easy binaries. Focussing on the three levels of rhetoric, text, and practice, she decodes the styles, uncovers the strategies and maps out the contradictions that characterise Ghanaian journalists’ professional lives. Presented as two case studies of the state-owned press (part 1) and the private press (part 2) respectively, the material shows how much both differ with respect to political angle and ways of gathering news, organising stories, using sources and manipulating networks, but are also highly intertwined and deeply inscribed into common historicized cultural understandings of political authority and resistance, legitimacy, sociality, and discursive propriety.

The historical period this book describes, the late Rawlings period of 1995-2002, has been crucial for the development of the media and civil society in Ghana. After ten years of military rule, Rawlings was elected president in the democratic elections of 1992 (and re-elected in 1996). What followed was a period of democratic renewal and consolidation, including a gradual liberalisation of the media and a remarkable recovery of the private press after a long period of state control and suppression. Amidst these rapid and profound transformations, both state-owned and private newspapers and their journalists had to carve out new niches and create new roles for themselves. While the state press engaged in charismatic and populist portrayal of Rawlings and state officials, the private press countered this bias with investigative stories aimed at exposing corruption, violence, drug abuse, and irrationality, resulting in a strong division of Ghanaian news discourse and practice into two distinctive and oppositional genres. Situated at the interstices of politics and popular culture, the combined discourses of state and private newspapers constitute a dialogic and hotly contested public sphere, that, Hasty argues, is crucial to the cohesion of the nation-state in Ghana’s new democratic era.

The first three chapters deal with respectively rhetoric, text and practice of the state press, constituted by two state-owned newspapers, the Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times, the Ghana News Agency, and institutes such as the Ghana Institute of Journalism. Chapter 1 shows that the public rhetoric of state journalism, grounded in the globalized discourse of ‘national interest’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘public responsibility’, obscures the fact that state journalists are historically summoned into the hegemonic project of the state and structurally positioned to reproduce its daily ceremonies of consensus and legitimacy. The state bias of the Graphic is reflected in its “house style” (chapter 2). Through textual conventions such as “who-leads” (quoting the public comments of authoritative personalities), chain-quoting in descending order of authority, and “Big English”, the paper participates in the daily construction of the state as a legitimate, benevolent, and unified authority in control of national affairs. Big English is a postcolonial linguistic strategy, capitalizing on the symbolic power of the former colonizer’s language, while simultaneously drawing on indigenous authoritative oratory. Hasty convincingly compares the role of state journalists to that of the okyeame (often translated as “linguist”) in Akan court culture, who’s public oratory embellishes the chief’s speech with proverbs, metaphors, traditional wisdom, and baroque qualities, so as to establish his authority and situate his judgements into historical precedent and popular consensus (Yankah 1995). Similarly, the Graphic’s linguistic strategies not only structure the news around the speech of authoritative figures, but also position the paper itself in an interpretive role between such authorities and the national public.

As textual practices tie into cultural notions of discursive propriety, so is the journalistic practice of invited assignments to state functions (chapter 3) strongly shaped by the cultural frame of formal invited visits. The superiority of host over guest is reinforced by a code of conduct emphasising respect and deference on the part of visiting journalists, and by the provision of refreshment (“item 13”) and cash (“soli”, short for "solidarity") by the hosting state official to his privileged guests. Such practices of invitation and prestation, but also state surveillance of journalists’ lives and informal meetings, forge informal relationships of intimacy between state journalists and state officials, relationships of mutual need, obligation, trust and secrecy. While democratic reforms have thus done away with overt censorship and control of newsmaking, state officials and journalists play a subtle game of interdependence and complicity in a strategically structured field that has changed very little, but is naturalized as professional media practice.

The private press (part 2) mobilizes a very different set of textual and professional strategies against the discursive regimes of state news. Leaning heavily upon the international discourse of human rights and free speech, the private press constructs itself as a ‘crusading watchdog’ against authoritarian oppression, and thus as essential to democracy. In a dialogical relationship with the state information apparatus, private newspapers aim at exposing corruption and inefficiency of the state. But systematic exclusion from state sources and assignments and lack of access to wire services forces private journalists into alternative news strategies, including drawing upon anonymous sources and popular rumour, situating the private press at the boundaries of political and popular culture. Despite public rhetoric of professional neutrality, commercial, historical and cultural factors together continually reinforce the oppositionality of the private press and its journalists have more to gain from personal and political alliances. Practices such as undercover schemes, impersonation, subtle inducements, including ‘appreciative gifts’, and informal socializing forge social and material bonds between journalists and (anonymous) sources aimed at compelling obligation and fidelity.

The dominant genre of the private press is the corruption scandal. Although a global genre of commercial journalism, it is grounded in local political, historical, and cultural circumstances. Stories of corruption within Rawlings’ cabinet are a direct response to the charismatic constructions of the president in the state press. As the latter functions as an okyeame for the state, private journalists’ practices of news gathering and textual construction are informed by historicized cultural notions of the role of ‘young men’ (asafo in Fanti, nkwankwaa in Akan) in precolonial and colonial politics in Southern Ghana. An outlet for popular dissatisfaction, these ‘young men’ formed an essential part of the checks and balances upon the authority of a chief. Likewise, the (predominantly young and male) journalists of the private press campaign against corrupt and illegitimate state authority. Yet, at the same time, through strategic collusion with the state, as in undercover investigations or the exchange of money for tips and leaks, journalists, in their efforts of accumulation, poach on state power and straddle the boundaries that divide the state from popular opposition and public from private realms. This appropriation of strategies common to the African political elite (Bayart 1993) questions the often celebrated role of “civil society” as a purely liberating force in the establishment of democracy. The private press, then, does not challenge the political centrality of bigmen as such, but rather reinforces this by exposing their political illegitimacy as part of a project of replacing them with other, legitimate bigmen.

One of the key concerns of the book is the dynamic process of appropriation, contradiction, and dialectical negotiation of global and local forces in the realm of journalistic production. Describing the contradictions between (globalizing) discourses and (localizing) practices, or the fact that journalists say one thing and do quite another, it would be easy to accuse them of lack of professionalism, hypocrisy, or corruption. Hasty can be commended for avoiding the pitfall of taking normative notions of ‘civil society’, ‘democracy’, or even ‘modernity’ as universal blueprints by which local practices are judged as ‘not yet there’, or at best described as ‘cultural alternatives.’ Instead, she seeks to demonstrate how both state and private journalists actively and strategically produce argumentative distinctions between universal ideals and local realities and argues that the ‘difference’ or ‘cultural particularity’ of Ghanaian journalism does not signify a lack or failure to achieve global ideals, but a resistant and self-defining engagement of the local with the global that continually reconstructs both. This emphasis on the subjective intricacies of democratization is laudable in response to so much normative and often essentializing discourse on civil society in Africa, both in academic circles (political science, media studies) and in the field of NGO’s and development policy.

Another most interesting theme is the relationship between language and the imagination of the state in Africa, between discursive style and political culture. For Hasty, discursive style is not only a matter of textual representation, but of practical participation in larger cultural styles of political authority and oppositionality. A focus on the practices that manipulate the boundaries between public and private and constitute the state (and the wider political field) as a site of sociality and intimacy is much more fruitful than an approach of political language and discourse from above.

In connection to this, we could take a closer look at the relationship between written text and oral speech. Hasty makes clear that these, like official and popular political culture, cannot be divided into different genres, but are entangled and deeply informed by each other. In this respect it would be interesting to pay more attention to intermediality, especially to the interconnections between newspapers and radio, in particular phone-in and newspaper review programmes. Similar discursive practices of authority and resistance can be observed with the rapid developments in FM radio in Ghana. It is especially the popular phone-in programmes on the numerous private FM stations, where listeners call in to share their opinions, experiences, or questions live on air with the programme host, studio guests and other listeners, that make news and political commentary a truly participatory practice, giving popular speech a public forum, while at the same time providing the private press with an inexhaustible source of rumour and allegations. While many celebrate this trend in the name of democracy and freedom of expression, others criticise the new freedom and especially phone-ins for allowing or even inviting people to say just about anything on the airwaves, using foul language and insulting certain groups or individuals, especially figures of authority. The speech practices that came with phone-in programmes violated earlier conventions of ‘civilised’ radio speech and generated hot debates about what can and cannot be said in the name of freedom of expression and what modes of speech are and are not appropriate for broadcasting. During the 2004 elections officials even called for ‘a moratorium on phone-ins’ to ‘prevent phone-in callers from inciting others to disrupt the democratic order.’ While Hasty’s lack of attention to radio may be due to the period of her major field research (1996), when private radio was still in its infancy, at present news discourse in Ghana and the blurring boundaries between popular, civic and political culture can hardly be understood without taking into account the role of FM radio.

Another challenge lies in the relationship between text and design (see Stolow 2005). To overcome facile oppositions between form and content, or medium and message, we should take seriously the visuality and materiality of newspapers as a whole. Although the book includes several images of front pages of various newspapers, analysis remains limited to written texts; there is hardly any analysis of the visual aspects of the press. The work of press-photographers and the use of photographs with news stories, the publication of advertisements, obituaries, and cartoons, but also stylistic features such as page layout, typeface, and general design, are all integral to the press’s mode of public address. Design, layout, and material quality cannot be disregarded as mere outward form, but should be analysed as part and parcel of a newspaper’s discursive strategies, authenticating and authorizing textual content and substantiating discursive claims to ‘professionalism’, ‘responsibility’ or ‘revelation’.

I see these gaps not as shortcomings, but rather as stimulating further research and theorizing. With her book, Jennifer Hasty has made an important contribution to both the anthropology of mass media and discussions of civil society in Africa. Written from an insider’s perspective with visible literary skills, humour, and though-provoking reflection, it makes fascinating reading for all those interested in media practice, linguistic and discursive strategies, and political and civic culture in Africa.


Bayart, Jean-Francois. (1993). The state in Africa: the politics of the belly. London: Longman.
Stolow, Jeremy. (2005). Communicating Authority, Consuming Tradition: Jewish Orthodox Outreach Literature and its Reading Public. In: Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors (eds.), Religion, Media and the Public Sphere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Yankah, Kwesi. (1995). Speaking for the chief: Okyeame and the politics of Akan royal oratory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

About the reviewer:

Marleen de Witte is a Ph.D. student in the NWO-PIONIER project Modern Mass Media, Religion and the Imagination of Communities. She obtained her MA degree in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam in 2000 with a research on funerals in Ghana. Her current research project Sound, Image, and Charisma: Mediating Spiritual Power in Ghana deals with public manifestations of religion in Ghana’s new mediascape and the relation between modern mass media and religious practice. It compares the media activities of a charismatic-Pentecostal church and a neo-traditionalist religious movement. She has published Long Live the Dead! Changing funeral celebrations in Asante, Ghana (Aksant, 2001) and articles in Journal of Religion in Africa, Africa, Etnofoor, and Material Religion.

© Marleen de Witte

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