A Ghanaian presidential candidate has complained that the media should not be speculating about his health.  But what are the rights and wrongs of reporting on the health status of politicians?  Amos Safo considers the issue in The Public Agenda, Accra.

Amos Safo writes in The Public Agenda, Accra:

On Tuesday, the Office of Professor John Evans Atta Mills protested against what it described as fabrications and false publications on the health status of Professor Mills in 'The Moon' and 'The New Punch' newspapers.

The Office in a letter addressed to the Executive Secretary of National Media Commission (NMC) complained about "unethical reportage by 'The Moon' and 'The New Punch'.

The letter said for sometime now certain Media Houses have made it their stock-in-trade to be publishing outright falsehood with regard to the health status of the NDC Flagbearer for the 2008 election 2008, Prof John Evans Atta Mills.

The letter made particular reference to the Monday, October 1, 2007, edition of 'The Moon' and Tuesday, October 02, 2007, edition of 'The New Punch'.

It said the stories headlined "Mills' Doctor Angry as Mills Ignores His Instructions", by 'The Moon' and "Mills is Dying Slowly" by 'The New Punch' were outright fabrications.

"We are aware that the Ghana Journalists Association's Code of Ethics frowns upon such unethical conduct, and bring this unacceptable practice by the above-named Media Houses to your attention and asked the Media Commission use its powers to get 'The Moon', 'The New Punch', and other Media Houses that are debasing the journalism profession with regard to publishing and disseminating falsehood about the health status of John Evans Atta Mills, to put an end to their unethical brand of journalism.

"We hope that Article 167 (b) of the Constitution would guide the NMC as it looks into this matter of unethical practice by some Media Houses."

The Article asked the NMC "to take all appropriate measures to ensure the establishment and maintenance of the highest journalistic standards in the mass media, including investigation, mediation and settlement of complaints made against or by the press or other mass media."

The first question that comes to mind after reading Prof. Mills' complaint is, whether the newspapers were right to speculate on the health of the NDC's presidential candidate. I call it speculation because the two reports could not authoritatively name any source as saying that Prof. Mills' health had deteriorated to the level the reports wanted Ghanaians to believe.

Of course since profit is the bottom of newspaper publication in Ghana and since readers continue to demand such news, speculation will continue to be part of our brand of journalism.

In fact, there is nothing wrong with speculative journalism, since many times speculative journalists get it right. The only problem with this kind of journalism is that it is when the reporter thinks he/she has gotten it right that he/she is proved wrong.

Prof Mills' complaint made all the headlines and won for him sympathy even from journalists who are natural opponents of him and his political party. But as one commentator on the issue put it, has Mills bothered to find out the kind of unethical journalism his party newspapers that eulogise him indulge in?

The content of Prof. Mills' complaint centers on the much-maligned issue of the ethics of journalism. He complained specifically about the incessant reference to his health by specific newspapers.

The last time it was about his inability to carter for his only son he had outside the matrimonial home due to pressure from his wife. This time it is his health. Is Mills right in asking that the media should not report on his health, even when he is seeking to become the president of Ghana? I don't have the ready answer, but to the extent that his potential health problems could be a blow to his ambitions to become the president of Ghana makes any speculation about his health a dicey one. If he was the president everyone would be interested in his health. All said, agenda-setting is the preserve of any editor depending on the paper's orientation or mission.

Journalistic codes and principles across the world demand of the journalist respect for truth, care and reliable information for the public by checking news sources and corrections of wrong news. Michael Kunczik argues in (Concepts of Journalism, p 68) that though at present no international consensus on ethics of journalism are discernible the need for such an ethic is undisputed. Yes, we do have them on paper, but obeying them is another thing. For instance, the American Society of Newspaper Editors in trying to imprint ethics on the minds of their editors noted that "The primary function of newspapers is communicate to the human race what its members do, feel and think.

Therefore journalism demands of its practitioners the widest range of intelligence, of knowledge and of experience as well as natural and trained powers of observation and reasoning." They went ahead to outline nine standards, the first of which says "Respect for the truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist."

As George Orwell said in his 1946 essay (The Prevention of Literature) "the controversy over freedom of speech and the press is at the bottom of the controversy over the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies.

What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully or as truthfully as is consistent with ignorance, bias and self deception from which every observer naturally suffers."

Orwell it was said understood more than any one that governments and other powerful institutions and pressure groups and parties would continue to put impediments in the way of journalists from accessing information. Will Mills' have confirmed the story if the journalists or editors had contacted him? Did they contact him?

The challenge for all of us is to go beyond self interests and create a sphere of public information on which citizens could depend. The delay of the Freedom of Information Act will continue to haunt us. See you next week.