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Opinions of Sunday, 14 August 2011

Columnist: Abubakar, Shuk

Bribe-taking journalists, media sakawa and dangerous ideas

So much had been made about the increase in ‘SAKAWA’ among Ghanaians- for those still innocent, the term ‘SAKAWA’ is the new 419 internet scam for the technology savvy generation. However, another form of ‘SAKAWA’ is being perpetrated on Ghanaians by the very institution supposed to bring accountability and probity in their society. That institution is the media.
The ‘Bribing Journalist’ affair has brought back to mind the hoariest of clichés that, it is the politicians who have scandals, while for the media the problem is free press and libel law.

What has happened with the accusations and counter accusations about the government bribing journalist to influence what they write, supposedly is the exception to this rule: a bribery scandal involving journalists and politicians – except of course, in this case it is not just wrong – it is also a moral crime.

I have always thought the politician-media dichotomy to be hokum of the highest order. The basis of the idea is that while the Politicians are prudish and repressed about scandals such as corruption and bribery, the Media are triumphantly open to it.

Therefore it would be impossible to conceive of a media bribery scandal, because everyone would find it shocking if prominent journalists and media organisation were engaged in bribery affairs with politicians to influence what they write. It would just be an abnormal behaviour. But I think this view of the Ghanaian media is wrong.

It is the same lazy stereotyping that perpetuates the notion that our journalists are mostly free and objective. They have no hang-ups about bribery, so they cut to the chase and write the fact with all the fiery passion of their western counterparts.

The difference between the Politician and the Media is not freedom and justice, it is politics and power.

Of course it suits everyone to keep this nonsense going.

Too many journalists report official narratives of the powerful, missing the stories of working class voters.

A vast literature exists on the impossibility of journalism in its classic, liberal sense with all the familiar tropes on objectivity, neutrality, and “transmitting reality”. However, and perhaps out of a lack of an alternative source of legitimating, the mainstream media outlets in Ghana continue to grasp to these notions with ever more insistence.
The recent ‘Bribing Journalist Scandal’ is an exceptionally suitable place for the Ghanaian media to learn about itself and its future, because it is the scene where all pretentions of objectivity, neutrality towards power, and critical engagement have faltered spectacularly.

Too often, we the consumers of Ghanaian media are victims of a fraud. You think you can trust the articles and news you read from the likes of Kweku Baako and the Kwesi Pratts – why wouldn’t you? You think you can shift through the political and ideological bias and just get to the facts yourself. But you don’t know the ingredients that go into the news or should I say political propaganda you are reading.

It is important to understand how the reports about political current events in Ghana are produced before relying on it. Even when there are apparent political biases, such as those ones we often see when it comes to reporting about the NDC or the NPP, there are fundamental problems at the epistemological and methodological level. These create distortions, falsehoods and justify the narrative of those writing it.

‘Types of Media’

Two main types of Media interest are tasked with explaining the “other” to politically dominate. Firstly, there are what philosophers such as the French intellectual and scholar Francois Burgat describe as the “negative intellectual” who aligns his beliefs and priorities with those of the state, and centres his perspective on serving the interests of power and gaining proximity to it.
And secondly, there is what Burgat term as “the facade intellectual”, whose role in society is to confirm and deceive readers with their already-held notions, beliefs, preconceptions, and tribalism regarding the “other”. Most Journalists writing for the mainstream TV, FM stations, newspapers, as well as their online interlocutors, often fall into both categories.

Ghanaian newspapers and websites in general thrive on clichés about our political elite, so they happily churn out the pathetic surveys about how more Ghanaians are enjoying/suffering under governing party than under the opposition party, or how the hotels in Accra are block-booked by middle-aged Government officials and civil servants taking two hours off in the afternoon to cheat on their wives.

And if you are a newsreader – well, if the Media persists in writing about how our politicians are mostly wife cheaters, or that a particular political party is failing, can we blame you for going along with the lie?

‘Pernicious lie’

I think the latest fallacy surrounding the Bribing of Journalist affairs have shown that our Journalist and what they write is not about the truth, it is politics and power.
Let us imagine a powerful, charismatic and confrontational presidential candidate, the lode-star of his party, an intellect, a fighter, a wit – but a man also with large financial holdings in some Media outlets.

Let us imagine that in the course of his career, he becomes known as someone who uses both his family political position and his investments in some newspapers to publish what he wants voters to hear.

So this man hired political mercenaries, packaged them as journalists and embed them to his party to publish any allegation no matter ridiculous or damaging to the ‘other’.

What happens in free society is that, the man is exposed by the press. Intrusive, tabloid, exploitative they may be – but an objective media will find out the secrets, report them, and the man is forced to change or quit politics.
But what happens in Ghana? In Ghana, the politician’s aggressive and deceitful antics are ignored by the press as a sign of our matured democracy.

Framing the ‘other’

Journalists are the archetype of political tools that create culture of fairness and produce knowledge for the society. Their function is to represent no class and perpetuate a balance political view. Instead of being the voice of the people or the misinformed working class, our journalists are too often the functional tools for a bourgeois political class.

They produce and disseminate unconfirmed allegations as fact for their loyal innocent readers and reproduce its values, allowing it to hegemonies the political field for their selfish needs and since journalism today has a specific political economy, they are all products of the hegemonic discourse and the political class.

Even journalists with pretentions of being seriously objective usually only serve a certain political party and ignore social movements. Classic examples of such journalist are Kwesi Pratt, Kweku Baako, Alhaji Bature, etc. Their style of Journalism tends to be political party centric, focusing on elections, Government institutions, formal politics and overlooking politics of contention, informal politics, and social movements.

Those with reputations as brave investigative reporters who hop around Government institutions, parachuting into corrupt practices from Customs corruption to Police corruption, typically only confirm what most Ghanaian already knows about. Journalism in the Ghana is too often a false act of representation. Political aligned journalists in Ghana take reality and amputate it, contort it, and fit it into a predetermined discourse or taxonomy.

‘The Infamous Bribery Allegation and Mystery Tape’

All this brings me back to the ‘Infamous Bribery Allegation And Mystery Tape’. The NPP In the words of Nana Akomea, the NPP Director of Communications when he addressed the press on Thursday August 4, 2011, said “Ladies and gentlemen, we have invited you here to bring to your attention the gross abuse of power, corruption, and blatant misuse of public money (NYEP) by the NDC government to buy journalists, starting in the Upper East Region.

The aim of this disgraceful corruption and diversion of NYEP funds is so as to get the targeted journalists to slant their reports and stories to favour the NDC government and thus deprive Ghanaians the benefit of fair and accurate reporting from even the state/public media. For whom or which organization will this bribery target next time? The Electoral Commission or the Ghana Police Service?”

Unsurprisingly, the Media gave their full voice to this allegation which from the onset was without substance. For if the NPP had a tape why not release the tape instead of a long carefully drafted statement full of political ‘junk’.

‘Political Treachery’

The answer simply lies in the dark political art of treachery. This involves using the Media to orchestrate falsehood to the masses and by the time the victim of these false allegation(s) recover to prepare respond, or prove the allegation to be a lie and a pernicious lie at that, most of those who read and believe the original allegation have since gone and may not read the rebuttal story.

And then there is the saga of ‘Atta Mills 90 billion Campaign Fund’. A press release issued from the campaign office of the NPP and signed by their ‘deceiver’ in chief: Nana Akomeah, Director of Communications of the party, said public information doing the rounds that the President has been handed a campaign budget of GH¢90 million, well in excess of $60m, to blow in getting the party President re-elected, was a show of opulence and profligacy.

“The NPP shares in the disgust of many Ghanaians at the show of opulence, profligacy, disregard for public order and time that occasioned President Mills picking up forms last Thursday, the 5th of May, 2011,” the statement claimed.
What was missing from this uncorroborated allegation was the lack of any credible evidence to support this statement. However, most Media outlet still made it their front news headline. Why would any credible political party worth supporting issue statement about what that statement acknowledged to be ‘public information doing the rounds’? And why any credible Media should report on these so called ‘Press release’ beat logic.

‘Brave Journalism’

There are many brave and dedicated journalists working in Ghana whose work deserves attention and praise. To this end, I salute sincerely the like of Anas Armiyaw Anas, George Sydney Abugri and several dedicated and objective journalist for their tenacity in pursuit of truth.

Too often their independent voices are drowned out by the mass of journalists who justify power instead of opposing it. I am not a journalist because I am not objective enough to be a credible one. The job of a journalist should not be about speaking truth to power. Those in power know the truth, they just don’t care. It’s about speaking truth to the people, to those not in power in order to empower them.

It is a role that most our journalists have completely failed to live up to.

Author: Shuk Abubakar
(Student of Educational Planning)

Institute of Education, University of London

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