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Opinions of Thursday, 1 December 2005

Columnist: Opare-Addo, Kofi Opare

Journalism and Politics in Ghana, A fatal mix for our democracy

In the space of only a week, two key media figures (Prof Mark Duodu and Dr Bona Koomson) anguished publicly over a dark swath of mediocrity threatening to choke the life out of journalism in Ghana. Are these men just some paranoid pair who woke up one day to read one bad piece of journalism or has the twin problems of poor quality and unfair news reporting been so grave that they genuinely feel ashamed? Well, as a craftsman of the trade myself I have long wondered whether our wares have not lost some freshness and relevance a long time before these two fine gentlemen found the voice and time to ?say something.

Whiles Mark Duodu?s wrote longingly about his hope of journalism and journalists not cozying up to politicians, Bona Koomson had difficulty figuring out why the GJA does not have a policy of (in his words) naming and shaming erring journalists. Good luck!! guys, because my guess is the fight has been lost already. It used to be that journalists truly regarded themselves as social referees whose only job was to call the play when they see a bad move and not necessarily what side of the field the one committing the foul was playing. Even though we are lucky to have men like Kwaku Sakyi ADDO alive to deliver award-winning fair-minded news reporting, they are outnumbered 20 to 1 on a daily basis by men and women who confuse advocacy and activism for news and analysis. And God help you if, like me, you depend on online radio for commentary on any sport, especially football. On the day Hearts played Kotoko for the CAF cup I thought I was listening to a Hutu extremist calling his tribal charges for a vengeful deed. In many ways the likes of Kwaku cannot get their voices above the din of these men. They are being silenced. These days anyone with a pen and paper or a mouth and a microphone is a journalist The blurry line between journalism and politics is a widespread phenomenon which frequently has been exploited by some journalists, who like most in the field, have often felt that as well as being investigators of the evils in society they can be the exorcists too. And over the years many journalists have kept this wide door revolving on an unwilling hinge so much that no less than 6 of them in Ghana have crossed over to taste political power of some sort. For some this plunge has been a costly allure. Just ask Joe Aggrey. Is there anything more finite than political power?

Kofi Badu, (the graphic man and not the fabu man) has a tantalizing but unnerving story of how he shook off an invitation by some soldiers to write a coup speech for them. Could it be that all the creepy coup speeches visited on us frequently were cobbled together by journalists and that while GBC radio was unsettling the rest of us with their eerie marshal music some journalists were busy in some dark, dingy rooms going through the speeches by the coup makers?

This raises the question of credibility that Mark Duodu so lucidly complained about in his article in the Graphic two weeks ago. What do we make of the calls journalists make against official excesses, do they have an eye on a job just in case power shifts from the NPP to whoever else? I truly believe that lot of my friends who made the short journey across the line to politics, did not have any thoughts about a future job when they harangued Jerry Rawlings? for his near-complete hold on political life and civil dialogue for almost a quarter century. But I also concede that it would be impossible for even the strongest bulldozers, working overtime, to free journalists from this tangle of suspicion of being anything but self-seeking professionals anytime someone picks up a pen or goes near a microphone to criticize government. Clearly, this trend energizes the argument that instead of making the powerful uncomfortable and nervous about abusing power, journalists in Ghana have come to have a vested interest in making the powerful live in total comfort and above all, in total power. Do we, regardless of the ethics of the trade, take cues from power players both left and right to spin the news in their favour, and if we don?t do we fear that we might lose access to these power brokers and by extension lose the capacity for the juicy scoop. It is not our job to protect politicians or speak for them. In a country with many spells of truncated attempts at democracy it is important that the media has a limiting influence on politicians. Seems to me we are giving back the freedoms some of our colleagues struggled and paid dearly for by cozying up to politicians; the very people who stole it from us. Sad to say some of the people who were in the trenches for press freedom in the pre-democracy years have become tainted too.

Elsewhere, journalists have had little trouble in making the choice to be part of government. Both Paul Bergala and James Carville co-hosts of CNN?s Crossfire were longtime Clinton aides and signed on to be John Kerry advisors during the last American presidential campaign. For these two men objectivity is everything anti-Republican Party. In the Kennedy years too, the late Pierre Salinger a newspaperman from San Francisco was the press secretary. He later became the bureau chief for ABC News after his White House years. George Stephanopoulos, Diane Sawyer, both of ABC, and Tim Russert of NBC are all part of a long list of American journalists who once worked for powerful politicians. The trouble with the Ghanaian situation is that because our democracy and its institutions are so weak any reckless journalism or the lack of journalistic candor can only serve one purpose?erode confidence and bring back the days when boots kicked our doors in the night and yanked us away to some crude military justice. When that happens we can neither write nor speak again.

Perhaps what we see as corrosion in quality is only a shift in emphasis on some of the basic values of the craft. In recent times observers and academics of journalism elsewhere have wondered both publicly and privately about whether it is any more relevant to talk about objectivity in American journalism for instance. The New York Post and the cable news leaders FOXNEWS, both owned by the Australian-American conservative billionaire Rupert Murdoch, clearly has deference for the Republican Party in their reportage and analysis. And this shift is defended by conservatives as a long overdue reaction to a perceived liberal reportage by the New York Times and the CNN for instance. Even though the New York Times, the gold standard in journalism deny this liberal label it is ironic that they have endorsed Democrats in several presidential campaigns. Listening to them deny the obvious is as laughable as hearing Jerry Rawlings claiming the higher ground on democracy or watching the present Castle men scrambling and clutching at straws to defend the president and his son. So could it be that fairness in journalism has always been a non-existent value or some professional fad dreamed up long ago by some pot-smoking idealists and now being forced out by a new trend?partisan journalism? Or in the case of Ghana is it a reaction to a chokehold governments have had over debate in the public space for several years. Is objectivity a tool of convenience or a fundamental component of journalism or even a personal choice like everything else in life? And I have a question for Yaw Boadu-Ayeboafo. What do you tell a journalist who functions in a repressive system. Would it be wrong for him to be on the side of the voiceless and the oppressed, or should he be unaffected by prevailing events? For media men who found themselves fighting the apartheid system in South Africa the O word could only be interpreted in one direction, because it would fly in the face of morality itself if anybody tried to give a fair reportage of Pieter Botha and his pack of White supremacists. . How about those in Pol Pot?s Cambodia, or even black journalists during the Jim Crow years in America. Do you see my dilemma, Prof, doc and Yaw.

The answers to these questions could be many and varied but that should not leave us clueless about Bona Koomson?s concern about the grinding down of basic rules such as re-checking facts many times for doubts, and giving a chance to a subject of a story. Hope we haven?t forgotten that there are two sides to a story, and for us a third side is always the Truth. Hope I have been on that side so far.

PS. I am curious to know how well Mark Duodu kept his sense of fairness in the Rawlings years anytime his boys and girls were preparing the TV nightly news. Seems to me Jerry Rawlings and his lovely Nana Konadu always kept a regular spot at the top of the headlines. Hope JAK hasn?t demanded that the same treatment in the spirit of fairness.



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