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Opinions of Thursday, 27 June 2019

Columnist: Manasseh Azure

Manasseh’s Folder: I’m not a neutral Journalist

When I greeted Stan Xoese Dogbe, he barely nodded and was about to pass by.

“This is Manasseh,” I reminded him, thinking he hadn’t made me out.

“I know,” he said and walked away. I felt embarrassed. I have since not forgotten that encounter.

This was at the closing ceremony of the Third National Policy Fair at the Accra International Conference Centre in May 2012. Then Vice President John Mahama had come to perform the closing ceremony of the fair and Stan Dogbe was part of his entourage. The last encounter I had had with Stan before meeting him at the policy fair was a very friendly one, but I didn’t need any prophet to tell me what I had done to merit such a cold reception this time.

I knew the reason. It had to do with my writings. They were “anti-government,” and since the government of the day was the National Democratic Congress (NDC), my articles were anti-NDC. In applying the he-who-is-not-with-us-is-against-us principle, the conclusion was that I worked for the NDC’s worst enemy, the New Patriotic Party (NPP).

This criticism has intensified over the past year when I ventured into unearthing the public-private plundering (PPP) of state resources. Sometimes I receive phone calls from concerned friends in the various regions of the country. When they hear insulting remarks on FM stations, they call me to react. Sometimes, producers of the talk shows give me the opportunity to react to the allegations, but I have always declined to react.

Our elders say a man who responds to every gong from the chief’s palace will not have time to plant his corn. In the same way, a journalist who spends all their time responding to people who earn a living by jumping from one radio station to the other to malign and vilify people will have no time to focus on their work. But it doesn’t hurt to once in a while tell your side of the story, does it?

The general idea has always been to ignore them. The discerning minds won’t believe them. But sometimes I wonder the percentage of the Ghanaian minds that are really discerning. When one of the country’s most respected bankers told me in his office that I was being used by people to settle their scores, I walked out feeling very insulted and disappointed.

I couldn’t tell him my piece of mind because of the respect I had for him. This was shortly after a man had made similar remarks at the 2014 Springboard Road Show in Tamale. I spoke on Career Repositioning at the event, but this man’s question was why I was using my career as a journalist to destroy people from northern Ghana. Later Kwami Sefa-Kayi who was at the event wondered why people entertain such thoughts.

Silence, they say, is golden but sometimes it pays to win those who are swayed and brainwashed to hate you and your works because of ignorance. Until I worked in the Joy FM Newsroom, I was tempted to believe some of the weird stories about the “grand agenda” of the station against government.

“Maybe when you do negative stories about the government, you should try and find positive stories to balance it up,” my elder brother once told me. The criticisms and insults had got to him and he was suggesting to me how to appear neutral in order to avoid those accusations.

So what is my response to that? I will never try to please anybody and hurt my conscience. I will continue stay true to myself and my principles and do what I have done since the beginning of my rather short career.

The only reason I became friends with people like Stan Dogbe was because of my writings. I started writing opinion pieces since 2006 before I did any news story for any media house. I started with GBC’s Radio news commentary and later published on the internet and then in the Daily Graphic. I wrote mostly about the ills of the country and about the actions and inactions of government. People like Stan Dogbe admired my writings. He was the first to reach out to me and praised me for what I was doing.

I also remember receiving a call from the National Propaganda Secretary of the NDC and MP for Keta, Hon. Richard Quashigah, after my News Commentary on Radio Ghana aired one afternoon. He said he was in a meeting with some party executives in the Upper West Regional Capital, Wa, and everybody was impressed with my script. They liked how I was putting the government on its toes and he urged me to keep it up. I made many friends in the NDC and enemies in the NPP while I was still a student at the Ghana Institute of Journalism.

Today, I am not doing anything different. The only difference is that those who hailed me are now in government and those who hated me are now in opposition. Curiously, those who praised me for holding government accountable, now regard me with condescension and loathing, for doing exactly that. They say I'm a sellout, doing the bidding of their bitterest rivals. When party communicators go on radio and social media to say they know who my paymasters are, I laugh.

I must say the NDC and NPP have made various advances in the past to get me to their camps but failed. So who are my paymasters? Even in the most tempting moment, I didn’t give in so why should I do that now?

When some functionaries of the NDC invited me to a meeting at East Legon in 2011 to discuss how I could use my writings to help project the government, I was unemployed and had gained admissions to the Universities of Sussex and Cardiff in the UK and badly needed a scholarship to study for my master’s degree. But I did not sell my conscience. So why now?

Besides, the NPP are not any different from the NDC for one to need their backing when fighting corruption? Nana Akomea was offended when I told him in a discussion over GYEEDA that the NDC and NPP are the same when it comes to corruption. The NPP was very vociferous when the Woyome Scandal and the Merchant Bank saga came up. But who heard the party’s position on GYEEDA, SUBAH, SADA or any scandal involving Roland Agambire’s and Joseph Siaw Agyapong’s companies?

The main purpose of this article is not to respond to all the criticisms, some of which are absurd. The man who farms by the wayside, our elders say, must not hate greetings. Criticisms are part of the job, but the reason I am writing this piece is to state my position. And what is my position?

I am not a neutral journalist. I have never been neutral. And I cannot be neutral. I am not a hypocrite. I don’t like the game of cricket, so if Afghanistan and Uzbekistan are playing cricket, I can be neutral. But as far as the untold hardships and injustice visited on Ghanaians by politicians and their accomplices are concerned, I cannot be neutral.

According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If the elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

I have chosen the side of the oppressed. My profession demands fairness, so I will always be fair to the oppressor. But I cannot be neutral.

Besides, the universal principles of journalism vary slightly from one society to the other. The mandate of the British or American journalist is the same as the mandate of the Ghanaian journalist. Every journalist is expected to hold the elected officials accountable to the electorate. There is, however, a difference in how to execute our mandate. In our part of the world, a journalist just doesn’t tell a story and leave it to the public to judge and expect institutions to act. Here, the journalist must be a crusader. He or she must push harder to get results. Elsewhere it is different.

In 2007, two female reporters of the Washington Post newspaper in the United States exposed how bureaucracy and administrative lapses at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre resulted in the poor treatment of soldiers who had returned from the war in Iraq. A day after the first of Anne Hull and Dana Priest’s investigative series was published, the army started cleaning the substandard housing.

Before President George W. Bush set up a commission of enquiry to probe the issues further, the Commander of the Walter Reed, the Secretary of the Army and the Surgeon General of the Army were all fired.

“The Walter Reed stuff landed with a ferocious wallop,” Anne Hull, one of the two journalists who exposed the rot, said. “Washington, Congress, the Pentagon, White House – all reacted in a dramatic fashion. It was a reminder to everyone in the Post newsroom that journalism is still this mighty tool for good.”

In such a society, you expect the journalist to tell the story and move on to other stories; state institutions and officials paid by the state to safeguard the interest of the citizens will do the rest of the work. That is, however, not the case in our republic. Here is an example:

It is over one year since the GYEEDA scandal broke. And what has happened? Some actions have been taken but they are woefully inadequate.

Former GYEEDA Coordinator, Hon. Abuga Pele, and CEO of the Goodwill International Group, Philip Akpeena Assibit, are standing trial for “willfully causing financial loss to the state” among other charges. The amount lost here is about GH¢4million.

Companies belonging to Roland Agambire and Joseph Siaw Agyapong have been asked to refund more than GH¢ 200million which was wrongfully paid to them in similar circumstances as Mr Assibit. Neither of them has been charged. And no one expects them to be charged.

I have evidence that Roland Agambire’s companies, which are to refund GH¢55million, have started paying the money back to the state, but the Economic and Organised Crime Office (EOCO) has not retrieved a pesewa from Joseph Siaw Agyapong’s companies, which are to refund over GH¢140million to the state. I have followed up several times, but no one will speak to me.

When former Youth and Sports Minister, Clement Kofi Humado, was about to sign an outrageous contract with Joseph Siaw Agyapong’s Better Ghana Management Services Limited, some GYEEDA officials, including MP and Deputy Minister, Ibrahim Murtala Mohammed, protested vehemently. The GYEEDA officials said the state would lose so much money and that the modules could not be sustained with such deals.

Clement Kofi Humado went ahead and signed the contract. The nation paid GH¢120million as management fees to the company a year, and for the two years of the contract, the state lost over GH¢240million through that single contract. Abuga Pele is standing trial for “willfully causing financial loss to the state” involving an amount of GH¢4million. Clement Kofi Humado is free when only one of his numerous contracts cost us more than GH¢240million.

True to the fears of the GYEEDA officials, the modules could not be sustained. The government announced the cancellation of the GYEEDA modules, except the Zoomlion module, for which the government still pays management fees of more than GH¢15million to the company every month.

According to the immediate past Youth and Sports Minister, Elvis Afriyie-Ankrah, 400,000 youth lost their jobs as a result of the cancellation of the contracts. The officials who perpetuated the rot still have their jobs.

Clement Kofi Humado did not lose his job. He remained in office as a cabinet Minister almost a year and a half after the scandal broke. And some residents of Anlo, where he is an MP, feel justified to demonstrate when he was affected by the recent ministerial reshuffle.

When Zoomlion was alleged to have bribed officials to win a contract in Liberia, the World Bank banned the company from bidding for any World Bank-funded contract for two years. Companies belonging to Roland Agambire and Joseph Siaw Agyapong have been involved in all major corruption scandals that have been reported in recent times – GYEEDA, SUBAH and SADA – and yet they keep winning government contracts.

These are the pains I carry in my heart, and I am expected to be neutral.

Our terrain is different. And it will be irresponsible for the Ghanaian journalist to practice like the American journalist. My role model, Chinua Achebe, holds similar views about African writers in his book There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra:

“There are some who believe that the writer has no role in politics and the social upheaval of his or her day. Some of my friends say, ‘No, it is too rough there. A writer has no business being where it is so rough. The writer should be on the sidelines with his notepad and pen, where he can observe with objectivity.’ I believe the African writer who steps aside can only write footnotes or a glossary when the event is over. He or she will become like the contemporary intellectual of futility in many other places, asking questions like: ‘Who am I? What is the meaning of my existence?...

“My own assessment of the role of the writer is not a rigid position and depends to some extent on the state of health of his or her society. In other words, if a society is ill, the writer has the responsibility to point it out. If the society is healthier, the writer’s job is different.”

The Ghanaian society is seriously ill and the Ghanaian journalist cannot afford to be a passive observer of events. The Ghanaian journalist must not behave like a programmed robot, merely passing on what the minister or MP says to the audience.

The culture of silence is creeping back in a different cloak. The NDC and NPP communicators have found a way of tagging, insulting and silencing all those with dissenting views on their policies. For the fear of insults and tags, those with some meaningful contribution to offer on radio have gone into hiding while the same voices have monopolized the airwaves.

I am not a neutral journalist. I have strongly taken sides with the oppressed, and I expect others to do same. I am a victim of social injustice and the passion to correct that is what keeps me in journalism. If that passion diminishes, I will quit journalism for a more lucrative job.

This is not the time to be neutral in Ghana. Those who shy away from making their voices heard are courting the danger of having to repeat what one of the victims of Nazi brutalities, Pastor Martin Niemöller, once said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.