Ethical Crisis in Ghanaian Journalism: Baby Ansabah not the villain, but the victim
As more and more African countries embrace democracy and free speech, the tendency on the part of some media practitioners to abuse privileges accorded media professionals in a democracy is becoming an issue of concern for the media industry. While the media continues to receive the flaks for its “corrupt and irresponsible practices,” the invisible hands that continue to corrupt the media go scot-free.
Using a case in which a Ghanaian journalist, Ato Sam, writing under the nom de plume Baby Ansabah of the Weekly Punch, set out to sabotage then-presidential candidate of the biggest opposition party in Ghana, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), for financial favors, this paper examines Sam’s actions in relation to his journalistic responsibilities and other competing interests that affect “truth” telling.
The results indicate that Ato Sam is not the villain, but a victim of political corruption in the media. The paper absolves Sam and places the blame and condemnation where it should – corrupt government practices eating into the media and stunting its watchdog role.
When the news about the ill health of the then Presidential Candidate of the NDC, John Evans Atta Mills, broke out in the media in 2006, depending on which side of the political divide one’s sympathy or allegiance was, the news was either good or bad. There was indeed a political capital. For the NDC sympathizers, it was clearly devastating; the investments in marketing the candidate in 2000, 2004, and in readiness for 2008 were feasibly under siege. Not so for the ruling NPP supporters, for whom it was a sign of good things to come - he might not even survive to contest the presidential elections, in which case it would be too late for the opposition NDC to elect and market a new candidate, therefore, victory for the ruling government.
This issue dragged on till the 2008 presidential elections and even continues to intrigue many minds. Candidate Mills’ appearance did not help matters. His appearance prior to 2006 and leading to the revelation were in stark contrast. The gentleman, physically, was a pale shadow of himself. Ato Sam, writing under the nom de plume Baby Ansabah, was one of those journalists who carried the news in their papers, citing impeccable sources. To the practicing journalists and many others concerned about ethics of practice of journalism, there could be no finer opportunity to contest the ethics of this reportage. Therefore, the protagonists and antagonists went for each other’s throat.
It was when Candidate Mills became president, after winning the 2008 election, and took Baby Ansabah on one of his maiden trips to Trinidad and Tobago, that the latter decided to confess his wrong doing. He categorically stated he concocted stories to demean the then presidential candidate to win financial and other forms of favors from the incumbent president.
I fall on this story to illustrate how both sides of the political aisle have helped emasculate the media but turn around to point fingers at it.
The range of ethical considerations in this case was apparent and pervades the whole continuum of the decision to publish this report. At the time of publication, it was obvious that the publication would impact negatively on the then presidential candidate. Nevertheless, failure to publish the story would suggest Mr. Ato Sam was deliberately withholding important information from the public, information citizens needed to make an informed decision in a democracy.
First, by virtue of the fact that candidate Mills was seeking to occupy the highest political office of the land, he becomes a subject of speculation, just like all other candidates in a presidential race or any high public office anywhere in the world. Information about his health, marital status, and other private aspects of his life become issues of public interest.
However, the question may arise: “should all health questions be opened to public scrutiny, or just those that may have an impact on the candidate’s ability to do the job? Should we report when a public official catches a common cold, or swine flu, for example? Article 69 of the constitution of Ghana stipulates that one of the grounds on which a president can be removed from office is that he is found “to be incapable of performing the functions of his office by reason of infirmity of body or mind.” Based on this constitutional provision, though quite ambiguous, it is obvious that should any suspected form of infirmityaffect the ability of the president or a prospective candidate to lead, the responsibility to inform the public would be in fulfillment of a journalistic obligation, and uncontestable. It is especially so when the candidate was alleged to be hallucinating, seeing trees, people, and having mental instability. In this case, the proviso, as it applies to a sitting president, would be applicable to a prospective candidate intending to occupy the highest office of the land.
Again, was the physical appearance of the candidate enough bases to warrant a publication that authoritatively imputes ill health to the candidate? It is obvious that although the then presidential candidate’s appearance might imply ill-health, there was the need for confirmation of his health status that can only be done by his physician or any other physician. A clear dilemma is whether his physician-(s), whose interest might best be served when his client becomes a president, would willingly release truthful but damaging information about the health status of his client. At another level, the financial investment in and marketing of the candidate by his political party that might come to naught would be another important consideration for the physician. The need to safeguard this information from the public is not limited to the physician but applies as well to individuals within the candidate’s inner circle.
As the foregoing depicts, the dilemma of obtaining accurate and reliable information for a story of this nature is on a continuum. It involves myriad stakeholders: On the one end, there was Sam who wanted truthful information to feed a curious public, and a public, which needs such information to make an informed decision balanced against stakeholders within the candidate’s inner circle whose interest overrides the truth, on the other.
Concomitantly, this dilemma compromises the capacity to get to the truth. Obviously, any other source who might provide any information to Sam in the pursuit of his journalistic responsibility might be a suspect. The dilemma as to whether to wholly trust this source and any others that are unofficial as sources (citable or otherwise) for publication might be a looming dilemma. Even when this dilemma is resolved, it raises, as a corollary, what to do with the identity of the informant in case of a lawsuit. To reveal or not to reveal the identity of the informant might be another important consideration in case of a lawsuit. Indeed, journalists might decide to safeguard the identity of their informant, but the test of this decision is when they are in the dock or exposed to serious danger.
With all these dilemmas considered but going ahead to publish, Sam can only be regarded as a fearless journalist who is fulfilling his journalistic responsibilities. With the benefit of hindsight, however, and especially when he then comes out to proclaim, after benefitting from a presidential trip abroad from a president he once tried to sabotage, that he made up the story, it introduces another dilemma, which is the conflict of whether to serve the masses/truth or profit at the expense of the truth. The seeming conflict—serving the public, yet making money—is often regarded cynically by the public. Decisions about news coverage tend to be portrayed by critics as calculated to sell newspapers or raise broadcast ratings rather than to give the citizens the information they needed (Foreman). In this case, however, Sam tried to serve the invisible master at the expense of the truth.
Comparatively, in Nigeria the news about the president’s health became known, while in Guinea death preceded the news and led to a power struggle to fill the vacuum. This might even imply a new election, depending on the constitutional provisions of that country. The huge financial requirement for such an undertaking could have been pre-empted if there were constitutional requirements for presidential candidates to be examined by independent health practitioners who would then confirm their health status, or if the media could speculate as Sam had done through a reportage, perhaps. It must be noted, however, that health does not work like machine and unpredictable things happen.
When the news of Sam’s confession broke out, he was condemned to the hilt by all and sundry. I did too, in an article, but oblivious of the invisible political hands that compelled him to take the road he did take, as latter investigations were to reveal. The professional body of journalists and communicators (the GJA) officially slammed Sam and its President recommended Sam for the award of the “Order of the Vulture” in naming and shaming him.
Latter revelations illustrate political interference in the media at the highest levels, for which Sam was compelled to play along. It was revealed that the NPP government had spent a whopping GH 6 million cedis, an equivalent of US$6 million, at the time on a so-called communication strategy. In an audit report, two groups, referred to by the auditors as “the Editors Forum” and “Media Executives,” operated clandestinely, ostensibly churning out news items, features and other media products in praise of government policies.
In a detailed response to the issues raised by Ghana’s Auditor General, the information minister under whose leadership these bribes were paid to the media indicated that the policy to pay media practitioners predated his appointment, and he was simply implementing the Government’s Communication Strategy Program approved by cabinet in 2006.
Under that program, government set up the Public Relations and Information Management Group and the Monitoring Group. Members of the groups were given monthly allowances of at least GH 400 from the Petroleum Debt Recovery Account and other government revenue sources. Contract letters obtained by Joy FM state the beneficiaries would get other freebies subject to excellent performance and favorable recommendations. Ironically, this Petroleum Debt Recovery Account was an account set up to tax Ghanaians by letting them pay more than the market price of fuel to help in defraying a debt accumulated by the refinery over the years.
The analysis also looks at this new dimension of political interference through the use of money. Weber, in his essay in 1918, drew attention to journalists having less and less political influence as press owners gained more and more. The question of ownership and control has been one of the key areas of exploration in trying to make sense of media production and what appears in the media. Similarly, Marx believed that powerful interests in society exercised control over circulation of ideas. There was no question for him that these interests controlled the main means of mass communication. They did this by having their hands firmly on the economic levers that operated the mass media. As a result, through ownership of media organizations, and by exercising their will through the chains of command within media organizations, their views of society came to dominate the content of the media.
Therefore, if government or politicians, through a so-called communication strategy were making direct financial payments to supposed editors and media executives, there is only one consequence: conspiracy to distort the truth with their own versions of the story. Just as in the maxim “who pays the piper calls the tune,” the choice of what appears in the media is apparently determined by these few who receive government largess, and choose what to publish to please their paymasters. Not only do they have the opportunity to influence choice, they also have a crucial role to play in shaping social consciousness.
In the supposedly market-driven political economy that the regime trumpeted, one would have expected the regime to leave the media to the dynamics of the market, which should enable each individual, including the media to pursue its own efforts to maximize their wealth while at the same time maximizing the value of the output to the public. Instead of the marketplace being a “hidden hand” which should regulate the output of the media and its actions in satisfying society, government rather became the invisible hand interfering in the news process in the name of communication strategy. In this case, the media was only acting as a conveyor belt for the ideas of the ruling class. As in the words of Upton Sinclair in 1919, the media “take the fair body of truth and sell it to the market place, betraying the virgin hopes of mankind into the loathsome brothel of big business. This may be seen as Ghana’s Lapdog era, as the mainstream press went from being a watchdog of politicians’ moral to a lapdog, by which they looked the other way as politicians, including the press, which of course is highly partisan, pillaged the state.
It is in the light of these revelations that the legitimacy of the country’s ranking as number 1 in Africa and 27th around the world in press freedom or what the awarders, Reporteurs San Frontiers (RSF), referred to “as the country that tolerates media freedom” needs to be questioned. Does press freedom simply means the absence of violence against journalists? Money influences from politicians to shortchange the truth could be worse than physical attack on a journalist, if it undermines the watchdog role of the media.
Watching his colleague editors and media executives receive bribes and conspired to shortchange the truth, Sam, just like any rational business entity with a profit motive, was compelled to play along. To him, if playing along implied running down the then presidential candidate of the NDC, so be it. The other option, which of course was not attractive, was sticking to the ethics of the profession and be faced with low profits or pushed out of business altogether.
In his “Opinion of the press and the opinion of the people” for the Viennese paper Die Press in 1861, Marx explored the relationship between newspaper editors and owners to account for the British Press’s demand for British intervention in the American Civil War on the side of the South while popular opinion appeared to support the North. For Marx the reason was clear: the close connection between newspaper editors and owners and those in government circles, including the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Palmerston. Similarly, while majority of the Ghanaian population was complaining about the hard economic times and calling for a change of government, the media continuously suppressed embarrassing news items and was singing praises to their paymaster. While popular opinion was against the borrowing of US$20 million and other forms of donation amounting to over US$70 million for the celebration of Ghana’s 50th independence anniversary, the newspapers were in support of it.
It is in this environment that Sam’s paper had to sell. The newspapers that carried the so-called government communication strategy and failed to sell could compensate for their loss from government freebies. The result for Sam’s Punch newspaper would be to fold up. To avoid closing down and failing to compete effectively with those who received government dole out, Sam learned a new way to attract what others were receiving: to spew out the deception that attracted the paymaster’s attention.
The conspiracy went beyond owners and managers of newspapers to the extent that a media group or criminal elements, or perhaps unethical elements, referred to as the Coffee Shop Mafia, with blatant disregard for the ethics of the profession infiltrated the media. This group held meetings at secret locations, but mostly at a famous coffee shop in Accra hence its name, and decided the news agenda: what items, which facts, which versions of the facts, and which ideas made the headlines or reached the public each day. A typical example of this appalling practice by the Coffee shop mafia was when they planted a story about another journalist, accusing him of receiving a black bag containing US$125 000, presumably to either whitewash the supposed benefactors or turn blind eyes to their infractions or at best kill stories about their fallibilities. This case dragged on until one of them confessed on a national TV about the falsity of the accusation. Similar coverage was given to the cocaine saga described in the chapter on corruption. Some of these journalists, however, were so naïve to believe they had the power to determine what the public thought, forgetting that all these writings leave trails for content analysis for any curious mind who is eager to find out more through accrual of these contents and their analysis.
With a drive for greater transparency and accountability in the media, it is legitimate for Ghanaians to demand to know the names of these media gurus and members of the editors’ forum who benefitted from this unceasing government largesse. Their identities would help content analysis of their reportage in the near future. At best, it can help confirm suspicions of political affiliation of the media outlets, for instance, for the NPP as for the NDC, the payout must have gone to specific journalists and editors.
Zeroing in on the action of the government by paying the so-called media executives and editors, it is symptomatic of the corrupt nature of African governments, even the ones that seem to be performing somewhat reasonably. In Ghana, the Ministry of Information exists to facilitate a two-way free flow of timely and reliable information and feedback between the Government and its various publics and to assist in the development, co-ordination of policy; to monitor and evaluate the implementation of programs and activities by sector agencies under the ministry. The Information Services Department (ISD), Ghana News Agency (GNA), Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), National Film Theater Institute (NAFTI) all fall under the ministry. In the exception of the last, all the rest have a national coverage. While the Information Services Department has a presence in all the districts capitals of the country, what may equate to counties in the United States, the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation and the Ghana News Agency both have a national coverage in their news gathering and dissemination. In fact, in most villages, towns, and cities across the country, while there are no alternatives to news from the GBC, the GNA provides a wire service, like a news clearing house, to all media houses across the country. The farmer who returns from his farm at twilight is certain to listen to the 6 o’clock news and the late news at 10 p.m. from the GBC before retiring to bed. That is how important the GBC is. It is important to note that for the electronic media, both the GBC and the GNA are public institutions and therefore largely at the service of government.
For the print media, with the exception of the Ghanaian Chronicle which does not even have 5% of coverage compared to the Daily Graphic’s and the Ghanaian Times’ national circulation, none of the privately owned newspapers can boast of reaching 3% of the population. They are mainly circulated within the capital with some not even selling beyond their own premises. The Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times, once fully owned by the state, still retain some of their defining characteristics as institutions on government subvention, and can hardly report news that would be detrimental to the paymaster. To bring the point home to a non-Ghanaian reader, the Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times may not be seen to be involved in the aggressive investigative journalism and exposing corruption and changing the status quo, especially when it affects government and government officials. They are largely seen to be reporting government business and the mundane developments of the day, away from the social justice journalism and so on.
With all these media resources available to the government on the back of the taxpaying Ghanaian, it is unthinkable that government will still pay a whopping GH 6 million, an equivalent of US$6 million at the time, to so-called media executives and so-called editors’ forum for a communication strategy. If those working in these institutions and agencies, cannot design communication strategies to effectively communicate government programs to the public, then of what use is the ministry of information and its appendage institutions to the Ghanaian? Why should the taxpayer be made to expend on a communication strategy with a content he may not agree with?
There are two options here for any government of the day. Either it offloads these institutions to the private sector and rely on the editors’ forum and media executives to sell government’s program, or ensure that the right caliber of communication personnel are recruited into these institutions with competitive wages to do the job than hiding behind the cloak of a so-called communication strategy to fleece the taxpayer. Considering the long-term effects of the Internet, it would be logical to even come down on the side of offloading some of these assets, especially the GNA which has become somewhat irrelevant, to the private sector. Today, the White House is able to reach out to the general public and the core base of the Democratic Party by by-passing the tradition media – the New York Times and the Washington Post. The conduits are the social networks – Facebook, Four Square, and so on - powered by the Internet.
This does not suggest that only the NPP government was culpable. While the NPP government spent a whopping US$6 million ostensibly on this communication strategy, the NDC is on record to have expended GH169 000 or US$150 000 buying hampers for journalists. While the NDC’s quantum may look insignificant compared to what the NPP had spent, the bottom-line is both political parties have expended Ghanaian tax unwisely. Government has no business enticing private media owners to tell its story. If appointments to the information ministry fail to take cognizance of the fact that communication is a specialized field and that leadership in its dissemination must have some basic understanding of its rudiments in order to be able to design its strategies, it cannot be the burden of the taxpayer to pay private media owners to tell government’s story, and still pay institutions on government subvention to do the same job. Information ministers should not reduce the high political office to “radio talk shows,” jumping from radio stations to TV stations. Communication of information to the public is a specialized field and must be manned by people with the understanding of its dynamics to avoid these daylight robberiesof the taxpayer.
Further to this, government is known as one of the biggest advertisers in Ghana, so all media houses clamor for government advertising contracts. Media houses are, therefore, compelled to play by the unwritten rules: smack me with a detrimental reportage and I starve you of advertising contracts. In a radio discussion on Radio Gold, a left wing radio station, one of its presenters could be heard complaining about their inability to win government advertising contracts during the NPP regime as a result of their constant criticism of the regime. Williams noted that working-class and radical media suffer from political discrimination of advertisers. Political discrimination is structured into advertising allocations by the stress on people with money to spend. Obviously, many firms will always refuse to patronize ideological enemies and those whom they perceive as damaging to their interests, and cases of overt discrimination add to the force of the voting system weighted by income. Public service station WNET lost its corporate funding from Gulf+Western in 1985 after the station showed a documentary “Hungary for Profit” which contains material critical of multinational corporation activities in the Third World. Even before the program was shown… station officials “did all we could to get the program sanitized.” The chief executive of Gulf + Western complained …that the program was “virulently anti-business if not anti-American “and that the station’s carrying the program was not the behavior “of a friend” of the corporation.This example illustrates how relevant advertising contracts could dry up when detrimental stories are carried about the paymaster. In Sam’s case, when the paymaster is the government, dispensing the people’s tax, how fair could they be to all? This further supports the assertion that Sam was compelled from all angles to play along with the unethical reportage.
However, with the diffusion of Internet and satellite around the globe today, the public is bound to win over a corrupt media that is in bed with government. The government of Alberto Fujimori was notably corrupt, so much so that the chief of the secret police, VladimoroMontesinos, who was charged with the task of implementing all the corruption, decided to keep careful records. The report show a systematic undermining of all the checks and balances within the system. He bribed members of parliament, judges, newspaper editors, and the staff of radio stations and television stations. The government bribed nine out of ten TV stations, leaving a tiny financial satellite service with only ten thousand subscribers. That is how the government fell. Someone leaked a video of Montesano’s bribing a judge, and it was broadcast on this one television channel leading to massive protests.
With Internet availability, use, and application on the rise in developing countries including Ghana, it is obvious that what government might find distasteful and for that matter pay journalists and editors to evade the truth would find its way online either by bold individuals with names, pseudonyms, or completely nameless.
To conclude, Baby Ansabah is not the villain, but a victim of corrupt practices within the media. On this note, Baby Ansabah is absolved from my previous condemnation and the blame lies where it should – corrupt government practices eating into the media and stunting its watchdog role.
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Prosper Yao Tsikata is the author of “My Name, My Race: A young African’s untold story.” He is currently working on the “Tragedies of African Democracies: why the best doesn’t mean good,” which is due to be released in the United States in the summer of 2011.