Opinions Tue, 3 May 2011

Single Spine And Ex-Gratia For Journalists, Now Or Never

“There can be no press freedom, if journalists live in conditions of poverty, fear and corruption.”-International Federation of Journalists

It was for no mean that Edmund Burke referred the media as “The Fourth Estate of the Realm.” This goes a long way in buttressing the fact that the media is an indispensible tool in nation building, and yet nearly all journalists are most vulnerable, and are treated with disdain when it comes to remuneration in this country.

It is not gainsaying that the role of journalists in promoting good governance and accountability is crucial to the success of any democratic government and that is why it is referred to as the fourth arm of government. Yet most journalists, both in the state and private-owned media earn low wages than MPs, Ministers, MMDCEs and judges. The aforementioned, in fact make up the three arms of government. Why has the fourth arm being marginalized?

Undoubtedly, the media is an institution that should be active and not passive. Oscar Wilde once said “The public has an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Journalism conscious of this and having a trades man habit, supplies their demand.” So an essential virtue of the media is being vocal and not silent. The media has the noble mandate of safeguarding the interest of society.

Again, the media is a tool for education, emancipation, and mobilization as well as a means of giving the masses facts and ideas for proper governance. It has the utmost duty of championing the cause of the average person from poverty, disease and opposing any form of exploitation, aggression and making known to the public the validity or otherwise of government policies, to mention just a few.

The Ghanaian media has strived tremendously in performing these functions since colonial days up to the current democratic dispensation. Hitherto, you have several journalists working without pay. A report which was sponsored by the Ghana Trade Union Congress (TUC) revealed that a sizeable number of the country’s journalists earn less than the national minimum wage.

This is a breakdown of salaries received by journalists in mainly the state media as reported by the Ghana News Agency last year:

“A journalist with a diploma certificate receives between GHc200 and GHc350. A reporter at GNA receives as gross salary, an amount between GHc230 and GHc250, whiles a journalist with the same qualification at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) receives between GHc300 and GHc330.

At the Ghanaian Times, a journalist with diploma receives GHc350-420, whiles his colleague at the Graphic Communication's Group Limited (GCGL), is paid between GHc400 and GHc700. The situation is more pathetic in most private media houses as some journalists receive less than GHc100 while others receive no salary at all but are only provided with accreditation to enable them cover events.”

If journalists live in such impoverish conditions, how then do we expect them to carry out their mandate effectively? In spite of this, journalists in this country are still soldiering on for our dear nation. It is indubitable that the media was a major partner in the struggle for independence and the current democratic dispensation.

I know some media critics would justify the current unacceptable working conditions of journalists against the unprofessional conduct of some journalists. There is an old adage in Akan that says “There is a Mensah in every house,” literally, you find a person with a questionable character in every house. But let me ask, which profession is flawless in the world? Some patients die in hospitals due to a doctor’s ineptitude, a student might fail his exams due to his teacher’s incompetence, a plaintiff or a defendant might lose or win a case in court due to a judge’s bias or a lawyer’s ineffectiveness. All these unfortunate incidents occur mostly due to someone’s inefficiency.

So when some journalists conduct themselves in an unprofessional manner, it should not be generalized or used as a yardstick for treating journalists in general. Can you imagine what will happen, if we wake up one day, only to realize that journalists are on strike? There will be no newspapers to read, no radio station to listen to, no TV station to watch, and indeed no online news sites? I hope by now, you know what will happen. There will be a total “Black Out,” and that “Black Out” will be immense and cannot be compared to the unavoidable conspicuous rate at which ECG cuts off power in this country.

I am not a prophet of doom, but that “Black Out,” would be tremendous than a nationwide black out by ECG and VRA.

The sad aspect of the Ghanaian journalist’s dilemma is the fact that human rights activists and politicians as well as media professionals who advocate for press freedom fail to advocate for better working conditions for journalists in this country. However, MPs, doctors, nurses, teachers, and indeed all workers use the media to advocate for better working conditions.

People who call for professionalism in the media and fail to advocate better remuneration for journalists’ lose sight of the fact that it will be difficult if not impossible for journalists to carry out their functions effectively under poor working conditions. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not saying poverty should be an excuse for a journalist to conduct himself in an unprofessional manner. But I ask, how many of them will be able to perform creditably in the midst of such bad working conditions?

It is a fact that ideally, we expect the media to perform its watchdog role effectively. But I ask again, if you refuse to feed your dog, do you expect it to protect your food when a thief offers it a part of the food he is stealing? I leave that to you to decide. Apparently, how do you expect a journalist who earns a little over 100 Ghana Cedis to effectively hold the public officer who earns over 2000 Ghana Cedis monthly for his stewardship?

Yet amid all these daunting challenges, on yearly basis, you have journalists who are awarded by the GJA and other organizations having distinguished themselves in this profession. Now to the Journalist of the Year Award .What does he/she take home? Some “nokofio”; a laptop and a training programme abroad. You have corporate organizations advertising in the media and donating cars and huge sums of monies to beauty pageants.

So doesn’t the Journalist of the Year also deserve Agya Koo’s SUV, or a three bedroom house in Bongo or East Legon?

The Secretary – General for the International Federation of Journalists, Aidan White stated when he came to Ghana last year that “If your journalists are corrupt, then your democracy is flawed.” He hit the nail right on the head and I couldn’t have agreed with him any more. Don’t ask me why? Mrs. Adjoa Yeboah Afari, a former GJA president, once said, “The root cause of “soli” is due to low wages and poor remuneration of journalists.” Whether this statement is a fact or otherwise, I leave that for you to judge.

I believe that if we still want to be regarded as the beacon of democracy in Africa and promote our democracy as well as build strong state institutions, the government, media owners, NMC, GJA, and civil society need to start making conscious efforts geared towards the transformation of the working conditions of Journalists in Ghana now, or prepare for the “Black Out.” I rest my case!

FELIX AKOYAM felixakoyam@yahoo.com www.felixakoyam.blogspot.com

Columnist: Akoyam, Felix