Written by Anas Aremeyaw Anas
Throughout its history, journalism has been kept by its cardinal principles of truth and objectivity. These principles continue to strengthen an enduring tradition by creating a powerful voice of progress. In the process, citizens are well-informed and are better able to participate in the affairs of state.
My experience as a reporter over the last decade and two years has brought me a deepened appreciation of the power of journalism as a force of change in society. The result of this is my firmly held belief that an informed electorate makes for a powerful democracy.
Like its bedfellows of “democracy” and “justice”, the spheres and limits of journalism are not easy to map out. With each story comes a new experience, coupled with varied questions and debates. It is only on the field of play that some of these debates are resolved and questions answered. Through the method of gathering, processing and distributing news, journalism is defined. Aside its enduring principles of truth and objectivity, other aspects of the profession are perfected through questioning and listening.
By the examples of the pioneers of this profession within Africa and beyond, I have learned to participate in the sessions of dialogue which seek to build a lasting foundation that keeps journalism alive; with a footnote that being critical is not the same as being hypocritical.
My recent investigation, “Enemies of the Nation”, which exposed acts of corruption at the Tema Harbour has brought with it the critical questions of whether the state should fund, collaborate or trigger the work of a journalist. This stemmed from earlier reports that the state funded my last two investigations.
At one side of the spectrum are those who raise the flags that such collaboration signals an ethical breach on the part of the journalist. At the other side are those who believe that the first argument conveniently overlooks a great deal of existing government support and collaboration with the media. References have been made to the relationship between government and its official press corps, the many state-funded travels for journalists to cover football matches, conferences and bilateral state visits and trade agreements across the world. Indeed, monies that are used to fund the state-owned media have also been cited.
I have already pointed out on many platforms, that I have over the years had opportunities to collaborate with state institutions in the course of my work. Whenever collaborations are not needed, I proceed with my work. The Psychiatric Hospital and the Osu Children’s Home stories are two examples. Meanwhile, there are occasions where collaboration with some of these institutions has remained indispensable to my work.
On the issue of declaring whatever support I get as a journalist, I refer to the many well-intentioned Ghanaians and other Africans who contribute in the fight against injustice in our society. Just as these efforts are commendable, I strongly believe that the extent of support must be declared without any reservations. But what about the many who would not want to step into the limelight to share in the glory to bask in the glare of publicity? Can we deny them their choice to remain the silent anonymous heroes who prefer to work behind the scenes for our good? Professionally, I do not flinch if they are part of government or other state institutions as long as their well-intentioned efforts do not undermine our progress as a country and continent.
I can cite the role of the security agencies, some Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) as well as organized groups across Africa. Sometimes, a phone call to some key persons within some of these institutions is what makes the difference. These collaborations usually help in telling a very vital story. For instance, the role of the Police in busting the Chinese Sex Mafia (February, 2009) before I published the story highlights such collaboration. It took a contingent of Police from the anti-human trafficking unit to make the process of discovery complete. Today the traffickers are in jail for a total of 42 years.
Other stories such as the “Bole Rebel Raid” (April, 2005), “Imam’s School of Shock” (August, 2008), “Soja Bar”(September, 2007), “Human For Sale Dons Exposed (2007)” all covered under the Trafficking Project of the New Crusading Guide, the newspaper I work for, might never have had the necessary impact without the support of some of these key state institutions.
Clearly, the idea that government should support the media is one that is difficult to accept. The aversion to state funding or support is rooted in concerns that the state might encroach on press freedom. In an ideal world, a resounding “No” would answer the question of whether the state should support the media in any way. In a world where everything is running well, it would have been beautiful to work without the support of anybody. But do I live in such an ideal world? Our continent is characterized by weak institutions; it is plagued with diseases, people die from hunger and widespread, extreme forms of poverty. This is the stark, sobering reality, a far cry from the ideal. In the absence of this ideal, do we fold our arms and look on as our society is racked with a legion of evils? How would we justify to posterity this awful bequest that we are about to inflict on it? Will our plea of not having the capacity to fight the present rot be acceptable?
Time and again, it has been the muckraking efforts of journalists such as the late Norbert Zongo of Burkina Faso, Sorious Samura of Sierra Leone, Lincoln Steffens of the Progressive era in America as well as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, which have brought strength to public institutions. Their efforts help us to appreciate the fact that the cure for social ills cannot be possible without applying some remedies.
The founders of democracy have over the years emphasized the need for public journalism as an excellent example of a public-private partnership towards development. Public broadcasting in the West has seen the contribution of national revenue towards the provision of news and information to the populace. This practice is seen as an ideal so long as it is a “no-strings-attached” collaboration.
It is however not entirely the case in Ghana. The emergence of privately owned media has diluted this, as many political and market interests usually collide with the national agenda. This situation notwithstanding, the transitory state of our democracy, calls for some inter-institutional collaboration to shed light on the problems that affect us as a people. It can only be done with an appreciation of the nuances of ethics, integrity and professional detachment. Should state institutions be left out?
Given my position as an investigative reporter, there will no doubt those for whom my explanations may not be enough. They may ask: why associate with government in the first place; how do you adopt such a posture and still maintain your journalistic integrity? I totally understand such concerns. These are questions which any teacher of journalism would be very comfortable answering in the classroom, but what happens on the field of play differs significantly from the sermons from the “apostles of ethics”.
If I am ever given the chance to choose between a collaboration which impacts on lives and limbs against sitting idle, I would always collaborate – be it through funding or security backups once my editorial independence is guaranteed. I wish to emphasize the words, ‘once my editorial independence is guaranteed.’ The fact that some comments have been made and the debate rages on over this issue in spite of the age of journalistic practice reflects the complexities which we cannot run away from. Understanding this demands a careful look at our reality as a people.
I must emphasize, that my works have always been a patchwork of efforts from individuals and institutions that are committed to creating a better society. In all of these collaborations, I have always emphasized the need to have absolute control over editorial content. These collaborators very often appreciate that it is in such collective unions that we can perfect our democratic experiment.
As a journalist, my first obligation is to the truth in the service of citizens. I definitely have no problem with state-funding and support for work which is aimed towards our development, one that benefits society – as long as government does not seek to control editorial content of the work. It gives me joy to realize that some key institutions appreciate my work to the point of extending their hands to me in the fight against corruption. My collaboration with Ghana COCOBOD in the cocoa smuggling story (In The Interest of the State, 2010), which I stated clearly in the beginning of the televiseddocumentary is one of such examples. In such instances, I hold my independence as a journalist intact, always stressing the need for interdependence with the concerned party. Though in a bottom-up fashion, my work has always been in the service of the nation, and I always welcome opportunities which aim at taking my work a step further in the fight against societal ills.
Despite the temptation by some to characterize my work in certain shades, the results of “Enemies of The Nation”, as well as countless stories which I have done over the years, remain a victory for our country and a testament to democracy. It is not the critics who matter here, though they certainly have their roles in our lives. What matters is the fact that the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) is recouping millions of dollars in revenue which has been lost to the state over the years; it also matters that some level of sanity has returned to the Tema Harbour.
That an importer like Becky Mensah would one day return to Ghana with a smile, and not have her philanthropic efforts quashed with a broken or missing container is what gives me fulfillment. The many hospitals, roads, drinking water and bridges that would be built across the country because the state now has more in its coffers brings us closer to a better society. These are the parameters by which I would measure the impact of my work.
In stating my position on journalism, ethics and collaboration therefore, I go with Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. He once wrote, “if the future is to be as bright as journalists want it to be, we shall have to revisit our relations with the state, demand that responsive democracies treat journalism as a public good, defend the ethical core of our professional work, and encourage citizens to support the transformative and democratic power of good journalism in the service of all”.
The experiences of the trailblazers who faced down oppression and opposition to bring us this far, show that, in the end, it is only an unwavering commitment to integrity, high ethical standards that would absolve journalism from any external influence. This is the measure by which works undertaken by journalists can be measured and I put myself to such principles at all times.
I do not regret at all the type of journalism that I practice. A commitment to high standards of integrity is a cardinal journalistic principle which I cannot violate. I remain poised to make a change in society with my work. I am particularly humbled by the signs of change which have come about as a result of my efforts over the past twelve years. In realizing the institutional challenges which exist in developing countries such as ours, I welcome and owe no apologies for joining hands with those who are committed to making themselves relevant to this course. Invariably, it does not matter the number of points scored for interest groups as it does for the national agenda. It only matters that we are building a society in which public accountability is the norm for public officials and in which succeeding generations can live in and be proud.
“Had we but world enough and time” (apologies to Andrew Marvel), the detractors on this journey would have mattered, but we are on a march towards being counted among the high and great nations of the world. It is only regrettable that not many people are getting involved in this historic march. More often than not, it is the smile on the face of that kid in Osu Children’s Home, the taste of freedom by that prisoner in the Bangkok Prison and the relief of the importer that point to the change I want to see. From the seventeen Nigerian trafficked girls, the seven trafficked Chinese girls who were rescued, the kids who were freed from the false Koran teacher in Bimbilla, I see signs of change with the limbs that are impacted by the works done by myself and others. These are the things which have always mattered to me.
I have God-given abilities to effect change and posterity would not forgive me if I do not use it for the full benefit of my people. Hands are up and willing to link up with those who want to rid our nation and continent of war, famine, corruption and other ills. These are the efforts that would make our nations great and strong.
I see my undercover journalism as a product of my society. A silent revolution is ongoing among many who are unwilling to accept our societal ills across the continent as the way things must be. These people are focusing on a campaign in which friends and foes are defined based on a mutual appreciation of justice and fairness. They are willing to extend hands to those who see the way forward for humanity as a world devoid of acrimony at the expense of others. There are times when the most extreme of diseases call for extreme remedies, where the need to heal calls for some pain. I, without any regrets, have chosen to belong to the extreme remedy and I shall fight the extreme diseases anywhere, anytime. Stay tuned.