Ebo Quansah on Press Freedom in Ghana
I have been home most of the time of late. My health has been a major concern for some time now. After the nasty experience of last year, when I spent two weeks at the 37 Military Hospital in Accra in a coma, I thought I was recovering nicely until my sister, Adwoa Atta Quansah, died after a short illness at Kwametsentsen, a village near Bogoso in the Western Region.
I had to attend the funeral at all costs. I did so at a huge cost to my health. By the time I made the return journey on a commercial vehicle, the left leg and foot were swollen. Doctors said to my horror that I have got gout.
I had thought all along that gout was a disease that was developed as a result of excessive meat intake. For the fear of gout, I had avoided meat over the years. As a matter of fact, I do not remember taking meat for the last 10 years, at least.
The swollen foot and leg meant that I have been consigned to be home for a while with the good old radio and television for company. I have watched and listened to many programmes and channels I never knew were part of the Ghanaian media landscape.
When I heard that Ghana has been adjudged the best in media freedom in Africa, I immediately understood why. To be able to tolerate some of the programmes, phone-ins, and text messages emanating from some of the media outlets in this country, tells no story than that Ghana, our beloved country, has come a long way from the era when Ghanaian journalists were endangered species.
From this morning until the end of the working day tomorrow, the attention of the world media would be focused on Accra, where this year’s World Press Freedom Day would be commemorated.
Sponsored by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, World Press Freedom Day draws attention to the hazards journalists go through to bring information to the people of the world. In a number of unfortunate cases journalists lose their lives in the line of duty. The fact that this country of nearly 30 million people is officially recognised as providing Africa’s most enabling atmosphere for press freedom to thrive, calls for celebration.
Once upon a regime, to exercise the right to practice as a journalist in Ghana carried the death sentence. On such an auspicious occasion as the World Press Freedom Day, I take this opportunity to remember Mr. John Kugblenu, one-time editor of the Free Press newspaper, who was incarcerated at the Nsawam Medium Security Prison, tortured and died a few weeks after his release. A fine gentleman with a sense of humour, the late Kugblenu paid the price so that media practitioners throughout Ghana could be free.
Kugblenu was arrested together with his publisher, the late Tommy Thompson, who, as Chairman of Accra Hearts of Oak Football Club, built the phobia family into one of the most feared football entities on the Continent of Africa. Tommy himself did not survive the torture behind bars. Like his Editor, the publisher gave up the ghost a few weeks after release.
It was not only these two brave gentlemen who perished at the brutal hands of Jerry John Rawlings and his band of dictators who took over the reins of the country by force of arms on 31st December 1981.
In those days, when anybody who questioned the excessive force unleashed on innocent citizens was classified as an ‘enemy of the state,’ a number of journalists paid the ultimate price.
In this era of absolute press freedom, not many Ghanaian journalists might have want to bother about the plight of Barnabas Akrong, Editor and publisher of the Believers newspaper, who was killed under very mysterious circumstances by the death squads unleashed by the military junta, then headed by Jerry John Rawlings.
These were not the only strange deaths to rock the journalism profession in those heady days in Ghana’s history when the reward for objective journalism was death.
There was this gentleman who set up his private venture after leaving the state-run Daily Graphic under circumstances other than cordial. Mr. George Naykene was Editor/Publisher of the Christian Chronicle. He was incarcerated for a long time under the draconian laws of that era and passed away shortly after his release.
In that era, most journalists became sports writers. Even then, critical sports journalism had its own price. Veteran Kweku Baako, certainly, this nation’s leading record keeper in the profession, was arrested on a number of occasions and did time in the various prisons just because he was critical of a regime, whose main ally in government was the intimidating power of the gun.
My good friend and classmate, Kwesi Pratt, was a regular visitor to this nation’s prisons. His several journeys to this nation’s penal institutions began, we are told, when he asked a question at a press briefing.
When Jerry John Rawlings coined his famous phrase, ‘democratisation of violence’, it defined the military junta’s cat and mouse game with leading journalists of the era. Most of newsmen had to find their way outside the shores of this country to be able to live and work freely.
There was Mike Adjei, a columnist with the Free Press who was detained for several months with his editor and publisher. Mike fled the country the moment he was released and spent close to two decades in the United Kingdom.
The Rawlings regime did not tolerate any dissent. When Ms. Elizabeth Ohene, one-time editor of the Daily Graphic, wrote an editorial questioning the meaning of the holy war Jerry Rawlings and his coup plotters had launched, thugs were released to go to the offices of the then Graphic Corporation to hunt her and two of her leading staff down and destroy them. Then News Editor, Ben Mensah, and Features Editor Kofi Akumanyi followed their editor into exile in the United Kingdom.
The three set up the ‘Talking Drums’ magazine in London to expose the human right abuses going on in Ghana. I myself had to flee into exile in Great Britain. It was an offence in Ghana to publish any newspaper in the country without first obtaining a newspaper license from the government of the day.
Human rights abuses and the persecution of media personnel in Ghana did not end with the exit of the military from politics in Ghana. When Jerry John Rawlings managed to con all Ghanaians into believing that he had put down his military fatigues in favour of civil constitutional rule, journalists were still persecuted.
In 1995, three critical newspaper organisations – The Free Press, the then Ghanaian Chronicle and the Daily Guide offices were shit-bombed. Yes, you read right. A truck-load of night soil was deposited at the front entrances of each of these newspaper outfits.
Then Minister of local Government and Rural Development, Mr. Kwamena Ahwoi, justified these barbaric acts by stating that the human excreta deposited at these media houses were people’s rejoinders to articles published by these newspapers.
This nation has come a long way on the road to the freedom of the media. The fact that Ghana is now the leading country in Africa, in terms of the atmosphere for journalist to operate, calls for a glass of wine. The battle has been hard and many times truly rough. May the world of Ghanaian journalism join me in calling for a song and prayer for those who sacrificed their lives so that we would have a conducive atmosphere to work.
Let us remember the fallen heroes by being more responsible in the profession.