Investigative Journalism in Ghana: fighting for a future?

Esther A. Armah

Investigative journalism in Ghana. What role should it have within our media? How crucial a tool is it for fighting corruption within society? What are the ethics that continually confront it? And how can our media industry engage it to better conduct our work within the media landscape?

So many questions.

Media by profession is a space where we externalize. We are reporting on others’ lives, others’ transgressions, others’ failures and others’ triumphs. We may be on the receiving end of generic critique from the public, the politicians and various organizations – but we rarely take a time out to engage each other, explore how better we can do this work called ‘journalism’ and what specific changes would improve our performance as journalists under constant deadlines and navigating the challenge of the business, the quality, the ethics, the pressure of making media.

We are a 24 hour business in a 21st century world.

That is both challenging and burdensome. It is also exciting and powerful. It is easier to communicate from Brixton in London to Accra in Ghana to Paris in France to Cairo in Egypt through the power of social media. Breaking news is not the exclusive purview of a particular set of journalists. It happens because millions of us have phones, Wi-Fi, the ability to snap a picture, and Tweet or Post information.

The age of information is not the same as the era of 21st century journalism; nor does it reduce the need for us to keep a steely eye on the quality of work we produce and to evolve to engage the very best of 21st century communication tools within our journalistic practice.

We are a profession under fire and under threat.

The brutal attack on Multimedia journalist Latif Idrissu as he was doing his job asking questions and reporting a story remains unresolved. Idrissu suffered a fractured skull at the hands of police officers who beat him mercilessly. There were witnesses. They are now silent. There was apparently an investigation. It has failed to yield substantive results. The impact of such an injury has long term health implications and may even cost him his profession.

What insurance covers such threat and such injury aside the individual benevolence of any particular media house?

An event to repair police media relations by the Media Foundation for West Africa was boycotted after some journalists angrily denounced such a public relations move when the police had failed to do their due diligence and find, arrest, charge and prosecute the police responsible for this attack.

As I am writing this, the police officers are still on duty, at large and free.

As journalists, an attack on one individual should be treated as an attack on the entire institution. When professionalism is undermined, our profession is under threat.

It is also important we remember this when women journalists are attacked, when they are the target of sexual harassment within their workplace or when they face discrimination as they seek to do their job. That too must be treated as a threat to the health of the profession – and not as a ‘women’s issue’ or something that does not require collective focus, attention and a stamping out.

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Gender inequity does not serve the strengthening of our media communications industry. And strengthen it we must. To do that means all journalists must be free and safe to do their jobs to the best of their ability. The fair critique by some of the poor quality of the work we in the media do can – and must – be confronted and addressed – in order to quiet that criticism and step up our own profession.

Media owners place too much power, money and focus on the personalities and too little on the profession. By that I mean the ‘personality’ on the mic or on the screen is believed to be the sole reason people listen. Behind every personality in journalism is a team. And a thorough understanding of what makes good media would lead us to recognize the significance of great teams; of researchers, producers, script writers and social media strategists. It is the combination of all these working at optimum level that elevates the standard of what we do.

We mistakenly believe that great journalists – and too often by that we mean hosts – are just born and cannot also be made. That error leads us to neglect training and overlook the poverty of skills that burden our profession.

We can change that. We must.

For some of us, we are waiting for media owners to change their minds, realize the value of an empowered, effective, well equipped well-trained newsroom and journalists and to bring that training to this space, pay us a fairer wage and improve the circumstances within which we work. We will wait in vain. Few business owners would happily spend more money on staff or make the kind of change that is a longer term investment, but for them may not seem to yield immediate returns. In the language of economics – as Thursday is mid-term budget review day – our currency is shot.

But that is not true. The currency of media is journalists. We appreciate and depreciate currency according to our skillset. I am blessed to be the recipient of ongoing training. The result of that training is a set of skills that serve me every day in this work that is my passion, purpose and profession.

Investigative journalism in Ghana is worth fighting for.

And we must fight if we want to keep it. The journey and work of Anas Aremeyaw Anas has ignited controversy, global headlines, angry critique and passionate praise. His use of undercover reporting has been the particular focus of ire.

And here is where our fight must start.

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Investigative journalism with undercover reporting can be traced back to the 18th century. Specifically, Nellie Bly in 1887. She was an investigative reporter who went undercover at what was then called the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island due to allegations of brutality and neglect of women. Today, we would call it a psychiatric facility or hospital. The allegations were unsubstantiated.  Where was the evidence asked those accused of the brutality? So, Nellie Bly went undercover. She feigned madness. She was committed to the asylum for 10 days. She kept a record of the appalling treatment she witnessed against the women. 10 days later the newspaper she was working for – New York World – got her out of the asylum. The damning reports she wrote due to her undercover reporting ignited a firestorm at the time and led to massive reform within the system. She went on to turn the reports into a book called ‘Ten Days in a Mad-house’. Her undercover reporting came with great risk and yielded great reward. Change came where before there was frustration, allegation and accusations of corruption.

Fast forward and global investigative journalists who go undercover or use undercover reporting are both reviled and revered within their societies. What is also clear is that journalism within an American context works for that society. In Ghana, across Africa, we must also recognize and tailor our journalism to our needs; societally and culturally. That matters too. To Africanize investigative journalism does not mean we do not wrestle with its controversies; it does mean we recognize there are different needs and different challenges.

Change without challenge is unreal. Corruption without rattling the corridors of power is equally unreal.

Investigative Journalism is a tool within our media landscape to excavate difficult to reach spaces.  The GJA president, Affail Monney, recently released a statement encouraging journalists to embrace investigative journalism and engage it.

Good news. How?

This is the crux of our challenge.  Investigative journalism is a skillset.  Undercover reporting is a last resort. It is controversial. It will always trigger questions regarding ethics. It will be challenged. This is good. We must not resist the challenge when executing our work. Rather, we must welcome it and wrestle with it. These opportunities to interrogate, critically analyze, scrutinize and improve matter.

Investigative Journalism in Ghana matters. It is a tool for fighting corruption. It is part of our media communications industry. It should not be left to an individual but must be strengthened within our industry.

We must fight for its future.

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On Thursday 19th July, 5.30pm-8pm, I will lead a discussion about the above issues at my annual media summit called: ‘#reImagineGH2018: stories, standards and struggle.’ Our focus this year is: – ‘Investigative Journalism in Ghana: Fighting for a future? Special Guest: ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS.’  It will take place at Webster University, East Legon.

Strictly RSVP: 054 012 0849 or email eafriyiepay52@webster.edu

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