Beaten & Bold: lessons for media leadership

Esther A. Armah

Beaten, manhandled and attacked. 11 cases in 10 months. Every month in 2018 a journalist in Ghana has been assaulted in the line of their duty. Not a single assault has resulted in the prosecution of an individual. Indeed, in the majority those responsible are yet to be identified, much less apprehended. These individual attacks are being treated as a personal issue or tragedy for the journalist, his or her wellbeing and that of the media house from which he or she comes.

It is beyond time for a fresh approach.

Journalists are being beaten, our media is being battered; those doing so are bold and unapologetic and it is time for we the media to mirror that bold action and leadership in defense of our bodies, our livelihood, our respect and our industry. Isn’t it?

15 journalists; 2 women, 1 pregnant and 13 young men. Those dishing out the beatings are primarily police, military and security. There is an irony that those tasked with security of citizens are actively endangering the security of citizens. Journalists are also citizens.

The latest attack was by former President Mahama’s security detail. The Former President has apologized to the journalist. However, this latest incident must be put in the context of an escalating trend; and not seen as individual resolution.

The attack on two women journalists, one of whom was pregnant, by Menzgold workers, was reported as resolved after the mobile phone and other goods taken by the staff were returned to one of the women. Physical manhandling, shoving and taking of a woman journalist’s belongings is not resolved by the return of what was taken.

There are bigger points here.

They are about an industry that tells the stories of university students rising up to protest brutality by security personal while failing to itself rise up and protest brutality of its own by security personnel. KNUST students offer we in the media vital lessons in leadership. I do not suggest, nor do I advocate that journalists start destroying anybody’s property. But it is beyond time that we as an industry take the safety of ourselves seriously, and act accordingly.

KNUST students say that it was security allegedly brutalizing students and the university’s leadership apparent failure to act that led to the most recent protests. KNUST say individual action against rogue security personnel was taken post investigation of at least one of the incidents. The students call was about the escalating issue of brutality and the institution of security, not simply the individual act of one security officer. Comb through the archives and you will find a history of student uprisings in KNUST. Back in 2006, there were 3 separate protests and marches to highlight issues students felt were unaddressed or inadequately resolved by the university leadership.

What leadership lessons might we in the media learn from KNUST students and their willingness to stand, fight back, demand change and issue a call to action when change does not arise?

The simple truth is we in the media want someone else to take on the action, fight the fight, challenge the leadership and take on the risk while those who have been inactive reap the reward.

We are the 4th Estate. That is more than title. It refers to the watchdog role of the press, one that is important to a functioning democracy. It means we have an explicit capacity of advocacy and an implicit ability to frame political issues. Though not formally recognized as a part of a political system, the Press wields significant indirect social influence. We seem unwilling to engage that influence in defense of ourselves here in Ghana.

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Why?

This is where an interrogation of Ghana’s media structure matters and actively contributes to the failures of leadership. It is here that Ghana’s media owners must come under careful scrutiny. When media owners are politicians, this notion of freedom is eroded. What is left, or what it is replaced by, is politicized influence. That is the kind that centres party or politician, not citizen. That is a frame that does not serve democracy nor does it honor this profession, it mars our motion and it sullies our dignity. This is not true of all media; but according to the Media Foundation for West Africa’s report regarding media ownership; we have gained a clear sense of the extent to which media houses are owned by politicians.

We have media bodies who hold different positions and carry out a variety of functions.  We have the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA); the National Media Commission (NMC); the Editors Forum Ghana (EFG). Each of these bodies does crucial work and represents the industry in different ways. The NMC registers, regulates and monitors the activities of media houses in Ghana. The GJA is tasked with representing the journalists themselves and of course the Editors Forum Ghana tackles the work and activity of Editors. The roles are different, but the deficit seems to be equal. By that I mean, there seems to be an equal absence in rallying as an industry around this issue of safety.

Our media profession rightly critiques GJA for inadequate action over these escalating attacks. But, too few of us are members of the GJA. Membership has its privileges, it can also shift attention, demand action and reimagine approach.

I joined a panel on Multimedia’s ‘PM Express’ hosted by the excellent journalist Evans Mensah. Long after the panel concluded, I was still thinking about the issues, our arguments and contributions. I thought about the individual journalists who had suffered the assaults, their health needs, their fear, their future, their families and what they are facing and faced in a moment where you are simply executing tasks for which you are employed and – frankly – often poorly paid and poorly trained.

That is our internal reality. But outside appearances tell a different story.

This year, World Press Freedom Day was held in Ghana. Our president made an impassioned and powerful speech about the freedom of Ghana’s press and his own role in advocating for and defending that freedom. His speech was lauded and applauded. I sat at tables with journalists from all over the world afterwards who spoke glowingly of the President’s speech and Ghana’s record. In the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, when it comes to Africa, Ghana ranks No. 1 in Freedom of the Press. It ranks Number 23 on the 180-country list. I wonder what is being measured when such rankings are analyzed and assessed. The appearance of freedom starkly contrasts with the reality of danger on the ground by a growing number of journalists.

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Freedom without safety does not feel like freedom at all.

We are each vulnerable if we stand alone; if we step out of the shadows and allow the light of disgust to shine on the assaults, that individual action threatens livelihoods – so that is an understandable fear – unless you are an individual who wields considerable influence and authority – then your stance carries a different authority. But, standing up as a collective, as an industry and as an institution – that is a game changer.

Are we willing to change the game, our game? Are we willing to recognize our safety is not a game and not to be played with?

Collective action is a must. Media’s power is language, lens and light. We use words via a lens to shed light on pertinent issues.

We actually do much more than that. In this 21st century landscape, we don’t simply tell the story, we frame it. We parse information through perspective and shape narrative. Those narratives offer influence and wield authority. That is whey media carries so much power. Some argue about the notion of objectivity within a media landscape. The simple truth is that ship has long sailed. We have been in the era of Frame vs Facts for a long, long time. We may protest it; however, we should stop denying its reality. It is not that Facts do not matter. They do. The frame through which facts are parsed can impact the telling of a story – this is part of media’s skill and power.

Coverage is the media’s primary weapon.

What we cover gets amplified, action can be taken, an ignored issued becomes a focused reality. We can create narrative. We can control it. We can build momentum. That is our power. How well do we understand it? How thoughtfully do we engage it? How professionally do we honor it?

These are not new questions, but the escalating attacks mean they are more urgent ones.

The public sees the media as a singular entity. It rarely distinguishes individual journalists. It may not know those who have been attacked by name. That is our fault and it is a failure of media leadership that the public neither understands, respects or knows this story.

The politicians, police and public already understand how to ensure such assaults are not taken seriously. Just wait.  Our media’s attention is easily moved from one thing to the next.

We are an industry that feels misunderstood by the public, disrespected by the authorities and taken for granted by the Media owners. We cannot ask of others what we are unwilling to give to and demand of ourselves. To be respected would mean we respect ourselves. Do we?

The power is in our hands. This does not require the majority of the media, but it does need critical mass to move and make lasting change. We seem reluctant to engage this power in service of our own safety. We have become fluent in the language of inaction.

Let’s learn another language.

Today it was not me; one day it might be. Or you. If we don’t stand up for our safety, our dignity and our profession now, then when and for whom?

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