Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie used to wonder why Whitehorse journalists didn’t do more to “promote the territory.”
Reporters have a vital role to play in society, Fentie would say, but in his opinion Yukon news establishments — some more than others — seemed preoccupied with being unduly critical of government initiatives.
He would love the media in Ghana.
Reporters here have jumped on the Ghana at 50 anniversary bandwagon, extolling their nation’s flagship status as the first sub-Saharan country to break from colonial masters.
The ruling New Patriotic Party can do no wrong — at least, not that you hear on the radio, read in newspapers or see on television.
Its elected ministers are forever “urging” various sects of society — doctors, teachers — to improve things.
So the media tell us.
The pro-government trend is not simply about political partisanship, but also a general willingness to submit to perceived authority.
Nevertheless, the spin is flabbergasting.
And reporters jeopardize Ghana’s prosperity by buying into it.
For instance, Ghana suffers from a hydroelectricity shortage resulting in random blackouts across the country almost every day.
Rather than pressure government for a solution to such a pervasive social problem, reporters become mouthpieces.
In April, when Energy Minister Joseph Kofi Adda announced the blackouts would become more frequent, the media didn’t criticize the change in policy.
They didn’t question whether mining companies would suffer the same power outages, or whether there would be compensation for businesses paying to fuel their diesel generators.
Instead, at Adda’s behest, Ghana’s oldest and most popular daily newspaper, the Daily Graphic, reported that Ghanaians needed to “change their attitudes” about the problem.
It urged people to buy better light bulbs.
It’s as though Ghanaian reporters still believe they’ll go to jail if they dare dissent.
Before 2000, a criminal libel law was in effect — a criminal law, not a civil law, which threatened any reporter who published unfounded criticism about an elected official with arrest and imprisonment.
The law was amended in 2000.
Reporters can now be sued, but not imprisoned for libel in Ghana, as in other democracies.
The explosion of new radio stations and newspapers that followed the amendment had a dual effect.
Coups d’etat were no longer possible because revolutionaries would never be able to take control of every radio station, explained Ato Kwamena Dadzie of the Ghana Journalists Association.
But without a licensing body, anyone with an agenda could purchase a media outlet to further political ends.
And people did.
Ghana’s most prolific private media — such as the Daily Graphic and its chief rival, the Statesman — are owned by political aficionados who blatantly use their publications to support the New Patriotic Party.
Most ironic are published calls from the government to Ghanaians to “resist corruption.”
True story: the president’s brother and minister of Defence, Kwame Addo Kufuor, recently toured his constituency in Kumasi with a busload of journalists.
Kufuor visited schools, shook hands and then drove reporters to his mansion, where food and beer were served on his immaculate front lawns.
He denied he was jockeying for his party’s leadership in advance of the 2008 election.
Later, Kufuor gathered the reporters in his marble-floored living room.
He had no control over what sort of stories they would write, he said.
Then Kufuor gave the press corps a wad of cash — 10 million cedis, or roughly $1,200, to divide between them. Then he left.
Not one of the journalists objected. In fact, they squabbled when the cash was not split equally.
None of them thought accepting money from the minister created an ethical problem.
It’s common practice in Ghana for journalists, who make meagre salaries, to receive ‘tax and transport’ envelopes when they attend government press conferences.
None of them considered Kufuor’s money a bribe; and none of them included the “dash,” as it is called, in their reports of his tour.
Instead, the country’s most prolific radio station, Joy FM, reported online that Kufuor “wept bitterly” upon discovering that a school library had not yet received promised books and computers, and blamed local bureaucracy.
Not one journalist asked Kufuor, the Defence minister responsible for the army, about the soldiers who, the previous week, supervised the government-ordered demolition of business structures and shanty houses in Kumasi’s indigent neighbourhoods.
Not one reporter asked Kufour about aid for poorer neighbourhoods in his own riding — somehow skipped during his tour — which had recently been ravaged by floods.
Western journalists must guard against imposing homegrown cultural values on the societies they visit, especially in poor regions like West Africa.
But Ghanaian reporters who are willing to glorify their nation’s status as a model of democratic prosperity had better start acting like reporters in successful democracies: stop taking bribes, get critical, report the bad with the good and hold the government accountable.
Otherwise, they should stop pretending.
With files from Trisha Estabrooks
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.