Gagging the press is dangerous to a government’s own health
By Cameron Duodu
2010-11-18, Issue 505
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cc DRB62‘The road to controlling the press, however attractive to rulers it may be, must be trodden with extreme wariness. For it is luxuriantly strewn with signposts that read: “Expect unintended consequences!”’, writes Cameron Duodu.The difficulty the South African government is going through, in trying to evolve a viable relationship with the media is very familiar to me. The government thinks the media are being hyper-critical of its actions. This is because members of the government, including President Jacob Zuma himself, are often depicted as corrupt or inefficient.
Court cases involving government members and their associates are reported in an unfavourable light, it is claimed. And often, secret information which embarrasses the government is leaked to the media. Some members of the government therefore do not see why they should put up with it any longer.
So the government is considering passing legislation which will, in short, curtail the ability of the media to mess the government up. This, of course, has alarmed the media and journalists have mounted a spirited campaign to arouse public opinion to thwart the government’s designs.
It is not a new dilemma at all. In Britain, for instance, what became known as ‘the fourth estate of the realm’ was created after years of suffering by writers, pamphleteers and journalists, some of whom were jailed for sedition or criminal libel. They continued to fight, however, until freedom of the press was achieved as a principal component of what the political thinker, Tom Paine, called ‘The Rights of Man’.
William Jefferson, one of the presidents of the ‘new’ American Republic that was constituted under the principles of liberty that had evolved in Britain but which the British had often flouted, even went as far as to say that given a choice between a nation without a newspaper and one without a government, he would ‘not hesitate’ to choose the newspaper! And he was right, for whereas a good newspaper can ensure that no one is ever cheated in a nation, a government made up of fallible men in a nation without a good newspaper could steal the pants off every single one of its citizens. For the citizens would know little or nothing of their government’s doings – good or bad.
To me, the current South African debate over the media brings a weird feeling of déjà vu, for it was mirrored, almost exactly, by one which occurred in my country, Ghana, a few months after it achieved its independence in March 1957.
At that time, the biggest and slickest newspaper in the country was foreign-owned. It was the Daily Graphic, which was set up in 1950 by the Daily Mirror Group, based in London. Because of its origins, it was suspected of collaboration with the colonial administration by the leaders of our anti-colonial struggle, grouped around Dr Kwame Nkrumah in the Convention People’s Party (CPP). So they began to hound it.
Nkrumah had his own papers – the Accra Evenings News and the Cape Coast Daily Mail. These sold like hot cakes, though they were produced on flatbed machines and looked amateurish. But the writing was tight and incisive and always had the same target: What in hell’s name were khaki-wearing white men in pith-helmets doing in our country? Under the masthead were three fiery words: ‘Self-government Now!’
An issue of the Cape Coast Daily Mail so incensed the colonial authorities in 1950 that they passed a sedition bill, and within two days, had used it to sentence Kwame Nkrumah to three years imprisonment. Can you imagine that? Three years for writing what was on his mind! And by the ‘Mother of Democracy’ at that!
Imprisonment only made Nkrumah more popular while it unmasked the British: Ghanaians had bought the British propaganda line that they were leading Ghana by the hand towards self-government, but now they saw their spokesman jailed for speaking the truth. And that realisation marked the beginning of the end of British rule in Ghana. Strikes, looting of foreign-owned shops, and subtle non-cooperation intensified, and in desperation, the British enacted a new constitution for Ghana and held a general election under it, in which universal adult suffrage was used for the first time.
Nkrumah was allowed to contest the election, and from his jail cell, he obtained the highest number of votes cast for anyone in the whole country. His CPP won a majority of the seats: Able lieutenants like Komla Gbedemah romanticised Nkrumah’s leadership by spreading rumours that he was sending them messages written on toilet paper, and smuggled out of prison! The CPP’s majority was so impressive that the British were forced to do a humiliating flip-flop and release Nkrumah from prison immediately. Not only that – they made him ‘leader of government business’ in the new legislature. They didn’t want to call him ‘prime minister’ as yet, but everyone knew that the strange, grandiose title meant he was ‘number one’ in the new government.
Later that same year, 1957, Kwame Nkrumah emerged on the world stage, to be photographed sitting at the same table as Eric Louw, foreign minister of racist South Africa, at the first-ever Commonwealth heads of government conference attended by a black man. The conference was held in London, and also sitting at the table was Roy Welensky of the other racist country in southern Africa, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Louw and Welensky were representatives of racist regimes which not only preached that Africans were not fit to rule themselves but also that they were not qualified to be allowed to vote. Thus the photographs that emanated from that Commonwealth conference, and were transmitted round the world, gave the lie to all the racist propaganda that South Africa and Welensky’s sham federation had been preaching.
But alas, at home, Nkrumah had begun to dismantle the democracy of which he had become a symbol in the eyes of the world. When he proposed to put his effigy on new coins being minted for Ghana, a popular columnist of the Daily Graphic, Bankole Timothy, pilloried him in an article entitled, ‘What next, Kwame?’ Nkrumah would have written something worse in the colonial days. But he was not amused and deported Timothy forthwith to his home country, Sierra Leone.
Meanwhile, Nkrumah had set up his own ‘Guinea Press’ to publish newspapers that were ostensibly to push his own agenda. But instead of doing that, these papers began to intimidate writers, both local and foreign, who criticised the Nkrumah regime. Then, towards the end of 1958, the atmosphere of free give-and-take between government and opposition nose-dived steeply. The Nkrumah government used its majority in parliament to pass a Preventive Detention Act (PDA) which empowered the government to detain, without trial for five years, ‘any person whose activities were not conducive to the public good’.
The provisions of the new law were so wide that all manner of people could be caught by it, especially those fingered by informants. There were reports that taxi drivers who criticised the government while carrying passengers they did not know had been jailed under the law. The ranks of the official opposition MPs, whose contribution to debates had elucidated many issues, began to dwindle, as the most eloquent of them were carted off to Nsawam Prison, 22 miles from Accra.
Thus, that single PDA legislation became responsible for the total destruction of democracy in Ghana. Some journalists were also arrested and jailed and those that were left learnt to practise self-censorship. In 1960, a CPP man was installed in the radio newsroom where I worked, to censor news items before we could broadcast them. It was soul-destroying, for we all regarded ourselves as patriots who sympathised with Nkrumah’s campaign to free the rest of Africa from colonial and racist rule. Eventually, I left to edit the Ghana edition of Drum magazine. There, I was forced to tread a very careful, almost apolitical path, for the paper had been banned once before by the government. It was the most frustrating time of my life, for I could see where my country was going wrong and yet I dared not point it out with the intellectual vigour required.
Indeed, the descent into totalitarian rule by Nkrumah was self-defeating, for it meant that he could not fully confront the apartheid rulers of South Africa with the moral superiority needed for the task. For South Africans could be detained for ninety days without trial, and everyone criticised that as wrong. But Ghanaians, on the other hand, could go in for a whole five years without trial. Which was worse? How could Ghana strut around the United Nations championing the cause of freedom fighters in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde when it had skewered itself on the twisting antlers of such a massive contradiction on its home soil? The racists took comfort from the ‘hypocrisy’ of the would-be liberator of blacks installed in the north and used him to justify their own oppression of the blacks. They pointed to Ghana and said, ‘Stability in a country sometimes requires strong measures – why, look at Ghana!’
Something had to give. In August 1962, a bomb was thrown at Dr Kwame Nkrumah at Kulungugu, in Northern Ghana, which nearly killed him. The police investigation ‘implicated’ three of the topmost men in Nkrumah’s own party in the crime, including the powerful former information minister, Tawia Adamafio, who was also a former general secretary of the CPP. Also implicated was Ako Adjei, former minister of foreign affairs and the man who invited Nkrumah back to Ghana from London, to come and take part in the political struggle in Ghana. The third man was E C Quaye, administrative secretary of the CPP.
It is very likely that the party men were stitched up by political rivals, for they were all Gas (people who hailed from the capital, Accra). They were charged with treason, but the highest court in the land could not find any evidence upon which to convict them. So they were acquitted. But Nkrumah hit the roof, got parliament to empower him to nullify the judgement, and then ordered a retrial – after getting rid of the judges who had acquitted the accused persons. They were, of course, convicted by the new court and sentenced to death. But the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.
There were, by now, no journalists left who were brave enough to protest against this outrage against the natural justice that was owed to these once-powerful men. They had sat down and taken part in the demolition of the institutions that made Ghanaians free. And now, they were at the mercy of one man, with no media left, able to give their side of an issue that had sent them to death row itself.
From then on, such was the dearth of political discourse that any propaganda crafted against Nkrumah was eagerly believed. So, his own position also began to crumble, and when a group of soldiers and policemen decided to conspire against him and overthrow his regime, they were able to recruit others to join their cause. Thus, on 24 February 1966, while Nkrumah was in Peking, en route to Hanoi, where he was going to try and mediate in the Vietnam war, he was overthrown in a military coup. He died in exile in 1972.
Now, the question is: What if? My considered opinion is that if Ghana’s political situation had been frozen at say, mid-1958, when the opposition had not yet been driven underground, and everyone could have his say, and when the media could fearlessly bring out what was going wrong with the ship of state, we would have had a much cleaner and more efficient government, which would have been much more difficult to malign, and which would thus have been more difficult to overthrow.
Instead, Ghana descended from the initial totalitarian rule into cycles of military and civilian rule, during which it was fully demonstrated that once the precedent of wrecking freedom of the press had been established by the Nkrumah regime, succeeding governments that had attacked that regime for abusing press freedom would, themselves, also attack that freedom without batting an eyelid.
One example occurred in 1967, only a year after Nkrumah had been overthrown. Three top editors of the publicly-owned media were dismissed by the military National Liberation Council (NLC) government for criticising an agreement the government had signed with an American company, which virtually handed a Ghanaian pharmaceutical company to the Americans as a gift. When the government was criticised for sacking the editors, the head of state, General Joseph Ankrah, retorted that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’!
And in 1970, the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Kofi Busia, dismissed this writer from the editorship of the Daily Graphic, for criticising its policy of advocating ‘dialogue’ with the racist regime of South Africa. My argument was that the so-called ‘dialogue’, inasmuch as it excluded the black South Africans, was a ruse to dilute the solidarity that Black Africa was showing, at the UN and elsewhere, against apartheid. The ‘Muldergate’ scandal had not yet been exposed, but I could discern that money was being thrown at African leaders who would play ball, through the president of the Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny.
I said this in an editorial and described such money as ‘blood money’ extracted from the sweat of our Black Brothers in South Africa. Prime Minister Busia was stung by that and he gave me my marching orders. But even Ghanaians who had not been born at that time have heard of my stand and I have no doubt that quite a few of my fellow journalists have stiffened their backbones as a result of that example.
By the late 1980s, press freedom in Ghana had become a distant memory, as journalists were hounded left and right. One regime, for instance (led by Flight-Lieutenant J J Rawlings) had its agents ‘shit-bomb’ the offices of an opposition newspaper – an unheard-of abomination that is difficult merely to report and which introduced a new term into the Ghanaian political lexicography that cannot be cleansed with an euphemism.
Under the same Rawlings regime, two journalists lost their lives after they had been imprisoned. They were Tommy Thompson and John Kugblenu, publisher and editor, respectively, of the weekly Free Press newspaper. They died shortly after being released from prison, their health having been fatally impaired by the conditions they had endured whilst in prison. As a result, many journalists were driven into exile. Two journalists went to prison after being charged with an antiquated law from the colonial era – criminal libel, for offending Mrs J J Rawlings. That case showed how other institutions of the state can be corrupted when press freedom is vitiated: the journalists were merely fined in the end, but in the mean time, the magistrate who tried them, eager to please the regime, had placed them in custody for several weeks, pending their sentencing. He thus used the discretionary power of refusing bail, to ensure that the regime’s desire to punish the journalists was fully realised.
So, the road to controlling the press, however attractive to rulers it may be, must be trodden with extreme wariness. For it is luxuriantly strewn with signposts that read: ‘Expect unintended consequences!’
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* Cameron Duodu is a journalist, writer and commentator.
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