Money for Coverage, Ethics for Free

Journalists at a Ghana Prisons Service press conference in Accra before receiving envelopes of cash for attending

It only takes five cedis ($3.50 CAD) to get from the Elisa Hotel in Accra to the CitiFM office in Adabraka. This is common knowledge to just about everyone in this city, but somehow, it’s slipped the mind of the press conference organizers.

Many organizations in Ghana provide transportation money, or “soli,” (short for solidarity) to reporters who attend their press conferences. How nice of them. But someone should let them know that 20 cedis ($14.00 CAD) is much too much to get from any point in this city to another.

I saw it first hand at the end of a Ghana Prisons Service press conference a few weeks ago. Eager journalists scrummed the public relations officer as if he was making an important announcement. They weren’t looking for quotes. They wanted to get their hands on one of the many white envelopes filled with cedis and marked with the names of invited news outlets.

A reporter from a public newspaper joined them. He spoke to me only a few minutes before about how balanced his paper is despite it being government-run. And yet there he was, with his hand out like the rest of them.

I was at the conference with a young intern who hadn’t seen this feature of Ghanaian politics for himself, although he had heard about it before. It took him a minute to realize what was going on.

“You have to keep your dignity,” he told me later when I asked him what he thought of soli. It was a relief to hear him say it, but I wonder how long his conviction will last in a country where journalists are paid little – 350 cedis for a junior reporter according to one journalist at CitiFM. Taking these envelopes is a generally accepted practice.

I also wonder how strong my ethics would be if I lived in this country. It’s easy to judge when you come from a prosperous place like Canada, where most journalists make a livable wage.
Ministries, corporations, and yes, even NGOs are eager to deliver information to the public in the form of positive news stories because independent media provides the perception of objectivity..

But how independent can the press be when journalists rely on outside sources for “transportation?”

I recently asked Salorm Adonoo, news editor at CitiFM, about soli and he said the station reimburses journalists for transportation costs but he doesn’t encourage or discourage his reporters from taking the money.

He doesn’t feel solidarity is necessarily an attempt to influence journalists. He cited a case last week where a reporter attended a press conference then left before they handed out the envelopes. The story was aired and days later the organizers dropped the envelope off knowing that their chance to influence the bias of the reporter had passed.

“You should make a decision based on whether the money has a propensity to influence the direction of your story. That’s the question you should ask yourself,” says Adonoo.

To him, the money is more a show of appreciation and way of ensuring wide news coverage rather than trying to influence how stories are written.

Adonoo says he doesn’t think any of CitiFM’s reporters are compromising their journalistic integrity by accepting envelopes of cash because he scrutinizes almost every story before it goes on air to make sure it is fair and balanced.

“When I realize there is some skewed story which shouldn’t be [skewed], I’m critical of that,” he says.

Maybe taking the envelope isn’t the straightforward affront to ethics it appears to be in the eyes of a young Canadian journalist.

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