Tamale’s rights media crusader: The story of Joseph Ziem

Choosing a pen and paper over a bow and arrow, Joseph Ziem is the Robin Hood of Ghanaian rights media.

Joseph Ziem - advocate, journalist, environmentalist.

“When I see something wrong, I start to ask questions,” says Ziem. “Who is supposed to deal with this situation? Why is it like this?”

A blogger, a radio host, a freelance writer – Ziem chooses not to limit himself to one title. However, the focus of his pieces are clear: giving a voice to the voiceless and holding those in power accountable.

“I am a human rights journalist, I’m a development journalist, and I’m an environmental journalist; human rights journalism is in all of them,” the 28-year-old explains.

What makes Ziem unique among other journalists in Ghana is not the quantity of his stories but rather their calibre. While prominent Ghanaian newspapers are headlining “Fisherman Kills Rival” and “Robbers Rape Student Nurse”, Ziem challenges the sensational with titles such as “Disbandment of Witches’ Camps Should Not Endanger Lives of Victims” and “Costly Disasters Created By Mining Companies in Ghana”.

Ziem has made his mark on a wide array of media outlets: as a radio host for Tamale’s FIILA FM, northern correspondent for the Daily Dispatch newspaper, staff writer for The Advocate and Free Press newspapers, and most recently co-founder of the development issues-oriented blog, Savannah News.

Ziem’s interest in journalism began as if torn from the script of a Hollywood childhood fantasy: nose pressed to the glass, fogging up the window with wide-eyed curiosity. It started in 2002, when a community radio station opened up in his hometown of Nandom.

“I peeked through the window of the station and saw gadgets,” he recalls. “I asked myself, ‘How can people sit inside this room and when they talk, people just tuning their radio sets can hear what they are saying?’ I was inquisitive. When I went to senior high, I nurtured this ambition to become a broadcaster.”

However, a crusader’s path is rarely without challenges. Ziem explains that he was unable to complete high school, only half a percent shy from making the minimum grade of 50 per cent to move up a grade.

“I was sacked. I think somebody was in there to get me out of school,” he confides.

Unable to make the grade, he was denied entry into his final years of senior high and moved south to Kumasi to recalibrate his future with broadcast journalism.  Not letting his academic standing stop him, Ziem was determined to carve a new path to his dream. Six months later and six cedi lighter for the application, Ziem enrolled himself in broadcasting school.

After four years in the industry, Ziem was awarded the 2010 Kasa Media Award for Natural Resources and Environmental Journalism.

He still remembers the call from Kasa Media.

“I just knew I had won. When they said congratulations, I said Hallelujah,” he says.

Ziem wrote the award-winning article in response to foreign gold mining activities in Northern Ghana. Mining is one of Ghana’s largest industries and yet the government only sees a fraction of the royalties.  His article highlighted the effects of desertification wrought by mining activities in the North and the impact on many surrounding communities’ ability to access to clean drinking water. Ziem advocated that the environmental and health risks to the nation were not worth the profits evidently escaping the country.

Word came back to Ziem about other stories as well. A community in the East Gonja region of Ghana faced constant power outages by the Volta River Authority (VRA). The community advocated several times to the VRA regarding their right to electricity, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Ziem wrote a story for the Daily Dispatch advocating that the VRA address their concerns. It was passed on to the Accra head office and the resolution caught the attention of the wider community.

He admits that there is not much money to be made in journalism in Tamale. Journalists in town earn between 50 to 70 cedi a month (around 30-40 CAD). However, Ziem’s affirms that his passion is rooted in the positive effect journalism can have on improving the standards of living in communities and the environment.

In journalism, he says, “if you want to be rich, do not come. But if you want to save humanity, you are welcome.”

Despite choosing silver-framed sunglasses and a well pressed shirt over a green cape and tights, the fervour for justice remains the same.

“Until I see nothing wrong around me,” he says, “I won’t stop writing.”

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