Tag Archives: human rights defenders

Mob justice in Northern Ghana

Men argue over the fate of the alleged thief.

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

Northern Ghana is a powder keg, waiting for a fuse. Whether it’s a dispute over the enskinment of a chief or over a bad left turn in traffic, things turn violent quickly.

This week, as I was reporting on mob justice, the violence turned to me.

Walking through downtown Tamale on a sunny afternoon, I hear a commotion outside a small mosque. It isn’t time for afternoon prayers, so I am surprised to find 100 people gathered outside the doors. I look on bemused, wondering what the fuss is over. A friendly bystander gives me some context.

“There’s a thief. He’s inside the mosque. You see, them with sticks? He must stay inside or he will be beaten.”

Innocent until proven guilty. It’s a fundamental human right and the basis of Commonwealth law. Yet something tells me the mob wouldn’t be too impressed with my paltry legal knowledge.

“But the police station is just there,” I say gesturing down the street. “Why don’t they take him there?”

We are 100 metres away from the biggest police station in Northern Ghana, the district offices of the Ghana Police Service. The irony is not lost on me.

I want to start taking pictures, but first I have to assess the risks. In Ghana, violence against journalists is not unheard of. My bulky Nikon SRL is not easy to disguise. The crowd’s anger is reaching its zenith.

Comforted by the daylight and proximity of female bystanders, I start photographing. My journalistic instincts take over. I take wide shot of the crowd from a safe distance. Some women gesture at me and try to jump out of my shot, but I ignore them.

The alleged thief emerges from the mosque and the crowd swarm him, some brandishing sticks. Nursing a fresh head wound, he somehow manages to evade them by climbing into a taxi.

Bystanders observe the violence outside the mosque

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

Undeterred, the mob surrounds the car, rocking it back and forth. It’s all happening so quickly, it’s impossible to see what’s happening. A few minutes pass before the car is allowed to leave.

The crowd starts to disperse. Pulses are raised and the crowd needs a new scapegoat: me. I have been ignored until this point and am surprised when a young man approaches me.

“Why are you snapping pictures?” he demands, his brow drenched in sweat

“I am just watching,” I shrug and smile. I am hoping my characteristic, wide grin will diffuse the situation.

He laughs, as if to say “silly foreigner” and rejoins the throng.

“You shouldn’t be snapping. Close.”

This advice comes from a man in a tan suit, who looks to work at the hospital.

“Why?” I ask earnestly.

The man draws closer, inches away from my face. A crowd of onlookers is now joining around us.

“Things will end badly for you. They will snatch your camera and spoil it.”

My temperature is rising. Now I am getting reckless

“Are you threatening me?” I ask. “Who are you anyways?”

The tan-suited gentleman backpeddles.

“No, I am not threatening you. You are not permitted to snap photos. Where will you put them?”

Despite his assurances that he is not threatening me, he and four onlookers are closing in on me.

Emboldened by the fact I am leaving in two weeks, I tell them what I think of their advice.

“I don’t care.”

I loop my camera around my neck, swing my backpack onto my stomach and start to walk away.

The jeering crowd follows. I hear sandals flopping against the pavement, running towards me. I brace myself to be hit from behind.

One of the women who didn’t want her picture taken is following me. She’s tall, wearing a flowery blue blouse and is livid. Thankfully her friend is holding her back, a safe 10 metres away.

Nurses observe the scrum outside the mosque

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

Sal’minga,” she hisses.

She starts yelling expletives at me that I can’t print here.

I beam at her and say, “Bye bye now”.

I continue walking away.

A nurse walks alongside me and gives a reproving look.

“You cannot show those pictures,” she says, chastising me. “It is a shame to the hospital.”

“I’m a journalist,” I explain. “I am here to witness what’s happening. If you have security problems you need to fix them.”

Behind the nurse, my bullies continue to taunt me.

“Your ugly legs! Your ugly legs! Look at your ugly legs!

I continue to walk away and escape the crowd in an internet cafe.

Somehow I thought I was immune to the violence and threats; that my Canadian passport and white skin meant that the mob couldn’t come after me. I was wrong, but I am grateful I discovered this before it was too late.

World Press Freedom Day event reveals media freedom in Malawi has a new landscape

Media freedom in Malawi has been commonly deplored, but amidst the political transition that brought Malawi its first female head of state last month, Her Excellency Joyce Banda, media freedom is beginning to take an unfettered shape.

The topic was denounced at a UNESCO funded event held by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi chapter in Blantyre last week, in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd.

The event was titled “Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in Malawi: The Role of Human Rights Defenders in Promoting the Rule of Law and Constitution in Malawi,” and a debate ensued as NGO workers, journalists, academics, and government officials who sat on a panel discussed the topic.

“The defence of human rights is about informing people on time, about surveillance…. it is about evaluating the performance of all authorities responsible for our social welfare… and it is also about the most important thing which is advocacy” said Emmanuel Kondowe, acting deputy executive secretary for Malawi National Commission for UNESCO, as he asserted that true and accurate information is only possible through free media.

Kondowe futher expressed that the media is at the forefront of defending the aspirations of Malawians, defining the media’s role as “drawing attention to human rights infractions.”

“[The media] has the power to reach out to the masses and influence opinion, as well as foster change,” said Edith Kambalame, the features editor at The Nation.

Kambalame also introduced the view that change can also be fostered on an individual level as “every Malawian is a human rights defender” and the other panelists unanimously agreed.

“We have the right to defend our own rights apart from somebody else defending for us” said Margareth Ali, vice chairperson of Human Rights Consultative Committee.

Media freedom in the past fell privy to scrutinization as panelists and audience members alike reviewed the media landscape that existed under the power of past president Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime.

“The new government is only a few weeks old, but with the previous one, we were facing many difficulties” said Ali, referring to organizations that were condemned for helping the media.

“Again, events in our recent past attest to this. Journalists have been attacked by their fellow citizens and not least by some sectors of society who are charged with protecting the sanctity of life including the lives of journalists,” said Kondowe in reference to the harassment journalists have faced.

In response, George Pemba, Regional Information Officer for the South, spoke on behalf of the government in order to proclaim change.“You may agree with me that the human rights defenders including the media were not free enough to express themselves or disseminate information,

“[Now,] the freedom is there and present, particularly with the coming in of this new government. You may recall when the new Minister of Information was being sworn in, the head of state indicated that what she would want to see and hear is the truth and only the truth that has to be given out to the public.

“This is an indication that government is more than ready to make sure that human rights, especially media freedoms and freedom of expression are upheld in this country.”

Francis Chikunkhuzeni, lecturer of  Mass Media and Society at Polytechnic, sent a message to all journalists and human rights defenders in regards to a way forward.

“We should be very optimistic, but cautiously optimistic because change is usually gradual. We are not going to reinvent our practices overnight.”