Tag Archives: journalism

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.”

Suicide and shame in Malawi

Newspaper Suicide

Malawi’s Nation on Sunday reports on the mysterious suicide of 24-year-old Robert Chasowa, a student and political activist. Photo by Nina Lex.

As I walked to work, the headlines of Malawi’s daily papers caught my eye: “Poly Student Commits Suicide.”

I stopped mid-step, shocked and stared wide-eyed at the gruesome photograph of the young man’s dead body splashed across the front page.

In Canada, it’s an unwritten rule that journalists aren’t supposed to report on suicides: “News media increasingly may not report the cause of death; or officials may not release information on the cause or manner of death, citing respect for the privacy of families,” according to the Canadian Journalism Project.

The Canadian Psychiatric Association also states that journalists should avoid putting the word “suicide” in the headline, giving details of the method used and the media should avoid photos of the deceased, avoid admiration of the deceased, avoid front page coverage, and avoid repetitive and excessive coverage. Many of the association’s recommendations can be adopted as journalistic guidelines.

While the act of suicide in Malawi remains taboo, suicide cases are often smeared across the pages of the country’s newspaper. Tabloidization of a suicide victim’s family, personal details and death are reported on without afterthought. Photographs and suicide letters are also printed.

Families and communities are often shamed after a death because of how the media reports on suicide, explained Kenneth Mtaso executive Director of Young Voices, a community–based organization (CBO) that works to protect and promote the rights of youth in Malawi.

Attempting and committing suicide is illegal in Malawi and is treated as a criminal offence rather than a social issue. Section 229 of the penal code states, “any person who attempts to kill himself shall be guilty of misdemeanor.”

This law brings further shame to families of those who try to take their own lives.

“If you are caught trying to kill yourself you go to prison. It can be a jail sentence between four and five years.  The police look at the forces that contributed to your suicide and then decide the length,” said Mtaso. “However, this isn’t effective because most people will disregard all punishment to commit suicide.”

There are no definitive statistics or data on how many people commit suicide or attempt suicide and are jailed in Malawi; however, it is believed that the number is growing as the country faces more challenges, such as increasing levels of poverty.

With over 70 per cent of Malawians living on less then a dollar, poverty is an instigator that leads to suicide in Malawi.  Poorer rural areas are more at risk for suicides, as there are greater cultural pressures and stigmatization to face there, explains Mtaso.

“In the villages people marry younger making them more susceptible to suicide. Also teen pregnancy is big factor in youth suicide,” said Mtaso. “Because of the stigma surrounding reproductive issues in Malawi, especially in rural areas, middle-aged women who are having trouble conceiving sometime commit suicide because of the pressures to have a baby.”

About 80 per cent of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas.

While there is less pressure on urban youth to marry and have children, alcohol and drugs leads to more youth suicides in Malawi’s major cities.

According to UNICEF, the adult HIV prevalence rate in Malawi in 2009 was 11 per cent, which also contributes to suicide in Malawi.

Young Voices has been offering advice for troubled youth, who are at risk of suicide in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa since 1997.

“We try to emphasize that just because you live in poverty doesn’t mean it’s the end,” said Mtaso. “Young people have a responsibility to protect themselves and value life.”

Malawi’s economic crunch hits the media hard

Employees of The Daily Times and other BP&P papers have been laid off as Malawi faces economic difficulties. Photo by Travis Lupick.

“Dear brethren,” Leonard Chikadya, managing director of Blantyre Printing and Publishing, began the conclusion of a speech to staff on Aug. 30. “With a lot of pain in my heart, I have swallowed my pride and, reluctantly, decided that I am going to reduce our head count. I am going to reduce the number of colleagues that we have by 44.”

Speaking for the leadership of the largest publishing house in Malawi, Chikadya’s words soon reverberated throughout the media environment of the entire country.

And they were not the only ones.

On the same day, the state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation announced that a significant round of layoffs would hit its ranks too. The following morning, just 418 remained of the 700 employees who comprised MBC the day before.

In a packed cafeteria at BP&P’s head office in Blantyre, Chikadya showed remorse for the situation.

“I have called this meeting because this problem affects all of us,” he said to some 150 of the company’s 260 staff. “We were all witness to what happened on the 20 of July…but what happened on the 20 of July was just a symptom of the problems we are facing.”

The date Chikadya referenced was initially reserved for peaceful demonstrations aimed at government inaction on foreign reserve shortages and fuel scarcity. But the people’s anger boiled over and by nightfall, riots met with police brutality left 19 dead and scores more injured.

And so, yesterday, BP&P’s editors, reporters, salespeople, and everybody else that a publishing house requires to function, were told that financial hardships matched by the government’s mismanagement of the economy had reached their doorstep.

“We are all aware of the acute shortage of forex,” Chikadya explained, referring to the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves. Requests for loans from Malawi’s cash-strapped banks had been denied and negotiations with BP&P’s paper supplier had hit a wall. If action was not taken, Chikadya continued, BP&P would no longer have the capacity to pay for the broadsheet on which it prints Malawi’s news.

Throughout the rest of the day, envelopes circulated as reporters manned their desks until the last of their stories were filed. Even those who knew they were on their way out remained loyal.

“Don’t show it to me,” one was heard as a letter was dropped on his desk. “I will file my article and be gone by the end of the day.”

The morning of Aug. 31, those who remained spoke with nervous optimism. “We live to fight another day,” one BP&P reporter said.

I’m sure the mood over in the newsroom at MBC was similar.

Malawi’s economy is struggling badly. On Aug. 31, two of the country’s biggest media houses felt the weight of these hard times. And 326 of their employees carried it home.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick.

A Labour of Love

There is no closing time at Skyy FM. Reporters work until the work is done and sometimes that means twelve hour days and weekends.

This issue was brought up last week in one of our editorial meetings. A practicum student just out of high school has been coming to our eight o’clock meetings and staying past our six o’clock news in order to help with production. He gets flack for coming late to work and flack from his family for coming home late at night.

What makes matters worse, is the long days are punctuated with hours of inactivity. Christian Baidoo, a reporter at Skyy for four years, says many of the station’s challenges are technological.

[pullquote]Despite these challenges, many of the reporters at Skyy say they love what they do.[/pullquote]

“The computers are old computers, they break down. We always have to back up files because we always have to format the computers because they give us problems. As I sit here now, I have two bulletins to do: I have the four o’clock news – that is for radio, but for the television news at six, our editing suite is broken down. We are waiting for them to fix it and we have from now until six to get all the stories done. That is one major challenge: I’m here, I’m ready to work, but because the editing suite is broken down there is no other option but wait.”

Baidoo also points out a problem with the sole company vehicle not always being readily available for the news. The lack of internet access is also a problem. Baidoo sites as an example working on a story and needing to convert miles to kilometres for clarity. Without working Internet, he laments he couldn’t be accurate in his reporting.

Despite these challenges, many of the reporters at Skyy say they love what they do.

“I’ve always dreamed of being a journalist,” says Eric Gyetuah, who is doing his national service.

“With the little experience I’ve gotten in the past five months, I think I like it,” he says. Like all of the other interns, he isn’t paid a wage.

Eric Gyetuah conducts an interview for Skyy in Sekondi

Leticia Esi Anaman, a practicum student, became a journalist to give back to her community. “We have people in my area who need someone to reach out to them. I thought if we get someone who is a journalist in my area, that person can [speak] out with their views and what they need.”

Coming from a rural area, Anaman says much of the local news is centered on the cities. “If you get someone from the villages, you can get someone to tell what is actually wrong there as well.”

However, she says the meagre pay journalists receive is making her consider public relations as a career option as well. But she won’t give up reporting.

“I want to be both a journalist and a PR person,” she says.

Why? She says she wants to have an impact on people’s lives.

Open skies and open sewers: the two-sided beauty that is Ghana

So there are three things that have become abundantly clear to me since my fellow compatriots and I touched down in Ghana a little over a week ago:

1. Life, unlike the traffic, moves at a much slower pace here.  A much slower pace.  I believe my partner in crime Leah has filled you in on the concept of GMT, or Ghanaian Man Time.  It is that intricate proverbial lock for which patience is the key.
2. Ghanaians like their food spicy, their water cold, and their obrunis (foreigners) susceptible to being hustled.*
3. I’m not in Kansas anymore.

*as in, a cabbie will try to put you in one cab and your bags in another so that you will pay both him AND his buddy.

Take everything I say, as usual, with a pillar of salt.  I’m sure not all Ghanaian cab drivers are con artists, and jollof rice is really not all that spicy once your taste buds regain consciousness.  If anything, it’s a clever way to regulate your body’s internal temperature so you’re less aware of how extremely hot it is on the outside.  SO extremely hot.  Listen, Mother Nature, I’m a born and bred Canadian boy who grew up in mild-mannered British Columbia where the winters are warmly wet and the summers are cooly comfortable (alliteration, you are a most underappreciated literary device,) so when my sensitive obruni skin gets a taste of that relentless Ghanaian sun and Equator-inspired humidity, it knows no better than to cry tears of frustration.  In other words, I sweat.

I sweat like a vegan in a deli, I sweat like a prepubescent kid at the grade 9 dance, and I sweat like the onions Mary puts on our breakfast salad every morning at the station.  And because I’m sweating so much, I also drink a lot of water.  Lots and lots and lots of water, which despite not being drinkable from the tap, is easily obtained through bottles of Voltic, a popular brand of filtered water, or the little sachets of “peer wada” that women carry in baskets on their heads, hawking them on literally every street corner and roadside imaginable.  Make no mistake, water is life when you’re sweating up a storm, and here in Kumasi, life can be purchased in quantities of 500mLs for 10 peswas (seven cents CAD.)

All that being said… Ghana is beautiful.  It’s a gorgeous country with lush greenery, peculiar little lizards (as plentiful as squirrels over here!) and a coastal beach scene that leaves this west coast kid aching at the heart.  And when the sun goes down at night, you can see stars.  For miles.  You can lie on your back and count them, if that’s the sort of activity that helps you sleep at night.  It’s like being in Saskatchewan, except minus the greenery, the lizards, and the coastal beach scene.  But the people are great.  And loud.  And lively as all get out, and while it gets a little overwhelming sometimes, the reality is that this is Ghana.  The noise and the heat and the sweat and the dust and the lizards and the peer wada — this is Ghana.

Akwaabe.

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.