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The spoils of coverage: Elevating the conversation on ‘soli’

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In the past few days I’ve been called several new names by dozens of new people who have made no secret of their desire for me to see them as a whole new legion of enemies. These are mostly people I considered friends, even if only in a professional sense.

Today, they see me as the enemy within, the snitch who revealed one of their darkest, shameful secrets. They used to call me honest, but today I’m a hypocritical holier-than-thou, self-righteous son of a gun who should shut up already. Some of them even say I’m on a campaign to deliberately damage their reputations or run down their companies to the advantage of the one I work for.

I’ve been cornered and told to either “go easy” or “be careful”. I’ve been insulted and I’ve been threatened. In all cases, my response has been simple: this is a conversation we need to have as professionals and there’s no better time than now. I, therefore, don’t really care that my colleagues are haranguing me for making it known to the world that some of the most senior people within our professional ranks went to a meeting with the chief of staff at the presidency and came away with hefty, cash-laden envelopes in their pockets.

Before handing out the cash (1000 cedis in each envelope) the chief of staff told the gathering that he didn’t want the money to be construed as a bribe and that it was just a token of appreciation to demonstrate his gratitude that the journalists just showed up when he called them. In our profession, there is a name for such cash handouts: ‘solidarity’ or ‘soli’ for short. It’s a name that conceals the very fact that such payments are a corrupting influence. The name is also used to reinforce the notion that journalists operate on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, an impoverished, vulnerable lot who need ‘solidarity’ money to transport themselves from one end of town to another.

Whether this is true or not is a different debate for later. But the fact remains that most of us journalists are not proud recipients of ‘soli’. They know there is something inherently wrong with these handouts. If we found ‘soli’ to be dignifying and felt proud to be at the receiving end, we would be making a lot of noise about it openly and gleefully. But ‘soli’ fills us with shame and so we only talk about it in coded language and often in secret. We know it is wrong. It is pitiful. It is disgraceful. Above all else, we know that ‘soli’ places us in an inferior position in a partnership where we are often called upon to satisfy the whims of the giver. Our profession will be better, more influential and respectable without ‘soli’. But we’ve done very little to end it. Many of us believe we came to this profession to meet ‘soli’ and that it would be here long after we are gone.

Ghanaian journalists believe they can influence thinking, change people’s attitudes towards a multitude of issues and, above all else, transform the nation. The only thing they believe they cannot do anything about is ‘soli’, which is one of the most insidious, ethically questionable practices within any rank of professionals in this country. Forget about what they say about ‘soli’ being for transportation. It is meant to influence coverage. Why else would the chief of staff dole out 1000 cedis to journalists for transport alone? Even a cab ride from Accra to Abetifi will cost less than that. So why give out so much. The simple answer is that the chief of staff wanted the journalists to see him in a positive light, see him as a friend and, therefore, think twice before tackling any issue involving him or the powers he serve.

I’ve been in this profession long enough to know that ‘soli’ is usually a cash offer to journalists from publicity-hungry individuals and corporate organizations, who hope that such offerings would earn them the best coverage possible. Favorable coverage could mean highlighting the few positives and downplaying the many negatives.

‘Soli’, however, is not only given out at events like the one which took place at the Flagstaff House on Sunday, April 19, 2015. Sometimes, ‘soli’ is offered to get journalists to turn a blind eye to matters that clearly demand journalistic scrutiny. Other times, journalists get ‘soli’ to refrain from publishing certain stories that, in the public domain, would damage the interests of certain (powerful) people and institutions.

Finally, ‘soli’ is offered to build and cement relationships of patronage which eventually inform how journalists cover certain issues, individuals and organizations over time. Call it ‘soli’ in advance, if you may. You get the money when there are no issues to be covered. So the money comes as a gesture of friendship with no visible strings attached. But when an issue does come up concerning the ‘generous’ individual or organization, the journalist would most likely be minded to think about the relationship first and foremost before any consideration of how best to cover the issue at hand. If the best coverage from a journalistic standpoint doesn’t favour the giver, journalist would likely downplay the issue to a point where coverage doesn’t make the giver look as bad as he should be. The chief of staff gave out money to the so-called senior journalists because he wanted as many of them as possible to be on his side, sympathize with him and give him and his office the best coverage possible.

Journalists can hype or hide an issue simply because it is being pushed or pulled by a very ‘generous’ organization or individual. And generous givers do get hyped a lot in the Ghanaian media almost to the point of utter absurdity. Watch out for the next story about a rising Ghanaian football star in a remote corner in Belarus. Any careful reading between the line would bring up the fact that the story has essentially been planted to win the player a possible call up into the Black Stars. Journalists do the same for entertainers that’s why most music and movie reviews in the newspapers are so drab, crappy and formulaic. Generous ‘soli’ givers also get stories spiked almost every day.

Throughout my career of a mere 15 years or so, ‘soli’ has been the one professional issue that has vexed my mind the most. It’s an issue that just won’t go away. Whenever it became a topic for discussion on various media platforms, some of my fellow journalists proudly proclaimed that ‘soli’ could not influence them in anyway and that they could take ‘soli’ and report objectively on any issue. ‘Soli’, these journalists claim, is not a form of corruption.

But then, if ‘soli’ isn’t a form of corruption, and therefore, nothing to be ashamed of, why can’t any of the editors and senior journalists who were offered hefty envelopes at the Flagstaff House recently tell their audiences about it? The president of the Ghana Journalists Association, Affail Monney, superintended the sharing of the envelopes and took his share of the money. Why is he not publicly telling anyone about it? Why has none of the breakfast show hosts who took the money told their audiences about it? Could it be that they are so ashamed they would much rather keep the receipt of the ‘soli’ (which they claim doesn’t influence them in any way) under wraps?

These are the same journalists the public expects to question governmental waste and corruption. After receiving these monies from the government can the Ghanaian public trust them to ask tough questions about how the government spends our money? What if the administration itself turns around to taunt them about how they (the journalists) benefitted from such wasteful largesse? How can the Ghana Journalists Association speak out with one voice against graft, when the association’s president himself takes money from government for no work done?

Journalists are also among the most poorly paid in this country. Just take a look at most of our newspapers and electronic media. They look, feel and sound poor in many respects – poor in design, poor in script writing, poor in advertising, poor in analysis. They are also very poor in the breadth and depth of the issues they cover. Yet, some of the editors of these same poor media organizations are driving around in four-wheel gas guzzlers, living in mansions and leading the lives of wealthy super stars. Where in heaven’s name do they get their money from? I ask a question like this and I’m accused of being jealous or bitter. But the unspoken truth in the Ghanaian media fraternity is that we all know a good number of our so-called senior journalists are in the pockets of thieving politicians and unscrupulous business managers. In this same country, we have mid-career journalists who are building or living mansions which they should not be able to afford at their current official pay grade. When from within our ranks such questions are asked, the answer often is either don’t ask, don’t tell or these are our people so leave them alone and wait for your turn.

We know that there is a lot of corruption within our ranks. We know too many of our colleagues are in the pay of certain interests – corporate and political. Yet we delude ourselves with the bald-faced lie that ‘soli’ doesn’t influence us in anyway. We claim it doesn’t make us corrupt because it is not a bribe. We insist that since it’s been with us for so long, it is here to stay and there’s nothing we can do to end it. Journalists who believe they can bring governments down, don’t have any confidence in their own ability to say no to government handouts. Journalists who believe they can change society, balk when they are asked to end ‘soli’.

But the sooner it all ends the better. But we can’t end it if we keep asking ourselves the same old, tired question whose answer gives us a weak justification to continue demanding and receiving these handouts. We have deceived ourselves and our audiences long enough by deliberately asking ourselves the wrong question. Asking whether or not ‘soli’ is a bribe, is certainly not the best first step towards meaningful professional soul-searching. We should rather ask a deeper question that sheds more light on this issue than our own professional opacity allows. Instead of asking whether or not ‘soli’ influences ‘objective’ coverage, we should be asking ourselves whether we can proudly tell our audiences about the monies and the gifts we receive from those we cover. After all, our first loyalty is to them – not the highest bidder. And if we told our audiences about what we’ve received, would they take us seriously or would they always read and listen to our reports with doubt and indifference? Would our audiences raise questions about our credibility if we told them that we took monies before writing the stories we want them to read and listen to? Will those who give ‘soli’ feel embarrassed or happy if we told our audiences that we took money from them?

If we answer each of these questions honestly and truthfully, we would all come to the realization that we have for far too long held ourselves to a very low standard. We met it and we made a calculated decision to keep it. But as our country grows and our profession flourishes on this land, we can’t keep this low standard any longer. ‘Soli’ must go and if we decided to let it go, we will let it go.

I know that letting go of ‘soli’ would deprive many of us of a vital source of income. After all, many of us are forced to make do on meagre salaries and ‘soli’ often serves as supplemental, windfall income. But we can only win our independence, maintain our dignity and improve professional standards by forcing our employers to pay us better than they do now. Begging and hounding the people we cover for money is not a sustainable path to income sufficiency.

But then how do we get media owners and managers to pay us well? This is where the GJA comes in. I want to see the GJA leading the struggle for higher ethical standards and better pay for journalists. Instead of the association’s president shamelessly presiding over the distribution of money to senior journalists and allowing ‘soli’ to be freely distributed at the association’s premises, the GJA should condemn the practice and start campaigning for better pay for journalists. If push comes to shove, the association could call for a news blackout and urge its members to refrain from covering any event for as long as it takes for media managers to pay living wages to journalists. Who lives honestly in Ghana today on 800 cedis per month when his editor earns 1000 cedis for wining and dining with a politician for a couple of hours?

To all the enemies I’ve made in the past several days, I’d like to say I’m not sorry. My only regret is that I didn’t raise this issue sooner. But I also believe that there’s no better time than now. So hate me all you can and hurt me all you want. This is a conversation we needed to have and I’m glad we are having it now. I have lost some good friends by bringing this up. That’s the collateral damage. But I hope that out of the ashes of these damaged friendships would arise a better, more ethical and professional journalism in Ghana. So for now I can say: welcome aboard, new enemies. I will make new friends later. <!–[if gte mso 9]>

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