Snake charmers, ironed shirts and spooning with authority

I’ve heard stories of the major local TV stations sending extended entourages to official events – a cameraman, a journalist, a sound man, a man to carry the tripod, another to carry lights, a driver, a juggler and a snake charmer – just so everybody in the newsroom gets their cut.

Before Christmas I told a ministry communications officer to give me the brown envelope before the press conference — ‘Of course, no problem’ she joshed. After the relevant official was par-grilled, a scrimmage of journalists, soda in one paw and a meat pie in the other, started jostling to get hold of their ‘solly’ or solidarity. The brown envelopes were officially their reward for having braved the potholes and morning traffic, but also secure loyalty to the state.

These weren’t small packages either. As he walked to the lift, one journalist pulled out $15. Others say solly can be up to as much as $150, depending on the media outlet, while the average journalist’s wage is around $200 per month.

Being a stringer myself, I appreciate that a journalist’s remuneration is pathetic and local wages terrible. Clearly I’m not averse to the odd sausage roll, but something smells in Ghana’s media, and it’s not the cheese-pineapple skewers and fresh coffee. If you want to rake in greenbacks, you should probably join the ranks of those who iron their shirts and clean their shoes.

Ghana’s brown-envelope culture isn’t a state monopoly. Perhaps worse, although hardly surprising, foreign embassies say they have to pay solly just to get feet through the door to promote their latest one-armed, transgender orphanage eradication program.

On a recent trip to Ghana’s gold mining area a former hack told me he would regularly accept money from major international mining companies to keep schtum on potentially damaging stories.

I’ve worked in just a handful of African nations but Ghana, the only country on the continent to have democratically ushered in two successive changes of government, appears to have the most lackluster fourth estate. It’s not a question of freedom, it is standards.

There are a few very talented exceptions such as undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas who has exposed corruption, ineptitude, criminal gangs and rot all over Ghana, perhaps most famously dressed as a woman and more recently as a fat white man.

Nonetheless, Ghana’s media appear toothless when compared to their counterparts in east Africa, and I suspect the absence of accountability has bred ambivalence in the populace. While their last election was a disastrous distortion of democracy, Kenyans of every stripe are vociferous consumers of news, views and gossip because their papers, radio and TV are feisty and scandal-hungry.

The long-term ramifications of petty bribery or ‘goodwill’ are obvious. Who would pursue a difficult story exposing a human rights violation or government indiscretion when there’s a press conference at 11:00 with a free buffet thrown in? How can the media be expected to hold the government to account if a significant part of their income depends on spooning with authority?