Freedom and Responsibility – By Alba K Sumprim

We are so obsessed by sex in this country. Really. Anything with the slightest whiff of sex, and even the most intelligent and serious minded of us morph into schoolboys sniggering over a dirty magazine behind the bike shed. Equally, if there’s a bandwagon to be jumped upon, we jump on it with glee until the whole thing collapses. Throw the forbidden fruit of sex into the equation, and we’ll continue salivating, telling lewd sexist jokes and stomping until the bandwagon becomes a pile of dust. Even with that, we don’t want to stop. That’s the effect of sex on this country. An obsession!

You would have had to be uninformed, misinformed (many were) or chloroformed, or more likely dead, not to have heard of the Amina and the mass rape yarn that refuses to end. A fiery saga, which, in my opinion should not have been given the opportunity to catch a wind on its tail. Unfortunately, that was what it was given and many in the media did their worst by throwing gasoline onto the already sad situation.

By now, we all know that the story was the fabrication of a disturbed mind. I hope.

Reading how the saga was treated as it unfolded in the various newspapers, I was disturbed by the rocky route down which journalism seems to be travelling. Thankfully, a few articles and radio/news commentaries dealt with the issue in an adult manner. Kwasi Adu’s article in ‘The Insight’ entitled ‘Amina needs help, not police custody,’ was the most humane and levelheaded article I have read thus far.

I don’t completely understand why this woman was crucified by all and sundry; every trivial and sordid detail of her personal life torn to shreds and sifted through. None of this has given anyone any answers as to why she did what she did. I don’t understand why she is being hauled through the court system, accused of (1) publishing false news with intent to cause fear and alarm, and (2) deceiving a public officer. Neither is this going to give anyone answers as to why she did what she did. The first thing Amina should have been offered was psychiatric help. What she doesn’t need is a process that is likely to further traumatize and push her over an edge she’s probably been hanging off precariously for a long time. I’m no doctor, but you don’t need more than a few neurons to see that Amina is not completely there; in every picture of her in the newspapers, there’s a skewed expression in her eyes.

However, there is no need for me to rehash something that many of us are already tired of. The bandwagon has completely collapsed with none of us being any more the wiser as to why this terrible thing happened. I don’t have the answer either, but it doesn’t deter me from dropping in my tuppence worth, as everyone else has.

I’m sure if Amina had been a man, the spin on this saga would have been completely different. I believe gender was a major reason why she was and will continue to be so vilified. An important point, and yet the women’s groups, who normally are so vocal, were so mute, preferring to argue their points along party lines. ‘Forget Amina, who needs defending. Let’s make this a political matter.’

Even though Amina is at the centre of the storm, the blame, in my opinion, lies mainly with the media, the government/politicians and of course, we, the gasping, sniggering audience lapping up the story with glee.

The first media house to break the story, clearly didn’t investigate properly, if at all. According to the police report from Ejisu, ‘there was no armed robbery and no rape.’ Open and shut case. This should have been clear enough to the recipient of the information. However, so titillating and sordid a sex story, it was guaranteed to give any media house a leg up in the cutthroat ratings war. What better story than a mass rape, the worst kind thinkable, to have the salivating sex obsessed audience refusing the touch the dial?

I don’t know how feasible this is, but it’s a thought.  I don’t understand why this story wasn’t quashed by the government when it first broke. It was a story that would only cause harm, as we are already seeing. Last week, there were reports of armed robbers’ intent on repeating Amina’s script when they attacked a bus near Bolgatanga.  The passengers were apparently saved when the name of Allah was invoked. In fact, very soon, I surmise, most of our so-called films will include such scenarios and scenes of women being raped, just for the sheer titillating hell of it.

In other countries, governments have blanketed certain stories in the interest of the people. Excuse or not, whether hiding dirty secrets or not, infringement of the freedom of the press or not, democratic or not, I believe this is one of those cases when the government should have taken an authoritarian stance and ordered all new agencies to ‘hands-off’ the story. To let it die the quick death it deserved. No, what happened was a respected media house jumped onto the bandwagon, still with no real facts, and as they say, the rest is embarrassing history. The repercussions slowly becoming apparent.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the president went on air – television – asking the security forces to get to the bottom of the matter. I have no proof, but I do believe that those in the know were very clear at this point that the story was that of a disturbed mind. Yet, they insisted on further fanning the flames of confusion, leading to bad journalism, lewd sexist jokes on radio and as is always case, ending up becoming a political tool. We are touted as one of the most democratic – if not the most – countries in Africa; therefore, it is particularly saddening when such a horrible fabricated incident is used by those in opposition to score points. It gets even worse when the ruling party stomp further on the bandwagon to add more confusion to the situation. If it is true that our politicians are a reflection of who we are as a society, then we are in serious trouble, no matter how hard the West pats us on the back. While all this was going on, the woman – still in desperate need of help – in the eye of the storm languished in police cells, apparently, for her own safety.

The handling of this story makes two things very clear to me. One, journalism needs to be overhauled. Two, Chapter Twelve of our constitution needs to also be overhauled.

The profession of writing – journalism, books, films, any kind of writing is not taken seriously in our country. Sorry, except when it deals with the yawnfest of our political employees. A politician sneezes on a member of the opposing party and it becomes a life or death story with blaring headlines. At the same time, the real politics of social issues that plague the daily lives of the employers of these politicians – particularly, gender issues – are relegated and given little airtime. Sex pops up its head and the whole thing goes into orbit.

They say the pen – nowadays, the keyboard – is mightier than the sword, yet, many of those who enter the field of journalism have no business being there. However, they, the foot soldiers, aren’t the real danger. It is the Editors and Deputy Editors, the gatekeepers of what is let out for public confusion who should be held accountable. How many of them sit at their desks to do their jobs? Very few, if their commentating on every radio talk programme is anything to go by.

Like Lawyers, Doctors and Engineers, I believe that the gatekeepers of the written word should have the same kinds of regulations applied to their field of profession. They should have a mandatory minimum level of education and also be able to prove that they know the difference between good news and bad news. To be consciously aware of the impact of the news on society and to be responsible for the news they put out. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be Amina sitting in police cells; for her safety.

I can hear you right now. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Yes, freedom, but freedom comes with responsibility. Many in the media do not behave as if they have any responsibilities to the public. You cannot have freedom without responsibility. However, that is exactly what the Constitution, seemingly, grants the media.

I quote. 162. (1) Freedom and independence of the media are hereby guaranteed. (2) Subject to this Constitution and any other law not inconsistent with this Constitution, there shall be no censorship in Ghana. (3) There shall be no impediments to the establishment of private press or media; and in particular, there shall be no law requiring any person to obtain a licence as a prerequisite to the establishment or operation of a newspaper, journal or other media for mass communication or information. (4) Editors and publishers of newspapers and other institutions of the mass media shall not be subject to control or interference by Government, nor shall they be penalized or harassed for the editorial opinions and views, or the content of their publications. (5) All agencies of the mass media shall, at all times, be free to uphold the principles, provisions and objectives of this Constitution, and shall uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people of Ghana. 164. The provisions of articles 162 and 163 of this Constitution are subject to laws that are reasonably required in the interest of national security, public order, public morality and for the purpose of protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of other people.

Article 164 goes a way, a very short way, to counter the scary freedoms given the media, but I don’t think it goes far enough or perhaps, isn’t invoked enough. The untrue mass rape story was not in the interest of national security, it was not in the interest of public order and not in the interest of public morality – though that went down the toilet pan a long time ago.

If the story had been true, then yes, it was in the public’s interest to know. However, again, it goes back to the disseminators of news information, who need to be responsible for the way they report news. They need to be responsible for how they investigate the news. When there is a fall out of any kind, the Editor, the head gatekeeper, needs to step up to the plate and remedy the situation by taking responsibility and facing the repercussions of the publication’s actions.

Yes, it does sound authoritarian and draconian, but, if people with the power to shape people’s thoughts and actions insist on exercising their complete freedoms without taking into consideration the responsibilities they owe to the public, then the repercussions of those responsibilities should be imposed with the force of a boot sole print in the butt.

Amina may have started this whole thing off, but it wouldn’t have spiralled out of control into dangerous territory if the media, so obsessed with sex, didn’t grab onto it like sniggering school boys with a dirty magazine behind the bike shed. Amina is accused of publishing false news with intent to cause fear and alarm. How? She didn’t publish any news, a media house that didn’t investigate her story well, published the news. If the first media house that broke the story had acted with professionalism (instead of trying to improve their ratings) and investigated property, none of us would have ever heard of Amina.

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