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Field Notes

Cash for coverage: a complex problem in Ghanaian newsrooms

Ghana Cedi

Ghana Cedi

By Nicole Baute

When Ransford Tetteh, editor of Ghana’s robust state-owned Daily Graphic newspaper, took questions from a group of journalism students at the African University College of Communications (AUCC) last month, they got straight to it.

A fourth-year student stood up and asked how soli, the local term for payments or gifts given to journalists by their sources, affected the industry’s professionalism.

Tetteh was thoughtful, straightforward. He called soli “a serious matter” that the Ghana Journalists Association was trying to tackle, as was the Daily Graphic, where reporters have been told not to accept the cash handed out at press conferences, intended as a means to guarantee coverage.

“We have made it very clear to our reporters, but yes, we are not there,” he said. Tetteh said soli thrives not only because journalists take it, but also because event organizers offer it, hinting at the problem’s complexity.

“To tell you the truth, it demeans us,” he said.

This flow of indiscriminate cash is by no means a problem specific to Ghana, or Africa for that matter. In a 2010 report by the Center for International Media Assistance called “Cash for Coverage,” journalist and media trainer Bill Ristow called bribes accepted by journalists around the world a “single problem with many faces”—and many names. In Cambodia, there’s “blocking,” money given by prominent figures to stop the publication of damaging stories; Nicaragua celebrates “the day of the journalist,” an opportunity for sources to shower journalists with gifts and cash; and in Ghana, envelopes containing “soli,” short for “solidarity,” are routinely given out.

One reporter at a Ghanaian newspaper told me soli is simply the norm. Reporters invited to press conferences arrive expecting to be paid, at the very least for their transportation. But handouts of 50 to 100 cedis are not unusual—that would be about $25 to $50 Canadian—while a cab within Accra will rarely cost more than eight cedis.

Back in the newsroom, the reporter said, it would be clear that a colleague “took” soli if he or she was desperate to get their story in the newspaper, even if it wasn’t newsworthy. As a result, the reporter said stories often make the paper that are not, journalistically speaking, news.

‘It’s not really spoken about,” the reporter told me. “So that’s maybe where everybody has a sense that it’s kind of a bribe.”

Chair of journalism at the African University College of Communications, nana essilfie-conduah (who does not capitalize his name), said soli began after Ghana’s independence, when the government wanted to keep journalists working in its state-owned media houses on its side. This was achieved by directly appointing staff, giving gifts, or both. Journalists with few business or job opportunities were “cornered.”

Gifts of cash became the norm, and spread through society in two directions: to independent media outlets, where journalists found themselves equally susceptible to accepting bribes, and across a broad spectrum of sectors, ministries, institutions, organizations and businesses, all eager to secure publicity.

Today, essilfie-conduah said, coverage of any ordinary or extraordinary event involves soli, with journalists lining up ritually for payments that start at 20 or 30 cedis ($10-$15) and go up from there.

“It is a difficult matter,” essilfie-conduah said. Journalists are “poorly remunerated” and eager to supplement their meagre paycheques, which they can go months without receiving at all. And the giving of soli has become institutionalized, with organizations setting aside money in their treasuries for its very purpose.

As a result, essilfie-conduah says, the news is full of exaggerations and inaccuracies, and truly objective reporting is a challenge.

Students familiar with the concept of soli look ahead to a future in journalism with some distress. “What kind of profession are we getting ourselves into?” one asked me, her eyes wide with concern.

I didn’t know what to tell her. I repeated some of what essilfie-conduah told me could make a difference: a decision on the part of organizations to stop handing out cash, changes in media ownership structure, strict rules for journalists (which already exist at outlets like JoyFM, where accepting soli is grounds for dismissal), and a proper journalists union that would entitle reporters to collective bargaining. In the meantime, I reminded her that individual journalists do refuse to take soli—that it might be hard on their wallets, but it can be done.

essilfie-conduah agreed that the students are worried. He said they don’t want to partake when they enter the profession, but realize they might be compelled to. But he says he encourages them to abstain, reminding them that their reputation and their integrity are worth more than money.

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