In the Public Eye

Thoughts on the difficulties faced by African journalists in obtaining public information

    Deputy Editor,
    Focus on Africa
    BBC World Service

Police Stations

Back in 1971, I was doing a post graduate course at Indiana University in Bloomington. I had been a journalist for three years or so before coming to the US of A. The course involved work experience with a newspaper in the country and I ended up in Galveston, Texas. How I got there is a different story, but got there I did. Of all the things that I learnt at that newspaper, and at the University, and even if the truth be told, at my own newspaper, I believe the one thing that impressed me most was the day I went out on the crime beat with the crime reporter of the Galveston Daily News. You would all agree this is not a particularly glamorous assignment.

We set out, the crime reporter and I to discover what wrongs were being done on our patch or had been done within the past 24 hours. First stop the police station nearest the office, we walked in, stopped at the window, my colleague pulled a tray and took out some sheaves  of paper and we quickly started reading accounts of all the cases that had been reported at the station since the last time the reporter had been there. Now I bet, many of you particularly those who are American and have ever worked in a newsroom are waiting for the punch line of my story. I started my story after all, in the USA, deep south, circa 1971, some of you probably even thought, Oh there we go again another story of racial discrimination. Well, let me reassure you, I enjoyed myself thoroughly and can safely say that I did not suffer any overt discrimination or abuse during my stay in Galveston, indeed at the end of my stint, the mayor presented me with the key to the city, and my punch line, well, I've already delivered it and you must have missed it.

So I'll have another go, we are back at the police station and we are reading copies of the cases lodged with the police. I asked my colleague how come we, that is newspaper reporters, had such easy access to  police cases. He was baffled, after all they had been told I was something of a hot journalist, that is how the Department of communications at Indiana had sold me to the newspaper and they had taken me on in the hope I would bring something interesting to their readers and there I was asking the stupidest question, something not even a first day journalism student would ask.

Anyway, I was lucky, or maybe my colleague decided this was too good an opportunity to miss at getting one of those" You wouldn't believe what happened stories", he patiently explained to me that it was a constitutional requirement in the USA that every case that was reported at a police station, every case that the police booked, they had to leave a copy for the media. This might not seem like such a big deal to many of you but to me this was far more important far more revolutionary than the fact that  in the newsroom at this newspaper there was a type writer (remember them?) on every journalist's desk, when back at my own newspaper then there were a grand total of two type writers for everybody and we used to write in long hand and then join a queue for the two ladies to type out our copy. The idea that the police were under an obligation by law to make copies of cases available to journalists sounded to me like pure bliss.

I recount this story to try and bring into focus the difficulty that faces many media practitioners in many parts of the African continent. It is the unavailability of every day basic data, basic information that more than anything undermines the ability of journalists to perform their investigative duties. This is not to suggest that I think Woodward and Bernstein used to step into the precinct at 16 and K, pull out the media tray and get their information about Watergate. I am not even yet at the stage where I am arguing the case for a Freedom of Information Act, even though I am going to do so. It is the abysmal state of public records, and in many parts of the continent, one cannot even really speak of any public records.

And it starts from something as basic as the cases that have been reported at the police station. Because the police are not under an obligation to provide copies to journalists, they take the position, that a journalist is not entitled to them, they take the position these are not public papers. Thus they will tell you about a case as a favour, or maybe after you have cultivated them for years, or if the truth be told, after you have made a present of a shirt to the Inspector! And we are talking here not about any wrong doing in high places, we might be talking about a murder case, even about a burglary. Unless of course the police think it is in their interest to tell you. 

In much the same way, if a newspaper or radio station heard a rumour that a minister in the government or the President or the President's wife owned the company that had been given the licence to bring in all the drugs for the hospitals, a reporter couldn't go to Company House as you do in the UK and look up the details of the particular company in question. Of course this is not to suggest that it is all very easy for journalists in the USA or Europe. But at least they have a starting point. You might not find the President's name on the list of directors of the company but you will find a name that you can start with, a name that will strike you as odd, a name that will in the end turn out to be a front name. Or you might simply take a closer look at all the names, you might indeed be able to prove that contrary to what the rumours are saying, the President's wife is not involved in that particular business.

For after all our business is not only to discover wrongdoing, it is our business to expose lies, to expose smears. Not only the lies that public officials tell but the lies that are told about public officials. Much of the instability that has dogged Africa has its roots in the in the inability of the press to clearly tell the public, which of the many rumours are true and which are not true. There is this idea that has taken root that getting access to the facts and making them public will hinder and undermine government, I have heard the argument that much of government is so complicated and so delicate that it is impossible to portray all the intricacies in a newspaper article or radio programme. In an area where democratic practices are yet to take root, I will suggest that it is in the interest of government that things are exposed. There is a saying in my language that it is difficult for head lice to prosper on a bald man's head. If one were to take the saying further, even though I acknowledge it is dangerous to try to improve upon the sayings of the elders, head lice prosper the most in thick grown hair. Or to coin another phrase, the mould grows where the sun rays don't get to.


One of the countries in Africa with the most robust press is Nigeria. It is universally acknowledged that Nigeria has been having a very difficult time these past five years. It is equally true that since June there have been dramatic changes in Nigeria. One ought to pay tribute to the role that was played by the media in Nigeria in keeping hope alive, in ensuring that dictatorship did not take hold in the country. Then fate intervened and, as I have mentioned, there have been dramatic changes…

One of the most important things that have happened to my mind is that the new administration ordered an investigation into the funds that were administered by the head of the security services. Hundreds of millions of dollars for which nobody was accountable, or so the rumours went. I was delighted to subsequently read in the newspapers that the investigations had indeed found evidence of misuse of public funds on a massive scale. Some figures were mentioned and activities beyond the borders of Nigeria even surfaced.

The newspapers all said they had based their stories on a report by the committee that was appointed to investigate these matters. I have since then tried without success to find that report. The report probably does exist, but my suspicion is that it does not exist in a form that can be purchased or accessed by anybody. There is no Government Stationery Office that a journalist or citizen can go to and get a copy of what is after all an official and public document. Once such a document is not easily available or there is no known and publicised method by which one can get access to such a document, it might just as well not exist. It becomes and it assumes the status of the very thing it was set up to investigate. I am told that once upon a time when the economies and the bureaucracies were in reasonably good shape, these things were available. So dare I hope that once the economies are back on track, official document would become available? Somehow I doubt it.

Age in Africa

But I am straying into difficult realms. Lets go back to my story about the police station and their cases. If you read an average news story in an average newspaper in the western world, be it about murder, or divorce or theft, you would find a reference to John Smith, 49, who has been charged with assault; or it might be a football match and there will be a reference to  whoever the latest star is, lets call him George Weah, 32 year old…. And there we start getting into trouble on the continent. Births and deaths are not recorded routinely and age for many people especially those with illiterate parents is a matter of "guesstimate" . It leads to all kinds of problems. Some of them serious, some of them hilarious.

The World Under-17 Football tournament is a very important competition in Africa. Indeed many African countries do rather well and in a continent of such very little good news, it is an important event that should be covered by the media. The trouble is each time it takes a lot of effort to prevent the outbreak of a third world war at these matches. The Ethiopians do not accept that the members of the Cameroonian team are indeed under 17 years, and the Malawians insist the only reason the Kenyans defeated them was because they have fielded a team of obvious twenty year olds. Nobody can vouch for the age of any player, because there is no proper documentation, never mind what it says on the passport. One of the legendary Kenyan marathon runners put it charmingly, "we none of us know really how old we are, because it does not matter for us"

Having said all that I must say I often wonder what the point was of the western journalistic obsession with age. I recall interviewing a journalist who was in Bujumbura in the midst of a lot of carnage. He was describing a scene of death and destruction to me: "I saw one twenty-four year old man on the street who had been shot through the neck, he was trying to raise himself up when another bullet hit him and he crumpled to the floor" I asked myself , how did he know the young man was 24 and not 23 or 25? And why does it matter, wouldn't it do to simply say "a young man" ?

Since there are no proper records kept of births it is not surprising that there are no proper records kept of deaths either. And in death as in life, more often than not, it is a question of "guesstimate". The consequences are grave, how can you hope to track down any determined fraudster?

But there are advantages of course. There is the absurd situation in my country Ghana where nobody has an address. Let me tell you how you get to my house once you get o the airport and I am not there to pick you up. You take a taxi, tell the driver you are going to North Labone… it is one of the suburbs in Accra, tell the driver when he gets to the Morning Star School, to turn left, ( if he should happen to be new in town and therefore does not know Morning Star School, well,,,) then when he reaches the blue kiosk he should turn right, there will be a big tree and on the right, the next house will be Fathia's house, four houses from that one is my house, the one with the blue gate. There is absolutely no point in telling anybody your address is No 14 Soula Loop; that exists only in some document.

And sometimes the chaos gets people out of tricky situations. You all know the name Chief Moshood Abiola of blessed memory. You know he was famous for many things among which was the number of women he had. It is said he himself did not know exactly how many children he had and as for wives, nobody really knows. Towards the end of his life, there appeared to be new wives emerging into the limelight every so often. Soon after his death, when tensions were very high, there was one particular young lady who was particularly vocal. She was being called "Mrs Abiola", one very particular western journalist, I imagine she was American, asked her what number wife she was, without missing a breath, she looked the journalist straight in the eye and said: "in our culture we don't count things like that, we don't count wives, we don't count children"...

That is the scope of problem we face in trying to untangle the simplest problem.  

By Elizabeth Ohene

A somewhat different version of this paper was given at the inaugural meeting to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). 


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