A seed sown at the Hotel Safari in Namibia

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

The observance of World Press Freedom Day 2018 in Ghana last week aptly illustrated for me the Akan proverb that translates loosely as: ‘There is usually no indication that a happening will give birth to a phenomenal or landmark event’.

I was one of the participants at the seminal 1991 UN/UNESCO conference held in Windhoek, Namibia, which led to the UN declaring May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. The Ghana conference, May 2– 4, 2018, was its Silver Jubilee.

The Accra meeting was jointly organized by UNESCO and the Government of Ghana, under the theme ‘Keeping Power In Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law’. It took place at the five-star Kempinski Hotel, Gold Coast City, Accra. (I’m yet to find out the explanation for the intriguing ‘Gold Coast’ in the hotel’s address, a name this country abandoned more than 60 years ago!)

I wonder how many of us who were in Namibia, at what was dubbed the ‘‘Seminar on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press’, had an inkling that it was sowing a seed that would bear fruit as the ‘World Press Freedom Day’. I for one most certainly didn’t!

I was invited to the Windhoek Seminar in my capacity as a co-founder and Editor of The Monitor, a pace-setting broadsheet, the first private newspaper in Ghana to publish eight pages, as opposed to the then norm of four pages – in 1989. My co-founder was my colleague, Mr Ken Bediako, a former Sports Editor of the Daily Graphic.

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Three of us represented Ghana at the Windhoek conference. The other two, now deceased, were Professor Paul A. V. Ansah, the Director of the School of Communication Studies, University of Ghana, Legon and Mr John Nyankumah, (Editor-in-Chief of the GBC), representing the Ghana Journalists Association.

Apparently, my plea in Windhoek for urgent funding for Africa’s independent press made an impact. I’m proud to say that it was cited in the final conference report: “An editor from Ghana appealed to UNESCO and the United Nations to take urgent concrete action to rescue the independent African newspapers from collapse … she said, that if something was not done quickly, the efforts to promote the independent press would be fruitless and its determinant role in the continent’s democratization would be lost.”

My request was reportedly instrumental in the provision of UNESCO assistance soon afterwards, to one independent paper in Ghana – a support confirmed last week by Deputy UNESCO Secretary-General, Mr Getachew Engida, in his speech at the Accra WPFD Prize Ceremony and Gala Dinner on May 2.

Ironically, the assistance came too late for The Monitor. It had to close because of the numerous impediments put in our way.   

When we were sitting in the meeting rooms at the Hotel Safari in Windhoek, Namibia, I’m certain that few of us could have imagined this marvellous offshoot: An annual gathering not just of the African press, but of the global media family, to discuss our common issues and, of course, honour those who deserve recognition.

Unimaginable, too, that nearly three decades later, my country would be hosting the world media, and that I would again be part of it, thanks to an invitation from the Ministry of Information to the Editors Forum, Ghana of which I am the Chairperson.

However, regarding the way the Accra conference was organized, judging by others’ comments, I wasn’t the only one who thought we could have done better. Going by the programme, there were only two plenary sessions, meaning only two sessions where all the participants would  assemble and have the opportunity to share or exchange views on the topics.

Yet, there were 18 parallel sessions, meetings of small groups.

At the Namibia meeting, there were eight plenaries – which is probably how an Editor of a fledgling newspaper, a ‘small fry’ like me, got the opportunity to tell the UN/UNESCO about the need to pay attention to the principal problem of the independent press in Ghana and Africa: funding.      

It was interesting that various speakers made appreciative references to those present who had participated in the Namibia meeting in 1991. However, strangely, the host country evidently had no interest in mentioning that Ghana, too, had one participant present who had been in Namibia, this writer, Ajoa Yeboah-Afari. Yet, the lead Ghana organizers were certainly aware of that fact!

And my initial assessment of the Kempinski catering arrangements, at lunch time, was that good work had been done. There were four or five buffet tables, so no long queues; and the choice of food was good.

So why was it a different, frustrating story at the ‘Gala Dinner’ on May 2, at what was supposed to be a highlight of the WPFD 2018? Indeed President Nana Akufo-Addo was the Guest of Honour. Its climax was the award of the annual UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

Sadly, the 2018 winner of the prize was absent; in prison in his country, Egypt. The World Press Freedom Prize 2018 laureate, 31-year-old Egyptian photojournalist, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, popularly known as ‘Shawkan’, has been in prison since 2013, for doing his work. He took photographs that the authorities didn’t want taken. He reportedly faces a possible death sentence.

It was a sobering thought to think about over the gala dinner.

Regrettably, the menu for the dinner which could have been used to showcase Ghanaian cuisine, was extremely disappointing; continental food. Not even a simple Ghanaian delicacy like ‘kelewele’ (spicy fried ripe plantain) was in sight!

And the music was no better. Instead of some of Ghana’s highlife hits playing gently in the background, helping to make up for the non-Ghanaian menu, what we got was music that was definitely not highlife; and too loud. 

Fortunate that we had President Akufo-Addo’s inspiring message in his keynote address at the gala to chew over: “I call on all governments to put an end to State-sponsored acts that seek to restrict the practice of journalism …. Democracy has no place for a media that does not keep a government on its toes.”

One prays that the President’s words, sown in Accra, will bear fruit in the way that the seed sown in Windhoek did.

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