Chinua Achebe has noted in “Anthills of the Savannah” that “a man must not swallow his cough because he fears to disturb others”.
I have said time and again that I am a bad student of history but I take courage from Achebe not to gloss over some of the things that happened to me in the past because I may not be able to recollect exactly when such developments took place.
Today I want to give account of one incident I went through as a journalist working for the Graphic. Unfortunately from the journalist who reported on the event through many others who were living witnesses, I have tried in vain to establish the date on which some workers of the Ghana Textile Printing (GTP) were tried by a court of competent jurisdiction in Tema, but that must not deter me from recounting it because of the lessons it taught me.
The incident happened when Nana Ato Dadzie was the Chief of Staff at the Castle and Mr Elvis Aryeh was the Editor of the Daily Graphic. I reckon it to be in the early years of the Fourth Republic.
The workers who were members of the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, in the mould of “we no go sit down make them cheat us every day” embarked on violent demonstration against all entreaties from government. They were thus arrested to signal that we were in a democratic era where the rule of law and order were key. They were put before court and convicted to three years imprisonment each.
As the News Editor, I received the report from the journalist in Tema, Kate Hudson, that the workers had been convicted to jail terms of three years. However, the Editor called and told me that report from the Castle indicated that they were jailed three months each. I called Tema for confirmation and Kate insisted that it was three years but in the end we changed it to three months. As it turned out, those in government felt that the three year- year jail term was too punitive and changed it to three months, but that did not have any legal effect.
It was after the publication that the magnitude of our mistake became clear to us as the office was besieged by angry relatives of the convicts, including an army Colonel who said his son was one of the convicts and he was in court when the verdict was pronounced.
After consulting my friends who were lawyers, it became clear that the jail term could not purportedly be changed by any executive fiat. The only alternative was for us to do the correction or wait to see what could happen. We were inundated and saturated with insults and I was the butt of the public anger that Graphic had played propaganda for the government which wanted a face saving image from the excessive punishment of otherwise loyalist revolutionary supporters.
I was thus left with no alternative than to become a virtual vermin on Nana Ato Dadzie. I called him many times every other day and especially after the second month of the incarceration, it was a daily affair. Thankfully my curiosity and unrelenting pressure yielded some positive results when the affected GTP convicts were included in a list of prisoners to be granted pardon by the President.
Technically therefore the affected GTP workers spent three months and not three years in jail. It was a welcome relief to me personally that the workers had regained their freedom. What they might not have been aware of was the long drawn pursuit I made to ensure that they did not stay in prison for three years as that would have dented the image of the paper.
When I look back at the incident, I think about whether we could have been charged for contempt of court as we ended up unilaterally reducing a court sentence to less than a tenth of what it was. Graphic escaped public scrutiny because at the time there was no plurality of media outlets as we see today.
That must definitely be one of the positive developments of the Fourth Republic in the liberlisation of the airwaves and the frontiers of media freedom and operations. If that had happened today, it would not only have been difficult to do what we did, counsel for the convicts would have organised a press conference to expose the potential mischief by the Graphic. When it happened I knew that we had made a mistake but today I am recounting it as an experience.