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22 September 2009

The Media in Africa and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (Part II)

This is the second article in the two-part series by Andy Ofori-Birikorang. Andy recently received his PhD from Ohio University.

It is imperative to note that the discussions that preceded the establishment of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) in Ghana were filled with acrimony. This acrimonious state was fuelled by the media, especially the two camps of the so-called private-independent media that had emerged in Ghana 1.  Representatives of these camps articulated, contested and submitted their versions of ‘truth’ through newspapers, radio and television.

The NRC was established by the Kufuor-led New Patriotic Party (NPP) government which came into power in January 2001. Some of the leaders of this party had been victims of the past military regimes.  In support of the campaign for the establishment of the NRC was a set of buoyant private- independent media that comprised journalists who were either victims of torture and abuse under country’s military regimes, anti-military regimes proponents, or human rights advocates. This media camp constituted one group that could be classified as the pro-NPP private-independent media. The other media category that emerged viewed the NRC as a political witch-hunt tool that, according to them, aimed at vilifying leading members of past military regimes, especially the leadership of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) led by Jerry John Rawlings. Rawlings himself was for 19 years military dictator before transforming into a democratically elected president from 1992-2000. Most of the violations and abuses which the NRC investigated fell under the period of his reign.  The media category that supported the regimes of Rawlings constituted the pro-NDC private independent group.

While witnesses unraveled narratives of abuses and violations, and others defended or refuted allegations made against them before the commission, the two media sections elected themselves as evaluator mechanisms for subjecting such versions to the ‘truth’ test. In others words a witness’ version of truth would pass the test in relation to a particular section of the media’s subjective notion of ‘truth’.
As indicated earlier, the pro-NDC media championed resistance to the establishment of the NRC or called for several amendments to the Act in the bid to prevent the commission from focusing solely on military regimes. They posited that it was only when those amendments were made to the existing provisions of the Act that some attempt would be made at arriving at the truth. They also contended that the ‘truth’ about the nation’s past abuses could not be limited to only military regimes because several examples of abuses occurred under civilian regimes. Furthermore, the pro-NDC media stressed that the composition of the NRC and its supporting technical team were strong indications that ‘truth’ was to be compromised. They alleged that members of the NRC, and the National Security apparatus that assisted the commission during investigations, were either perceived victims or enemies of some of the alleged perpetrators who appeared before the commission 2 .  This media group subjected all versions of allegations made against members of (P)NDC to their own evaluator mechanism of the ‘truth’ test. They countered or refuted a witness’s allegations, hyped or emphasized the apparent contradictions in some of the allegations, or gave platforms to other supporters of perceived perpetrators to deride witnesses’ stories or invoke a history of some their past dishonest statements and political activities to damage the credibility of their stories. In others cases, the media published, or aired press statements of denials of allegations made against members of their camp.  Indeed, even though some of the witnesses against whom allegations were made had appeared before the commission, some of the statements circulated by their media camp were not made before the commission. However, they contended what was revealed before the commission, or published by the opposing camp was not the whole ‘truth’. The ‘truth’ was what that the media, belonging to their camp had published or aired in a press statement.

On the other hand, the pro-NPP section of the media touted most of the stories and allegations as painful truth of the country’s horrible past that should be acknowledged by perpetrators and victims in order to reconcile the nation and move the country forward. Generally, many of the stories shared before the NRC were in consonance with the pro-NPP media.  As their evaluator mechanism, they pieced fragments of stories together to provide sound basis to prop up their credibility, or to downplay elements of inconsistencies. Sometimes, they provided a recall of their earlier publications to assist the creation of a coherent ‘truth’ of some narratives. The camp, like their opponents, also processed the ‘truth’ test through press statements, pre and post-appearance interviews of witnesses. They run counter stories to punch holes in a perpetrator’s statement. Newspapers belonging to this camp, as an operative mechanism to woo the public into sympathizing with a victim and affirming that version of the story as credible  and ‘truthful’, run horror-clad-pointer headlines such as “PNDC Had Death Squads”, “I’ll Name Brains behind Murder of Judges”,  and “Ghanaians Tell of Torture” to underline the gravity of abuses suffered by victims.

In the end, the only version of truth that came out, according to either camp of the media, were those stories that had been affirmed through editorials, press statements, and counter versions of stories circulated by either media camp. While the pro-NPP media camp, generally, commended the NRC for a job-well done, the pro-NDC media indicated that the whole proceedings were one big exercise in futility. They opined that rather than reconcile the nation, the proceedings had divided the country more than before and asserted that most of the stories peddled before the commissions were, lies, fabrications, and half truths that targeted only one political section of the Ghanaian society. They further promised to campaign for a ‘true’ reconciliation exercise as soon as the NDC assume power 3.

The NRC exercise ended in 2006 and the report was submitted.  Some victims have already received compensations for some of the abuses and violations they suffered. However, whether the ‘truth’ was unraveled and reconciliation achieved is still a bone of contention between the two media camps in Ghana, and large sections of the Ghanaian populace. The media are the architects of this post-NRC state of affairs in Ghana.

1For newspapers, the pro-NPP camp included, Ghanaian Chronicle, The Statesman, Daily Guide, and the Crusading Guide. The Pro-NDC camp included the Ghanaian Democrat, and Palaver.

2See Ameh, R. (2006). Uncovering Truth: Ghana’s National Reconciliation Commission Excavation of Past Human Rights Abuses. Contemporary Justice Review Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 345–368

3The NDC is now in power after they won the general elections held in December 2008.


Damilola said...

So basically, the newspapers are mostly divided along party lines. Are the newspapers who are in between? If so, what is their take on the truths? I am guessing if there are 2 main parties, chances are the smaller voices (i.e. smaller newspapers) are not being heard.
Whatever happened to the absence of media bias? I know that is some sort of ultimate utopia as papers are written by people and most of the time people cannot seperate their emotions from their work. However in these situations where this is blatant dilution/manipulation of truth isn't there an integrity question? It would seem to me that the 6 newspapers are merely propagandists, just like Rush Limbaugh here in the United States. Or are these papers not the main source of information to the rest of the populace?

Siphokazi said...

as you very well know Andy, Chomsky argues that it is the powerful who are responsible for news selection! But with that said, the media as they say is a mirror of our society, it does not exist outside of it. Therefore, the reporting on the TRCs is not different. It should be revealing of the polarization of society, or as you show, the polarization of the elite. This is unfortunate. A very wise young man who was making the distinction between the Rwandan commission and the South African one stated that the South African TRC was in fact a "Hollywood justice!" due to all the lights and cameras that followed Tutu and co.

After all history is written by the victors, why should we expect any different in the construction of our news, or the 'truth' in truth commissions?

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