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The day news died in Ghana

Antoinette H. Condobrey
By Antoinette H. Condobrey

Antoinette Herrmann-Condobrey is a journalist who specialises in digital media and magazine reporting. She has a strong attachment to topical issues and a soft spot for arts and culture reporting. Journalism for her is a passion and this is evident in her careful approach to reporting and the comprehensiveness of her work. "The hardest and one of the most depressive things for me to do," she says, "is to go ahead and publish a story that my mind tells me could do with one more fact." Antoinette has functioned as a senior reporter and editor. The Ghanaian-born has real concerns about the representation of Africa by the more developed world and is convinced that only the African media can do justice to the image of the continent. It is this task that she hopes to help accomplish through her work.

Posted on Monday, 29 July 2013 10:45

Their subject wasn’t just anybody: he was the former vice president of Ghana, Alhaji Aliu Mahama. But did they really get it wrong?

Mahama was on life support and a top official of the hospital who had spoken to MultiTV –Multimedia’s TV station – had allegedly hinted its reporters that the vice president was gone. Perhaps he meant “virtually” gone.

Immediately following the breaking news by JOY News TV – one of MultiTV’s channels – the vice president’s family issued a statement to deny it and demanded an apology from the media organisation.

The hospital, including its top official who spoke to JOY News, also came out with a public denial of any such death.

Then the entire country verbally pounced on the leading media group. Multimedia was in a real bad place – not spared by fellow journalists and utterly scorned by social media.

In the midst of the chaos, I got on the telephone with one of Multimedia’s editors; a friend of mine. “What have you guys done,” I asked. Almost tightlipped, he muted: “God, should we just apologise.”

“What happened,” I pushed. “We were told the man had died.” “Then don’t apologise,” I said. “Keep to your story.”

But it wasn’t that simple.

The top hospital official had only spoken in confidence to the news team, accordingly, and did not expect the information to be made public while the patient was still on the ventilator. Without a doubt, this was a matter of sensitivity and respect for the “patient” and his family.

So should the JOY News team stick to their gun or play losers? They did the “honorable” thing: apologise in return for many more insults from the public.

Forty-eight hours later, the state broadcasting body, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, broke the news of the death of the veep on Ghana Television, alongside very well organised performances by a Muslim choir.

My immediate response on social media after the GTV announcement was: “This will go down in the history of journalism as one of the most contentious cases ever – not only in Ghana but across the media world – thanks to the wonders of science and technology.

“Even moments can be frozen and together with the news. The dilemma now, I guess, is for our friends who received their biggest public beating in the last 48 hours to choose between sensitivity and exoneration – knowing what they knew even when they apologised.”

One of the private discussions I had that day, as the saga unfolded, bordered on Islamic funeral traditions. In accordance to strict Muslim customs, burial must take place ideally before sunset or within 24 hours of death.

Mahama was a devout Muslim, but he was a statesman too: a national figure beloved and respected by all. His burial service and funeral would be a national event that required meticulous preparation and coordination between government and family – including important security details.

Could the government and family pull that through suddenly in less than a day? Was the ventilator buying them time? Why would the doctor say what he’s alleged to have said to a team of journalists when the hospital wasn’t ready to make that statement?

As for JOY News TV’s decision to apologise, even knowing what they believed they “knew” at the time, one is only reminded of the oblique nature of journalism, where the line between morality and obligation couldn’t be more confusing.

In the end, it remains the individual’s judgment on right and wrong, and no one rule can hold for all situations.

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