UP Close With Ben Ephson
Nearly 38 years ago when Ephson chose to practice journalism, not only was the profession perilous in Ghana, particularly for outspoken practitioners; he was only 17 and a high school student.
Today, Ephson is easily recognized as one of Ghana’s leading journalists partly because of his visibility in the media and the freedom with which he practices his profession.
His role as the publisher and editor of a leading independent newspaper: the Daily Dispatch; coupled with his knack for political survey research and bold election predictions have set him apart and made him a common name even among the younger millennia generation.
Ephson’s story however couldn’t be farther from the seemingly smooth one that plays in the eyes of the public.
At some point, I knew I was under surveillance and would be arrested
Born Emmanuel Benjamin Ephson, this ace journalist distinguished himself from his peers as far back as his days at the Accra Academy Senior High School when he started reporting for the London based monthly Africa Magazine in 1974.
Despite the enormous risks that typified journalism in Ghana before the early 1990s, Ephson remained buoyant for the most part of his career: One that spans a wide variety of publications and media organizations, and fared through coup d’états, successive military rules and the return to democracy.
Undoubtedly, the former BBC and Agence France Presse correspondent’s work has won him many admirers along the way, but to say the same incurred the wrath of some is an understatement.
In what marked the most treacherous period of his career, Ephson – branded by the powers that ruled his country as a thorn in the flesh – landed in jail more than once and had his life threatened.
His reports for the Africa and West Africa magazines, some of which bordered on torture and other forms of human rights abuse, didn’t go unnoticed by his country’s military governments.
While still a high school student, the National Redemption Council, under the leadership of General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, hunted and arrested Ephson.
The junta’s search for Ephson wasn’t the only threat the teenager faced at the time. “One of the dangers,” he states, “was the possibility of the school authorities realizing I was breaking bounds by leaving boarding house without permission to attend press conferences to do interviews.”
When the NRC finally caught up with him, the 55-year-old still remembers how astonished they were: The Ben Ephson they expected to see was supposed to be a man, not a teenage school boy.
Ephson was thrown into a security cell where he spent five months without any visitors, “and I will go through the same path, again,” he hinted about future arrests.
So, what would propel an underage school kid into journalism at a time in his country’s history when mainly the brave – even among grown men and women – would dare into that field and speak their mind; much more step on the toes of a military government?
“I wanted to be a mirror and a barometer to society,” the Ghanaian-born responds.
This explains the University of Ghana alumnus’s decision to continue in the field of journalism even after obtaining a law degree in 1981 – a year that coincided with the overthrow of a democratically elected president, Dr. Hilla Limann, by a group of junior army officers: the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council.
Two years earlier the AFRP, who seized power briefly, oversaw the execution of some members of former military governments, including two former heads of state: General Acheampong and Lieutenant General William Akuffo.
The country’s new leader, following the 1981 coup, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings – chairman of the ruling Provisional National Defense Council – would consider Ephson an adversary for years.
Ephson, who had begun reporting for the weekly West Africa magazine in 1982, knew it was only a matter of time before he ended up behind bars again.
“At some point, I knew I was under surveillance and would be arrested,” he said of the PNDC government.
One can never be a good journalist without being called positive and negative names
They arrested him, and at a time when his wife was eight months pregnant. He was released four months after the birth of his son, now 25.
“I did run after my release,” the top player acknowledged. “But not to any Western country to seek refugee status,” he added without revealing his actual place of hiding during that crucial moment.
Today, Ephson can publish political election polls without looking over his shoulder even if they spell doom for an incumbent government: Thanks to him and others including Kweku Baako, Huruna Atta, Kwesi Pratt, Elizabeth Ohene, whose persistence not only helped liberalize the press in Ghana but make journalism a safer profession in the country.
Touted as the single most credible pollster in Ghana so far, with an accuracy rate of plus or minus 1 for the most part since 2000, the Ford Fellow, who studied Foreign Policy at the University of Maryland, credits his polling skills to the basic principles of the U.S. election research opinion polling that he had the opportunity to learn during his UMD days.
His most recent polls, the December 2012 presidential election, put the National Democratic Congress and its flag bearer, John Mahama – the declared winner – ahead of the New Patriotic Party and Nana Akufo-Addo in the week of the election; a result the NPP is contesting at the Supreme Court of Ghana, citing fraud by the NDC.
Needless to say Ephson’s polls haven’t been without criticisms sometimes even from his admirers. His January 2009 runoff prediction gave hope to the New Patriotic Party, who ended up losing – albeit by the smallest margin ever in the country’s presidential electoral history: fewer than 50,000 votes.
But Ephson explains that the prediction, based on an analysis of the December 2008 first round vote, was conditional. “We said if the Eastern Region stepped up and vote,” Akufo-Addo would win – he reiterates, emphasizing ‘if.’
One area of work close to the heart of this award winning journalist that may have been overshadowed by his political reporting is women. Ephson has been instrumental in highlighting women’s issues, paying particular attention to the economic activities of women’s groups in rural areas, especially in Northern Ghana.
The author and honouree, who has been guest to foreign governments and institutions, certainly is no stranger to controversies.
In 2011, Ephson became the subject of a hot debate when his name surfaced in WikiLeaks in connection with a conversation he had with U.S. diplomats, in which he was said to have accused a colleague of attempting to bribe him to skew his polls in favour of the NPP, leading to the 2008 presidential election. His colleague strongly denied the allegation.
Ephson’s family have had their share of the price that comes with his incredible career life. The name ‘Ephson’ alone may pass for an albatross – especially for those with whom he shares the same set of names. “But my family understands that it comes with my work,” he concedes, while acknowledging the acts of kindness the name also attracts.
“One can never be a good journalist without being called positive and negative names,” the Ephson’s File host stresses.
“At the end of whatever work I do, the question I always ask myself is: Have I been true to my God and country. If the answer is yes, I care less about what partisan minded people say. I am a journalist who has my country at heart.”
That question may be Ephson’s to answer, but it may be safe to assume that this son of Africa has done something right – considering at least, the recognitions he has received from his peers – including the Ghana Journalists Association’s Commitment and Dedication award; and the U.S. based National Association of Black Journalist’s Human Rights and Excellence award.