Tunisia. A country which has made history numerous times in recent years: as the birthplace of the Arab Spring and for passing one of the most forward-looking constitutions in the Arab world.
What price did the country have to pay? Perhaps the trash-littered streets of Tunis give an inkling to the level of breakdown in basic services that followed the fall of the Ben Ali regime, not counting the lives lost in weeks of protests – never to be reclaimed.
And yet, many of those I have spoken to randomly, including taxi drivers, shop keepers and so on concur that while things are not the best, they are certainly better.
They recounted tales about the almost stifling atmosphere that hung over the country, and more especially, the capital. People lived in fear. Correction: Fear made itself comfortable – room service included – amongst the people.
You could go to a dinner party and have a pleasant time. But the moment that visiting friend or yet-to-learn-the-rules-of-the-game new arrival brought up the President’s name or that of any government official, silence would announce her arrival. Nobody wanted to acknowledge that those sacred words had been uttered. To do so would mean you were there when they were said and, by extension, that you were equally guilty, equally complicit. In what? Who knows.
There was that one tale about a local who organised get-togethers at his place every week. It was rumoured people discussed taboo topics like government policy, what was wrong with leadership, who was stealing what from the public coffers. But of course it was all rumour. Until the day the police barged in on them and made some arrests. The crime? Criticising the government, speaking out in the ‘safety’ of one’s home; one’s personal space.
Turns out the local baker who brought loaves of bread to those get-togethers – because Tunisians love their bread – was a plant; a spy for the government. Like the many taxi drivers in the New York style yellow cabs which roam the city. The lines between personal and public space were blurred, virtually non-existent.
But maybe these tales sound too far-fetched for many of us reading this online. Imagine typing ‘Youtube.com’ or ‘Facebook.com’ into your browser…only to find that it’s been blocked by your government. Your favourite Bukom Banku videos, those hilarious African memes? All gone. Kaput. Just like that. But don’t worry, you’ll get over that. The weightier issue here is that your freedom, right, choice to express and inform yourself would be shot. Just like that. And why? Because fear came over for a vacation, then decided to move in permanently.
Now at this juncture, I must put out a disclaimer – I cannot confirm the accuracy of all of the tales I’ve recounted since I heard them second-hand – either through leisurely talk or reading. But I don’t think they are too far-fetched; history tells it’s fair share of such tales.
What I can confirm is how I felt when I heard those tales. I thanked God I’m Ghanaian. I thanked God that my country had one of the freest – albeit still fledgling – media in Africa. I thought of the many times I’d called question to one government policy or another in my writings – and what simply voicing my impressions and perceptions of them could mean for my life and those of my family and friends if Ghana were kin to Tunisia of yesteryears.
Even before I gained such insight into how dangerous it must be to be a journalist in a country where fear is the instrument of power used for governing the people, I wondered those things. But ultimately, I felt free enough to write what I did, not because the law would protect me, but rather, because I knew I could stand by my words. I knew I was doing nothing wrong, and I banked on the fact that we live in a society which encourages – or at the very minimum tolerates – healthy debate and criticism. How else do we grow as a nation? How else do we feel the pulse of the nation, the people? It is one of the admirable elements of Ghanaian society and of our fledgling democracy.
Yet, the past week has made me wonder whether the days of open expression and ‘free media’ might be over? I’ve been following the story around Kwame Gyan, an employee of telecomm. company Airtel Ghana and a blogger, who was suspended for a month without pay for publishing what is apparently a very abominable thing on his social media platform:
“I wish we had guts like the people of Ukraine.”
Who would have thought those ten words could cause such havoc? On the one hand there are those who say Airtel is in the wrong, he was operating in his private space and as such should not be penalised. And then there are those who say his words could defame his company; he did sign a contract after all. There have been calls for Gyan’s reinstatement and Gyan himself has taken to putting out a disclaimer indicating that his posts are personal views.
I’m not here to convince you one way or the other, although I will say this.The fact that Gyan’s statement causes such a flurry of activity, means we Ghanaians really do need to look more closely at ourselves and the current state of our nation. What is it about his post that triggered such a reaction on the part of company? Did his statement contain some truth? Why are many people debating the issue?
Now, back on topic.
Ghana’s motto Freedom and Justice” could easily be interpreted as Freedom and Responsibility. Yes, we might have the privilege of free expression – which some abuse on a frequent basis – but with each right or privilege comes responsibility. No two ways about that. Any ethical journalist should be willing to stand by what they themselves have penned. It’s unfortunate that Gyan’s ‘misfortune’ had to be a catalyst for such discussions, but the author himself seems to have taken things in stride and for that, I have great respect for him.
That said, each person whose statements come under scrutiny should also be given the opportunity to explain themselves. To express the reasons, the motivations, behind their submissions. Why? Well, besides the whole trying-to-be-democratic thing, the fact is that any word – much more sentence or article – is subject to interpretation.
Ultimately, we sift through and decipher things through our own personal nets of interpretation. We assign our unique voices to whatever we encounter, read, see, hear. That ‘unique voice’ greatly influences the delivery of the message and what kind of meaning is accorded to it.
Case in point, we recently had a Twitter debate on Ghanaian apathy – another cancer in our society today – and I tweeted:
“While we debate #TippingPoint & our leaders continue to act w/o leadership, next gen learns same damn thing. Ruthless cycle.”
Some guy responds: “You want a ruthless cycle? Interesting. You really don’t know what you say.”
I laughed it off, “Never said I want a ruthless cycle. I’m describing it as such. Goodness, lol.”
But you see, I had a space to clarify my position. Unchecked, a comment like that could lead to something entirely different.
Alarmists. These are people who thrive on chaos. People who indeed, live for the chaos, confusion. Every society has it’s fair share, Ghana not excluded. The societies which are able to curtail unnecessary episodes of alarm? It’s the discerning ones.
We have a problem with asking questions in Ghana. Whether it’s because we’re afraid or don’t like the feeling of vulnerability or ‘not knowing’ that comes with it, I’m not sure. But asking questions will probably save us many a headache. Not only with regards to how public finances and tax payers’ money is being spent, but also, for simply getting a sense of what people actually mean instead of simply assuming.
The morning of Ghana’s 57th anniversary I woke up with a burning question on my mind. Why did Kwame Nkrumah and the Big Six come up with the motto “Freedom and Justice” for Ghana? If they didn’t come up with it, who did and why?
What ultimately came to me was this:
While it might seem as though winning ‘independence’ was the end of a war long-fought – which is partially true, I suppose – it was the beginning of an even bigger challenge: ingraining freedom and justice into the very fabric of Ghanaian society. And so maybe, the issue here is that we think we already have ‘freedom and justice’ when in actual fact, it’s something to strive for daily.
Expression is but one of the many elements which makes Ghana so vibrant. Song, word, appellations, proverbs, dance, art, you name it, we express it. Even our traditional societies give space for citizens to air their views, much more the state apparatus. The minute we become silent about the things that matter is the moment we have given up on our motherland. The day we start censoring or clamping down on our individual and collective right to freedom (of expression) is the day we not only trade in our current attempts at freedom and justice, but also the very fight for independence that our forefathers fought. It’s the very day we exchange being human for being mere products of society.
Ultimately it comes down to this: With each freedom, comes responsibility. With each suppressed human right, comes another excuse for abuse. Ignoring something, doesn’t make it go away. We should be having a conversation, navigating our issues together. Instead of going by heresay. Here say never got us anywhere.
Freedom and Justice (Responsibility) – Our collective struggle to unbind ourselves from the cancers of our own making.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.