Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Of Free Speech, Memories And Colleagues In Jail

Elizabeth Ohene

It surely must be a measure of either How very thoroughly Flt-Lt Rawlings has shed his self-proclaimed naivety or The ideological purity of his PNDC that he has felt it necessary to arrest and keep in jail for such a long time, journalists whose only crime has been that they wrote articles disagreeing with the regime.

Mike Adjei, Tommy Thompson and John Kugblenu were arrested in the middle of June this year and are still being kept in jail - last seen at the Medium security Prisons in Nsawam.

Tommy Thompson was the proprietor and Managing Director of the "Free Press," an independent weekly newspaper, John Kugblenu was the Editor of the paper and Mike Adjei, Public Relations Officer for GOIL, and a trained journalist had been writing articles for the Free Press which were critical of the regime.

Since December 31, 1981 when the no-longer naive Rawlings took over power again in Ghana, his attitude towards the Press and criticism has proved to be the greatest difference between Rawlings Mark I and Rawlings Mark II. Admittedly, every now and again, he launches into an attack against the sycophantic government-owned press outdoing each other in praising him and seeing nothing wrong with anything he does. But the fact is that it is not lost on these Editors that those who have been critical of the regime have all come to very sorry ends.

The independently owned "Echo" under the editorship of John Dumoga fought a gallant battle and excelled in its coverage of the judges murders - in the end he had to flee the country for his life when angry defenders of the regime, said to be members of PDCs and WDCs stormed the offices of the 'Echo' and put paid to such attempts at criticism.

A thoroughly shaken and wiser "Echo" has emerged after the flight of John Dumoga, a pale shadow of its former self to all intents and purposes, silenced. Flt-Lt. Rawlings said nothing, did nothing.

When Mike Adjei wrote his first article for the 'Free Press' earlier on this year, he had a very ominous opening sentence: he wrote that he was well aware that the things he had to say would most probably mean that he would be killed, and that he was quite ready to die." One was a little surprised at such an opening, considering what he did write, there was nothing treasonable or remotely subversive, there was not a whiff of sedition.

He wrote about suffering, he wrote about the intolerable conditions in present day Ghana, he wrote about how impossible it is to feed one's family, he wrote that the socialist rhetoric and the extreme anti-American and anti-British rhetoric in the official press would only aggravate the country's problems.

He wrote that the PNDC ought to ask for aid from those who have food to give otherwise people will die. There was hardly anything he wrote that was not already fact and widely known in Ghana; he abused no one, he used temperate language.

The last time somebody had used words to the effect that he was ready to die - face the firing squad in fact - it was Flt-Lt Rawlings on December 31, 1981 saying that if Ghanaians did not agree to what he was trying to do, he was ready to be killed.

Now, one could understand why he said so, for he was well aware that he was trying to and in the event succeeded in overthrowing a lawfully constituted government.

Mike Adjei's articles were nothing if not attempts at painting a picture of what he saw around. It is the business of a writer to do so, he would be failing in his duty if he kept quiet or gave the wrong bias. Sycophancy on the part of the writer is as bad, as damnable and treasonable as the soldier who does not defend his country when it is attacked.

That is all that Mike Adjei did and if it were possible for people to make their feeling known without fear of retribution, many would say that he articulated for them what they had all they had been feeling.

Tommy Thompson provided a forum for alternative voices to be heard and tried to point out what he felt were going wrong. He gave praise where he thought it was due and with his editor, John Kugblenu, performed creditably under most trying conditions.

After the June 19 incident, (even Government spokesmen aren't calling it a coup attempt any more) the offices and press of the "Free Press" were stormed and vandalised by PDCs and WDCs and the three men were arrested with other people.

A government statement later said that they and the others had been arrested in connection with the coup attempt. Since then, many of the others have been released, some have been tried and executed and these three are still being kept in jail without any charges being proffered against them.

There is no question but that their only crime is the publication of the critical articles.

There are people in power today who have never pretended to have any sympathies for the free expression of divergent views. It is not surprising that such people should order the arrest of somebody who writes an article critical of the regime.

What about Flt-Lt. Rawlings? Has he been converted into the pitiable belief that criticism means subversion? Back in 1979 he demonstrated that he was willing to accept that he could be wrong.

Readers would pardon my getting personal here. The "Daily Graphic" as it then was, under my editorship came under violent criticism from a group of club-wielding demonstrators, because they claimed the paper had been critical of the AFRC and its actions and pronouncements; at the end of the demonstrations, a resolution was presented to Flt-Lt Rawlings demanding that I be fired as Editor - he refused and this was an audience made up of his most enthusiastic and ardent supporters.

If everybody else has forgotten, surely Flt. Lt. Rawlings has not and cannot forget the advantages he has derived from the willingness of some journalists to speak out against the prevailing official line.

If all sections of the Press had toed the official line during the abortive trial of Flt-Lt. Rawlings after his abortive coup attempt of May 15, 1979, the entire history of Ghana might have been very different from what it has turned out to be.

Tremendous pressure came from official circles to keep the details of that trial from the public,some people thought otherwise, courted official displeasure and publicised that trial and the motivations that drove Flt-Lt. Rawlings to what he had done.

That is how the Rawlings message got through to the people, that is why June 4 was ever possible, some might say that is how come, he stayed alive at all.

After the AFRC handed over power, some journalists were still willing to risk official displeasure for the sake of telling the other side of the story. The Flight Lieutenant might remember that when an officially inspired statement accused him of threatening bloodshed during the next revolution which might engulf journalists also, some journalists stuck out their necks to inform the whole world that the official version was not the whole truth.

It was important for the press to do its work fearlessly, criticism was tal for the government and the country, he said, thus ensuring the continuation of one of the few periods of real press freedom we ever had in Shana. He did not just make speeches, he supported his words with action (or in this case, non-action).

It is possible that one of the things Flight-Lieutenant Rawlings regrets not having done in 1979 was not to have fired me, but still it cannot be denied that he won a lot of points as a result.

He still speaks once in a while as though he believed in those ideals. Why does he not back it up with action? Why are journalists being kept in jail? Has Flt-Lt. Rawlings fallen victim to the age-old tyranny of security bosses - we know what is good for you, and it is in your interest to keep these people in jail?

What are people like Mrs. Ababio and Mrs. V. Sackey, both said to have offices in the Castle now, doing about the fact that journalists are being kept in jail for disagreeing with the government? Surely it cannot be that now that they are members of the government, they cannot see any more that there could be something wrong.

Mrs. Sackey in her many articles to the "Daily Graphic" and in the "PIONEER" under the pen name of Yaa Asantewa, surely gave the impression that she could see beyond personalities? Has Mrs. Ababio forgotten the many evenings spent discussing the frustrations and terrible experiences of her work with the General Superintendents and Mike Adjei's very useful contributions. Now that they are in government, is it possible that everything looks alright to them also?

Now that a major initiative has been launched aimed at getting AFRC convicts and those in exile to come back to appear before a review committee and since this is being shown as a reconciliatory move, why not demonstrate the government's good faith by starting from the immediate; if people are being held simply for disagreeing, what chance would others have when they have been tried in absentia and jailed, many of them to long terms?

By keeping journalists in his jails when he does not want corn-thieves to be jailed, he might be unknowingly proving right those who gave the distorted view of the events in the offices of the Daily Graphic back in October, 1980.

As for Captain Kojo Tsikata, he might choose to dismiss with disdain all appeals to have mercy on journalists today from his exalted position, but he might find a minute in the day to reflect on the fact that when the security forces were after him, there were some journalists willing to risk their lives to make the fact of his harassment known to the whole world.

Memories can not be that short, or is it just absolute power corrupting absolutely?

"Business As Usual"

Reports which one can only hope are untrue, state that Tommy Thompson and John Kuoblenu were recently very badly beaten up. In many other countries, the people would at least have protested or demonstrated their displeasure at the incarceration of people whose only crime was that they articulated what everybody else was feeling.

In other places, some people would have set up camps outside the prison walls to put pressure on the authorities and go give what little comfort there is to the three gentlemen inside the prison.

As it is, one wonders what must be passing through the minds of the three as they sit in their cell knowing that "it's business as usual" for their countrymen for whom they thought they were doing a duty.

talking drums 1983-10-24 Nkrumah's widow starves - Rawlings stabs press in the back