Posted: Sunday 31st August 2014 at 13:30 pm

Where Is James Foley’s GJA Award?

I often joke that my column is my first wife, and my ‘second’ wife understands me.I had been writing several years before I met her. Well, she met me through my first wife, who played the matchmaker. Under normal circumstances, there shouldn’t be any rivalry, but that information is good for another day. When you feel the need to write or tell a story, no other interests compete for your attention and devotion. You go to bed thinking of a headline for tomorrow and you wake up with the lead already half written. You feel what Briton’s finest journalist, Andrew Marr, calls an ‘itchy nosiness and native curiosity’ to pen down your thoughts quickly before you lose that original construction.

On a daily basis, what price do journalists pay for practicing their trade? Apart from the generally low wages that only placate us for the many sacrifices and missed opportunities, many of us live precariously, often navigating through a minefield of hazards, traps and threats to survive the next day. The very bold and fearless ones are thrown into jail for being too daring and wise enough to refuse to accept a car or wads of cash to kill a story. The jail columns are often the best told stories, because they are emotions recollected in the ‘tranquility’ of pain and service. That is the price. Abdul Malik KwekuBaako knows this better. Mr. Kwesi Pratt Jr lived it, and still lives it.

Those who started the journalism trade in this country paid a bigger price than those of us in the mechanized age where the internet literally writes our leads for us and vomits old quotes for our immediate use. Even when we buff up a quote or pretend we have exhausted all the questions on our check list, we are unashamed to show our faces at the budget meeting to pick a front-page story. The Ofori’sin the days of old used raw tools to collect better stories in a press-unfriendly climate. Yet we are almost unanimous that the best reports have already been written–by Razak El-Alawa, PAV, Kabral, Sakyi-Addo and Kofi Coomson. These also paid huge prices, and all of them were deservingly rewarded with various awards for their distinguished penmanship.

What award do we give to Mr. James Foley, the American journalist who was beheaded recently in the Middle East for doing his job? He bore the ultimate Golgotha for all our journalistic sins. The jihadist group that killed him says his beheading wasrevenge for American air strikes on their men in Iraq. The group has sent a strong message to the US government warning “You are no longer fighting insurgency. We are an Islamic army and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide”.

In a video titled ‘A Message to America’, released by the militants, the American journalist is dressed in an orange jumpsuit and kneeling in a desolate environment resembling a desert. A man dressed in black is seen beside the journalist. An obviously shaken and threatened James is heard saying “I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my real killers, the US government, for what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality.” Thereafter, Mr. Foley’s head is taken in the most unimaginably cruel fashion. He dies doing the job he loves best, exposing the rot and the corruption of our world. Is there a bigger price anybody has ever paid for doing their job? James had extensively covered the Middle East for publications such as the GlobalPost, AFP (French News Agency) and many others.

The UK has condemned the act as depraved while France has described it as barbaric. The spokesperson of the White House National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, has said that “If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist.” The video has been confirmed by US state officials as authentic and the beheaded victim identified as journalist James Foley.

Journalism will always stand. We have survived the dry weariness of the old ages and the threats of modern technology. The newsprint will never die. Aye, a few have fallen and folded up, but for the brave ones like James Foley, journalism was not a profession; it was a calling. The spirit behind the call never leaves their bodies; it shows in the crucial investigations and the never-ending revelations of the most important atrocities that assail our world. According to James’ mother, Diane, he “gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”

As we celebrate the 19th GJA awards, to reward our finest journalists with prizes, let’s spare a moment to remember those who have paid the greatest price for the trade. We are closer to passing a Rightto Information bill (RTI), which, according to the African Union Special Rapporteur on Freedom and Access to Information, Pansy Tlakula, will enhance transparency, accountability and good governance through faster and uninhibited access to information. But we also remember from whence we came yesterday, when it cost the eye of the radio to get anything said or written. We celebrate the progress and the quality of our journalism today, and the fact that the internet has not booted the newsprint out of sight, but it has been a difficult journey.

How far Ghanaian journalism goes depends on the quality of the journalists who write our daily stories, but how our journalism would get there depends on our readiness to respond to new trends and challenges. The present standards may be adequate for the audience we have but we have a huge task ahead if we aspire to maintain a proper book review section in our popular diaries, which would appeal to the average reader of the New York Times. We have a few more journalism training institutions, but newspaper circulation rates have not improved very much. Well, we deserve our awards not because we are great, but because we are getting better. But James Foley was the best. And to him I dedicate this column on the 19th GJA Awards. Fare thee well, James.

KwesiTawiah-Benjamin

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