In this article, Abdul-Kudus Husein, ISS graduate with an MA in Development Studies, analyses the role of the media in fighting urban water-sector corruption in Accra, Ghana. The article is based on his Master’s thesis at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of the Erasmus University. WIN supported his fieldwork in Ghana.*
It is 6am on a Saturday morning and Charity Abiamo, a street vendor of oranges, is on a daily mission with her three children to find water. Charity and her children live in Abofu, an informal settlement situated between Achimota and Abelemkpe in Accra, Ghana’s capital.
Charity leads the way in the alleys of Abofu carrying a black plastic container, with her one–year-old child strapped to her back whilst her two other children follow her carrying two yellow jerrycans known as ‘Kuffour gallons’. These yellow one-gallon containers, which have become a symbol of the water shortage in Ghana, were named after the country’s former president, John Agyekum Kuffour (2000–8), under whose rule Ghana experienced a severe water crisis.
The journey from Charity’s home to the source of drinking water, a large drainage channel connecting to the Odaw River in Accra, takes between 10 and 15 minutes As Charity arrives, other families are already at the Odaw drainage channel, stretching over the edge with their containers to collect water from an overflowing algae-infested pipeline.
Charity claims she uses the water for cooking, drinking and washing, despite the water not being treated considering the lack of suitable and safe alternative water sources.
Ibrahim Iddris, a car mechanic who has lived in the area for many years, stated that
‘[t]he water problem has been in existence for so long; nothing has been done about it. The drain is the only source of water. People from adjoining areas come here to fetch water from the drain.’
Accra’s water problems
Accra is a fast-growing urban area that is facing considerable planning challenges including access to clean water owing to its rising population. With a current total of 4 million, the city’s population is expected to double by 2030, further compounding the water situation as illustrated by Charity.
Water supply to urban populations in Accra is assigned to the Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL). The GWCL has divided the capital into three main areas for administrative purposes; the Accra East, Accra West and Tema regions.
Water is provided for inhabitants of these regions using a piped rationing system managed by the GWCL. Additionally, there are private tanker services to provide water to areas that are not served by the GWCL. Despite these measures, both high and low income earners in Accra still face a great challenge in accessing water. High-income earners in areas with piped water connection even purchase large water-storage vessels, such as the ‘poly-tank’, to store enough water to last them a week or more. Those in the low-income bracket rely on small, unhygienic storage systems and informal vendors such as the water-tanker services, community standpipes and boreholes for their daily use.
Lack of access to clean water is a routine phenomenon for many poor people like Charity, who cannot afford large poly-tank storage systems. Indeed, between 2012 and 2014, Accra experienced a severe water and energy crisis that threatened the survival of many of its poorest inhabitants.
Poor integrity contributes to water woes
In an article published by Bloomberg, Moses Dzawu (2013) argued that many of the GWCL’s problems can be attributed to weak and outdated pipes, which fail to support the mass production and distribution of water to certain parts of the capital, as well as poor management, a lack of transparency and accountability, and corruption.
Similarly, Peter Van Rooijen (2008) maintains that corruption, together with a lack of transparency and accountability, is a key challenge hindering the GWCL’s effective operation. Corruption in the water sector in Ghana takes many forms, from misappropriations of huge sums of money to illegal connections and consumption of water. Indeed, stories of corruption have always dominated the media space in Ghana.
As I discovered in the course of this study, corruption is indeed a major obstacle to the efforts of the GWCL in Ghana. High-level officials use materials and equipment belonging to the water agencies and either sell them to households or take bribes before connecting households to the national grid; the money involved, needless to say, does not find its way into the coffers of the institution itself. Revenue collectors also take bribes from customers and under-report actual monthly consumption levels.
Ghana’s country Representative of Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), Issaka Musah, believes that the sheer size of the GWCL makes it a lucrative target for people to manipulate for their own ends:
‘I have heard of instances of corruption in GWCL through the media; GWCL makes a monthly average revenue of 50 million Ghana Cedis (€9,218,261); this makes the company an easy target for corrupt politicians and or civil servants.’
Similarly, an anonymous source in one of Ghana’s anti-corruption bodies is convinced that corruption is a major problem, accounting for the inability of the GWCL to provide clean water to every household in Accra. He revealed during our brief interaction that between 2012 and 2013, the agency received four high-profile corruption complaints for investigations involving the top management of the water company. Even though he would not mention names, he revealed that investigation had been able to establish that some staff illegally withdrew over 98,000.00 Ghana Cedis (equivalent to €19,000.00) from a new service connection account in one of the GWCL service zones. He added,
‘it was also established that over 28,000.00 Ghana Cedis (equivalent to €6,000), which was allegedly stolen from a safe in a district manager’s office was a deliberate act and in violation of the GWCL revenue manual; the amount exceeded how much should be kept in the safe’.
In 2011, an influential Ghana National Water Supply Integrity Study (GNWSIS) conducted by the Ghana Integrity Initiative (GII) found that transparency is average or non-existent in Ghana’s water-supply industry because in many cases contracts do not exist or are not clear, and there are no anti-corruption measures to promote integrity. The study further revealed that low integrity in the water sector increases the vulnerabilities of poor people in accessing water, and that promoting integrity in the sector would improve water-service delivery and increase access (GII 2011: 9).
The link between media and integrity
The media, along with other agencies, plays an important role in corruption detection and promoting transparency and accountability in the water sector.
The news media can help to raise public awareness of corruption through investigative journalism, news reports, the dissemination of research findings and so on. The government, private sector, civil society and/or citizens can then agitate for action in the form of launching an investigation or judicial action, or calling for the dismissal or resignation of corrupt officials – thereby contributing to improved transparency and accountability.
Unlike in other African countries, the Ghanaian media enjoys a high degree of freedom, which is largely attributable to the guarantee in the 1992 Republican Constitution of Ghana and the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law (CLL) in 2001. Until its repeal, the CLL – amongst other laws – sought to protect powerful people as well as national security against hearsay, ‘fake news’ and irresponsible reporting. Ghana’s media is deemed partly free according to the 2017 Freedom House Press ranking, with a score of 33/100 (Freedom House 2017).
The media in Ghana also currently has a larger popular base than ever before, with an unprecedented impact on politics and policy. For example, in 2015, Anas Armeyaw Anas, an investigative journalist carried out a probe into corruption within Ghana’s judiciary that subsequently led to the dismissal of 21 judges (BBC 2015).
Scholars argue that Ghana’s media has contributed largely to the country’s democratic efforts by holding the state accountable, promoting citizen education and participation, and monitoring state institutions.
In fact, in 2001, the media, together with the Integrated Social Development Centre (ISSODEC), successfully opposed a World Bank-backed project to fully privatise the GWCL. This effort was largely carried out through increased media reportage, in order to educate the public on the dangers of such privatisation (Amenga-Etego and Grusky 2005: 275).
Whilst there have been cases where the media contributes to pushing for more transparency and accountability, these cases are still rare. Overall, coverage on issues of corruption and lack of integrity is low, which is not only an issue in Ghana but also in other countries around the world. According to Binayak Das (2007), despite such ‘success stories’ by the media it has been argued that stories of corruption in the water sector fail to get the necessary coverage in the mainstream media compared with issues such as business and politics.
It can moreover be said that the coverage on corruption or lack of integrity in the water sector is often biased and predictable, which is a more serious issue. This is highlighted by the programme manager of Safe Water Network, Joseph Ampadu-Boakye, who laments the excessive polarisation of issues in Ghana. According to him, journalists in the country have taken up entrenched political stances on very important national matters and it is very easy to see how a discussion on corruption will proceed in the media once a story is published:
‘I bet, if a corruption issue breaks, you can tell exactly where and how the conversation will go depending on the media which breaks the story; the political inclination and so on; I am sorry but [Ghana’s] media content is heavily political.’
The media is widely regarded as a defence against abuses of power; excessive politicization of national matters in the Ghanaian media is therefore very worrying. The lack of coverage and at times biased coverage on corruption or lack of integrity show that there is still a way to go before the media plays its potential role of encouraging and catalysing change within the water sector.
Challenges for the media on water integrity
The Water Integrity Network (WIN) supports and connects partners, individuals, organisations and governments promoting water integrity in order to reduce corruption and improve water-sector performance worldwide. In its Water Integrity Global Outlook 2016, it maintains that in order to fight corruption in the water sector there is a need for people to first recognise that corrupt practices exist. Local and national media both have an important role to play in bringing issues of corruption to the attention of civil society, the public and policymakers, to ensure that action is taken through policy or advocacy.
In the same report, the WIN states that in most countries the media does not know how to tell the story of corruption in the water sector in a compelling enough way to grab the public’s attention. Since this is a sensitive topic, there are limitations as to how effectively the media can position itself in advocating less corruption in the water sector (WIN 2016:158).
Several things come into play here: first, ownership of the media can play a role. The question of whether the media is independent or state-owned influences the extent to which it can be critical about the level of corruption in state institutions. State media tends to be less critical of government institutions, whilst the private media will most likely be more critical.
The editor of Ghana’s Daily Dispatch newspaper, Ben Epson, agrees that media ownership plays a critical role in the fight against corruption. He contends that government newspapers always do the bidding of the administration concerned and, as such, leave a vacuum for the private media – especially when it comes to critical reporting on water issues:
‘The private media is best placed to promote water integrity. Most corruption issues are exposed by the private media. The public media is not so keen on exposing corruption because the public media seeks to protect government interest.’
As I found during the course of this study, ownership of the media to a large extent determines how robust and critical it can be in fighting corruption, since media owners in some cases exercise considerable influence over its editorial stance. Government-owned media is designed to a large extent to represent the state, and to portray that state and its agencies in a favourable light.
Furthermore, the amount of resources available to journalists may influence how effectively the media is able to act as a watchdog in fighting corruption. Ghanaian reporters are often poorly paid, under-resourced and lacking in training. As a result, journalists in Ghana find themselves susceptible to bribery and self-censorship.
Nearly every day, both the state and private media are invited by government agencies and other organisations to cover events of some sort. After these events, the journalists are provided with some form of compensation – usually known as ‘solidarity’, or ‘soli’ for short.
It is also very common for some government officials to chauffeur these reporters to and from their offices as a strategic way of maintaining patronage relations and a mutual relationship of need and obligation. This also, therefore, limits a journalist’s ability to be critical. It has been argued that such practices equate to corruption in the media itself.
‘Soli’ undermines what should be a noble profession. Journalism, like any occupation that relies heavily on personal integrity, demands a high degree of sacrifice but pays off in the end, when one’s story is published or one receives a prize for one’s work. Integrity issues in this line of work become even more apparent when journalists themselves don’t realize the issue with accepting a bribe. Eugenia Tenkoran of CITIFM in Accra, for instance, sees nothing wrong with journalists taking ‘soli’:
‘what is the big deal if they hand over an envelope to me after I cover their event. It is not that I demanded it. If it is given to me I will take it but I will not demand […] it. How does that make me corrupt or immoral?’
Aside from low salaries, the Ghanaian media also suffers from weak capacity. There is a lack of adequate training and mentoring for thousands of journalists in the country in general and in specific the water sector, even though some donor organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have attempted to train reporters. Most of these attempts have, in fact, been frustrated by a lack of commitment from the journalists themselves.
The country manager of WaterAid Ghana, Abdul-Nashiru Mohammed, laments that over the years WaterAid has shown a great deal of interest in building the media’s capacity to undertake critical reporting on water issues, but that he has been disappointed by the lack of commitment from the journalists:
‘We [WaterAid] have set up what we call Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) journalists in ten countries in West Africa – Nigeria, Mali, Liberia, Benin, Burkina Faso etc. including Ghana – but unfortunately, the Ghana group is not active.’
There are plenty of initiatives in support of media development and capacity building in Ghana from, amongst others, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Media Foundation of West Africa (MFWA), the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC) and the Ghana Integrity Initiative (GII). However, ensuring that the media performs its function still remains a challenge.
Ghana has a number of media training institutions, but most of these ‘media houses’ also lack the basic ability and resources to train journalists in special areas to help them become experts in that particular sector.
News editor of Metro TV, Peter Sirenye, also believes that the media needs more capacity. Amongst other measures, he proposes special training for journalists that includes budget tracking, procurement and investigative reporting in order to enable them to do proper reporting on some of the integrity issues in the water sector:
‘We still have a lot of journalists who do not understand water sector issues; apart from that, investigative reporting is expensive. To promote greater transparency and accountability in the water sector, CSOs [civil-society organisations] and the private sector must support [the] capacity development of journalists.’
The social media debate
The rise of the Internet and the ease of posting articles online have made it difficult to assess which reports are accurate or reliable. For instance, Ghana’s Inspector-General of Police threatened, in the run-up to the country’s 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections, to ban social media on election day because of the potential of the ‘fake news’ phenomenon to mar the vote.
Social media presents opportunities as well as challenges for the future of the news media in promoting integrity in the water sector. It offers many people new ways of networking, and of sharing and receiving information outside of the mainstream media such as TV, radio and newspapers.
Social media can serve as a mechanism to ‘name and shame’ corrupt officials and share information on corruption using blogs and corruption-reporting platforms such as ‘I PAID A BRIBE’ by the GII in Ghana. This online platform helps to collect anonymous reports of bribes paid, bribes requested but not paid, and bribes that were expected but not forthcoming.
The programmes manager of MFWA, Abigail Larbi, believes that social media is an important platform from which to fight corruption, but cautions that it has been hijacked by some people in order to seek attention and push a narrow agenda:
‘The credibility of social media depends on the media house and the reporter – some media houses go to people’s personal social media pages for news. Also there is false news on social media as there is a fight for attention; as such, there is scepticism about information on social media.’
Journalism in Ghana is currently undergoing a credibility crisis because, in the view of many observers, the profession has declined. In April 2016, a former presidential candidate, Dr Edward Mahama, lashed out at the media, insisting that it was part of the deep-rooted corruption in the country (Myjoyonline 2016).
In September 2017, the umbrella body of journalists in the country, the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA), issued a statement to reporters cautioning against irresponsible and unethical journalism – especially with regard to investigative or anti-corruption reportage. Civil-society organisations – including the GACC, MFWA and others – immediately condemned both statements as an affront to media freedom and anti-corruption efforts (Myjoyonline 2017).
I found a growing public perception that journalists are irresponsible; unfair; biased; and, above all, unethical. There are many reasons that can have contributed to this. The possibility that journalists have abandoned their ethics and objectivity for political partisanship is one of them.
The watchdog role of the media does not end at producing information about misbehaviour, but also concerns how that information is used to hold people accountable for their actions. A government must know that people want responsiveness and wish to hold those in power accountable for their actions. A country’s media is likely to have a minimal effect on corruption if it toes the political line or fails to obtain the necessary support from the government, the private sector and civil society.
If the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, on water, is to be achieved, the issue of water integrity should be taken more seriously by the media because it plays a key role in various aspects of the SDGs.
It is important that new initiatives are established where the media is further encouraged to take a keen interest in reporting on water related issues. International non-profit organisations, such as WIN, as well as other civil-society organisations have a role to play in ensuring that journalist networks are supported to report on these issues. It is important that the interest of journalists in reporting on such issues is sustained, which could be done through involving them in training courses or broadening their knowledge and awareness on integrity issues in the sector. The government has a role to play in ensuring that the space for the media remains open and that their safety on reporting on sensitive issues is assured.
International non-profit organisations, such as WIN, as well as civil-society organisations should intensify their efforts in supporting the media to report on water issues. Journalists who show an interest in the water sector should be given the opportunity, through training courses, to broaden their knowledge and awareness of integrity issues in that sector.
Finally, there is a need for enhanced monitoring mechanisms to be utilised by citizens, civil society and the media in order to strengthen accountability and transparency, and to ensure value for money in water-service delivery.
* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect a position of WIN
Picture credits in this blog go to Joyce Xorlali Nunekpeku
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