Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Legend of Tarzan (1), by John Dramani Mahama



One of Ghana’s most important pillars of democracy is the freedom of speech, particularly its active employment by independent media.

Our country boasts over 300 privately held broadcast media outlets. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that there ever existed a time when our sources of news, information and entertainment in the broadcast arena were not dictated by choice.

We can click our television’s remote control until we find a programme that draws us in. We can turn our radio dial as far left or as far right as we want until we find a station whose DJ is playing our song or whose hosts and guests are talking the sort of talk we want to hear.

I often wonder if this is the future that Dr Charles Wereko-Brobby a.k.a Tarzan envisioned when, exactly 20 years ago, he launched Radio Eye, Ghana’s first privately-owned radio station.

Radio Eye

The country had just returned to democracy as the Fourth Republic. We adopted the 1992 Constitution, within which very elaborate provisions were made on the freedom and independence of media. Yet nobody had dared to test those freedoms. Nobody had figured out how to take advantage of the rather liberal freedoms granted to the media contained in chapter XII of the new constitution.

History is nothing less, and nothing more, than a compilation of stories, a telling and retelling of the events that helped move us forward as a nation, the events that ultimately serve as bookmarks — the precise points of separation between the actualities of the past and a tacit acknowledgement of the possibilities that now exist for the future — signalling the closing of one chapter and the opening of another.

I have long held the belief that we, as Africans, as Ghanaians, must make every effort to document our history; we must tell our stories — not only for posterity but for celebration, for self-analysis, for humour, and for the constant reminder that the rights we so freely enjoy were hard-earned, hard-won, and well-deserved.

On November 19, 1994, Dr Charles Wereko-Brobby launched Radio Eye and created a major landmark in the history of the development of Ghanaian media. Radio Eye was a major challenge to the status quo. How and why he did so is a story worth telling, one that I am sure many Ghanaians are not even aware of. Today, 20 years later, 20 years of broadcast pluralism and unfettered media freedom, I would like to share the story behind that event; or, at least, my rendition of it.

This is the legend of Tarzan.

The legend of Tarzan

In late 1993, Charles Wereko-Brobby formed the Independent Media Corporation of Ghana (IMCG). At the time Ghana was still in transition, citizens were still making the mental adjustment of living under military rule to living in a democracy under the rule of law. A number of the liberties that were guaranteed under our new Constitution were, in practical terms, not yet being applied. They were, for all intents and purposes, still nothing more than words on a sheet of paper.

The specific words in that heady document which caught Wereko-Brobby’s attention fell under Article 162.3: “There shall be no impediments to the establishment of private press or media; and in particular, there shall be no law requiring any person to obtain a licence as a prerequisite to the establishment or operation of a newspaper, journal or other media for mass communication or information.”

Taking these words at face value, Wereko-Brobby decided, under the auspices of IMCG, to establish a radio station. He wrote to the Ghana Frequency Registration and Control Board (GFRCB) to request registration of a frequency and to inform them of IMCG’s intention to begin broadcasting. The response he got was simply that they would deliberate and get back to him.

Months passed without any word. He wrote again, this time to inform them that IMCG had started test broadcasting as Radio Eye. I am all but certain, however, that by the time GFRCB received the letter they, like nearly all of Accra, were already well aware of Radio Eye’s nascent efforts.

In the absence of any news from GFRCB, Wereko-Brobby set up a transmitter in the back garden, just outside of his bedroom in his home at Ridge. He’d already settled on his own frequency, 96.2, and chosen a name for his venture, Radio Eye — apparently both were thoughtfully considered and heavily symbolic.

The frequency, 96.2

The frequency, 96.2,was chosen because 1996 was the upcoming election year. It was when the ruling party would be seeking the people’s mandate for a second term. The name Eye was chosen for what it represents: vision.

There are dozens of aphorisms about vision — from the blind leading the blind to the one-eyed man being king — and as far as IMCG was concerned, any and all were applicable. The message that Wereko-Brobby, by way of IMCG, wanted to send was that the people of our nation were watching, the whole world was watching, to see if Ghana’s democracy was true or if it was just talk.

At the time I had not yet entered politics, but I had already earned my graduate diploma from the University of Ghana’s School of Communication Studies, so I took a special interest in the sudden appearance of Radio Eye.

Special interest in Radio Eye

We all did, those of us in the field of Communications, because we knew it was a bellwether of change.

Until Radio Eye, GBC Radio was the only station available but was generally considered by the public to be a mouthpiece of the government. Radio Eye, broadcast 24 hours a day, playing a wider variety of music, from jazz to R&B to gospel. Every so often, an announcement would be made informing listeners that they were catching the test transmission of Radio Eye. Besides its music rotation, the station had only two programmes: Vox Populi, which featured the voices and views of everyday people on the streets; and, The Week That Was, a current affairs show.

Pandemonium

What followed was pandemonium especially on the part of the entire national security apparatus. The government considered the broadcast illegal, and ordered the operation shut down and the equipment confiscated. There was only one problem: they couldn’t figure out the location from which the broadcast was being transmitted. By then, many people were aware that Charles Wereko-Brobby was the mastermind of Radio Eye but when the government came looking for the equipment in his home, he had already moved it all to a location in East Cantonments, just opposite Burma Camp.

But it was never Wereko-Brobby’s desire for Radio Eye’s location to be kept secret. If the Constitution was to be believed, then what he was doing was within the scope of the rights guaranteed by that document. So why should he hide? Wereko-Brobby felt so strongly about this that Radio Eye broadcasted its location, which is how the government knew where to find it.

On December 4th, 1994, government officials showed up at the offices of Radio Eye with a platoon of men and vehicles and confiscated all of the station’s equipment.

Totobi Quakyi

Two days later, on December 6th, the then Minister of Information, Mr Kofi Totobi Quakyi mentioned the issue on the floor of Parliament. It was an attempt to explain government’s actions and to assure the public that government did, in due course, have every intention of honouring the Constitution’s provision for the unobstructed existence of an independent media.

Honourable Quakyi explained that there was a National Communications bill in the works, but its passage had been delayed “to enable [the government] to incorporate an amendment that seeks to give the National Media Commission the responsibility for allocating frequencies for radio and television once the frequencies available have been technically determined.”

The Minister then stated that a Broadcast bill would also be published soon. All the wheels were in motion; the public just needed to be patient — unlike Wereko-Brobby, whom the Minister described as behaving like “a modern-day Tarzan” of the airwaves.

This is how Charles Wereko-Brobby earned his nickname, Tarzan. This is, also how the door was opened in Ghana to private broadcast ventures, with Tarzan making a statement with Radio Eye.

It doesn’t end there. What the Minister of Information told Parliament was merely an introduction; the government was yet to have its say. But that’s another story altogether.
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- Source: Ghana( www.myjoyonline.com) | John Dramani Mahama