Journalist Manasseh Azure Awuni, who was forced to flee his home country twice due to threats, told DW Akademie why Ghana needs investigative journalism now more than ever.
Manasseh Azure Awuni is one of Ghana’s most widely known investigative journalists and the editor-in-chief of The Fourth Estate, a journalism project of the Media Foundation West Africa (MFWA). DW Akademie caught up with Awuni to discuss his country's challenges, and what his organization is doing to shine a light on them.
DW Akademie: Thank you for speaking with us today. Can you tell us a little about your project The Fourth Estate, and what its focus is?
Manasseh Azure Awuni: The Fourth Estate is a nonprofit, public interest journalism project of the MFWA. It was set up in response to growing tyranny in the media space, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to do critical and accountability journalism in traditional media houses. The past five years or so have not been as free as some of us have witnessed in this country. So, our areas of focus mainly are anti-corruption, health, environment, and human rights. From time-to-time we do general news, but the stories tend to dive deeper than the average news story, with a focus on developmental issues and things that are of interest to the people.
Manasseh Azure Awuni (middle) and The Fourth Estate investigative team have been breaking stories since 2021
And why is it important to have an outlet for investigative journalism in Ghana?
Investigative journalism, in my view, is what should maintain journalism in the mainstream media going forward. You have social media, that now breaks almost every news story. Even if there's an accident right in front of a radio or television station, you are sure to get someone with a mobile phone to put it on Twitter or Facebook before the radio or television station can even do it themselves. So, we appear to have lost the power to break news, but what we can do is have the capacity to dig deeper, provide insights and unknown angles, what the average blogger or social media user wouldn't be able to do. That is what we can do to stand out. We also live in a country where state institutions are really weak, so human rights abuses, corruption, and related misdeeds are rife in this part of the world. So investigative journalism plays a critical role in filling the gaps in what state institutions are supposed to do but do not. That is why this is so important to have this project [The Fourth Estate], especially when a lot of mainstream media outlets either lack the capacity to carry out investigations, or they don't have the funding to do it, or they simply cannot bear the consequences that come with investigative journalism.
When you say consequences, what do you mean by that?
When I say consequences, I mean many things. I have been threatened many times with death. At one point in 2019, the National Security Ministry appointed two officers to escort me around. On two occasions I have had to flee the country with my family to seek protection. On one occasion, I was in Bonn, Germany. I think DW played a very important role this time when my life was threatened. On another occasion, I was in South Africa. Another consequence is, in the United States, they call it SLAPP, Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. The authorities and people involved know well that what you have done is right but you can be frightened that they are going to sue you. And between 2015 and 2020, I was sued six times for defamation for the stories I did. It is interesting to note that all six accusers did not pursue their cases when they saw my defense. But not every media house is prepared to hire a lawyer to defend journalists in court. Some don't have the money to do that in the first place. Another consequence has to do with advertising revenue. The government is the biggest spender and we are in a system where the government and the governing party control so much that they can even influence private entities to not do business with you. So, a number of media houses are not willing to offend the government due to direct and indirect harassment.
The Fourth Estate team break stories from anti-corruption to development issues out of their offices in Accra
How can investigative journalists respond to this kind of pressure?
The main aim of antagonizing journalists is to shut the critical ones up. And if you succeed in doing that, you would have a government and agencies acting with impunity. So, the best way to counteract that is to be resolute and fair and do the same journalism they are seeking to silence. The Fourth Estate also serves as a role model for critical journalism in our country. We have other media houses who reach out to us, requesting to use our content, because they find it compelling. Sometimes some of our colleagues in traditional media houses send us leads because they, for one reason or another, cannot pursue them. The best way to promote quality journalism is to show examples of quality journalism, and this is what we are doing. We are very hopeful that it will catch on with others who will develop an appetite for investigation, because of our impact, along with the attention and recognition we receive.
The Fourth Estate is a journalism project of the Media Foundation for West Africa, DW Akademie’s partner organization, with funding from Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).