THEODORE MAWULI K.VIWOTOR
THE TERM ‘soli’ has become so synonymous with the media landscape in Ghana that it is impossible to talk about the work of journalists without mentioning it.
‘Soli,’ as has been explained by some seniors in the media sector, is the shortened form of the word, ‘solidarity’, implying that it is a token (amount of money) given to journalists and editors as a means of maintaining goodwill and rapport among them, but more importantly, to get them to publish a story for an organization.
In the music industry, it is equated to ‘payola’, money given to Disc Jockeys (DJs) to get more airplay for a song.
Many journalists believe the two are different due to the mode of collection and the fact that whereas giving soli is the prerogative of the organisation seeking publicity, musicians and music producers would tell you they are forced to pay payola as a condition for having their songs aired.
Soli has been viewed from many perspectives by people within and outside the media circles and the debate ranges on concerning its ethical appropriateness, considering its likely influence on the objectivity and neutrality of media practitioners.
The Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) ethics frown on the giving of soli to media practitioners who attend functions, press conferences and other media engagements. The GJA’s stance is obviously to insulate its members from possible influences that could affect their work and partly to save its image in the face of some journalists’ insistence on being given soli at programmes. It is common practice to see some journalists chasing event organisers for soli after programmes and in some instances it brings about a lot of embarrassment to the Association.
Is it ethical to collect at functions?
Some media houses have made it a policy for their reporters not to insist on taking soli when they are sent on assignment to programmes but they are not barred from taking it if it is presented to them. However, majority of the media houses in Ghana do not have any policy on it; or rather they have nothing against the collection of soli as long as they don’t ask for but are presented with it.
The only time soli can be considered unethical is when it assumes the form of bribery and becomes a means of influencing the way a story should go as against ethical principles. For instance, when you are given an amount of money as soli and being asked to do a story in any way rather than is right, it becomes bribery since journalists are expected to do their work ethically, fairly, objectively and without any outside influence.
Considering how soli has been given to journalists over the years, one is tempted to say that there is nothing wrong with it. The event organisers consider it as transportation for journalists when they are budgeting for it and it is done openly and across the board to all media practitioners present at the event.
On another note, there are cases of organisations and event planners trying to influence journalists with ‘soli’ by raising it above what is conventional. When the soli becomes very huge, journalists are in some ways ‘compelled’ to reciprocate by giving the giver good publicity.
This brings to the fore the issue of whether journalists are obliged to publish stories just because they have received soli. An interesting story of two friends working with private newspapers comes to mind.
They attended a programme and at the end of it, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the institution offered everybody soli and they both signed for it and left their contacts as is the custom. A few days later, they had separate calls from the organisers on why the story had not been published, to which they responded that it was an editorial discretion to determine when a story should be published so they had no idea. The calls from the PRO persisted till these two friends decided to call the PRO to meet them.
They met him and handed back to him the amount of Twenty Ghana Cedis (GHC 20.00) they each received at the programme; the man felt very embarrassed. Interestingly, a few days later my friends called the man and told him to get a copy of their newspapers because the story had been published, he was dumbfounded!
This scenario clearly answers the question of whether accepting soli at functions is ethical or not and whether it is a compelling factor for stories to be published. In my candid opinion, there is nothing wrong with taking soli at functions but it should be made very clear that just as event organisers are not obliged to give soli to journalist at their functions, so are journalists not compelled to publish a story because they received soli at the function. If this ruled is observed in principle, the debate on soli being unethical can be put to rest.
That is why the GJA has, in the estimation of many media men, failed in their handling of the issue of soli. Instead of issuing a blanket rule on it, the Association could have defined it well and put in place the right mechanisms and guidelines on how it is applied. It is common practice to see Members of Parliament and other public officials signing for transportation for programmes they attend; so why shouldn’t the journalist? By the way, is the soli some of these organisations give huge enough to influence how a journalist works? I doubt. Some of these PROs give out GHC20.00, GHC50.00 or GHC100.00 and think it is huge enough to elicit good publicity.Soli is a matter of goodwill, not an automatic price for publicity.
When I see event organisers tossing journalists about after programmes just because of soli, I feel so bad and lay the blame on media owners. Some PROs don’t know the favour journalists do them by publishing their stories. If they think stories are published because of soli then they are mistaken. They don’t know how far their projects are enhanced by the magnanimity of media men.
This is especially so for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) who need the media badly to justify the funding they receive for their programmes and projects. Some of these organisations become useless without the media doing them favour of publishing their stories and activities for them.
After all, many of their stories do not deserve space or time in the media in the face of competition. Honestly, but for the goodwill emanating from the soli they give, they have no chance of having their story featured in some newspapers and media outlets.
Why has ‘soli’ gained so much attention in the media?
Soli has gained so much attention in the media circles because unknown to many, it is the end product of a serious problem in the sector, a problem most media practitioners refuse to talk about publicly.
It is very unfortunate to note that whereas the media landscape looks glamorous from the outside, those inside work under very pathetic conditions that leave too much to desire. From the outside, the smiles on set, the nice voices on radio, the nice stories in the newspapers and the privilege of meeting prominent personalities give a deceptive perception of journalists being some of the best professionals in the world. This is so because they are perceived to be working under the best service conditions, the reason they are always working with so much enthusiasm.
Strangely, the media sector has some of the most ‘malnourished’ professionals in the country if one considers the working conditions under which they operate. The wide doors of the sector have allowed a lot of media houses to be set up without taking cognisance of the working conditions of the men who do the leg work to keep them moving on.
The constitutional provision that frowns on attempts to regularise the media has also brought in its trail a landscape that fails to protect the welfare of the workers of the sector. The journalism training institutions in the country such as the Ghana Institute of Journalism, the African University College of Communication and Jayee continue to produce journalists on a regular basis to fill the anticipated vacancies in the various media houses but the truth is that the media sector is choked.
According to information available from the National Media Commission, “the full list of authorised FM radio broadcasting stations in Ghana as at the end of September 2016 totalled 452. Out of this number 354 stations are currently operational.” The staggering number creates the impression of a growing media with more employment opportunities for trained journalists and others. That false impression is further buoyed by an uncountable number of newspapers, many of which come up and go down one time or another.
That impression is false because most of these media houses are inundated with journalists who are not on any working condition or salary. A great number of journalists in the country are not on working conditions with their ‘employers’. Some call themselves stringers whilst others prefer the tag of freelancers. Whatever the name assigned to them, the sad fact is that they do not go home at the end of the month with a pay. The situation cuts across all the media houses, from the state broadcaster, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, through the Ghanaian Times to the numerous private newspapers, television and radio stations in the country.
The situation relegates the journalists (leg workers) to no other option than to unconditionally rely on soli as the oxygen to sustain them in a profession that looks glamorous from the outside but humiliating from within to them. The importance of soli to these journalists is beyond human understanding in that without it they are condemned to ‘death by suffocation or starvation’. That accounts for the aggression with which they go after event organisers for their ‘soli’ at the end of programmes such as press conferences and media interactions and virtually curse those PROs or organisers who leave them on the excuse that they were not invited to the programme. These event organisers sideline such journalists but benefit from the stories they write for them by the way.
Leaving media men or journalists to survive on soli is dehumanising and an insult to their professional integrity but unfortunately that is the only option left for the media house owners and the journalists themselves in a system that cares less about the gatekeeper. Many talk about media men not being ethical and taking bribes to kill stories but few consider the compelling conditions that leave the media men with a weak resistance to temptations from politicians, the corporate world and other individuals who entice them with huge sums of money. When an unsalaried journalist is tempted to kill a million dollar story for a huge sum of money, only God knows what runs through his/her mind. Honestly, in such an instance, ethics sound a bit stupid in the face of family obligations and financial burdens.
Banning soli across the board is synonymous to putting off the oxygen machine to the numerous unsalaried journalists working in a frail media that is dying with no one noticing.
Indeed, the media landscape is very frail and requires serious attention to save it from being a stooge in the hands of the highest bidder. Steps had been taken to address the issue but it seems the media needs serious capital intervention from the state if it is still recognised as the Fourth Estate of the realm of government. If this is not done, then anyone who calls for the abolition of soli or calls it unethical can only be seen as a hypocrite who knows the truth but pretends not to know.
Soli is the oxygen of Ghana’s frail media so let’s all leave it as it is or find a better life-support system for our numerous unsalaried journalists.