Ghana gets the VICE treatment

Inside the criminal world of Ghana's e-mail scam gangs. Brought to you by Vice Magazine/Motherboard.tv via CNN

Ghana is doing extremely well by African standards. Of course “by African standards” means there are dirt roads leading past the brand-new, gold-columned presidential palace, and roughly 1% of the country are blowing their country’s GDP at bars with $50 cover charges while the other 99 are selling bags of water at stop lights. They have huge mineral reserves and lots of foreign money invested in their extraction, all of which ends up concentrated in the hands of the president, his cabinet, and whichever of their cousins they’re getting along with at the time. Vice via CNN

Hey, that’s some hard-hitting commentary. Never mind that there are no dirt roads leading to the “presidential palace,” or that 99% of Ghanaians do not sell bags of water at the side of the road. What counts is attitude and this writer is sure one fierce social critic.

Vice Reporter Thomas Morton did his hipster “journalism” number in Ghana last summer and in the process managed to outrage many of the country’s bloggers, a demographic that ought to constitute a fan base for Vice in Ghana.

Yep, the friendly folks from VBS (Vice magazine/Motherboard) traveled to Ghana in June 2010 to give the place the Vice treatment. They journeyed across the world, they said, to investigate the dreaded “Sakawa” or Ghanaian cyber crime. There’s a real story there, but their video report and accompanying articles are riddled with so many factual errors, dubious statements and unsubstantiated claims, it’s hard to imagine that they saw Ghana as anything more than an exotic backdrop for a new dope spin on all the tired African stereotypes.

The Vice/Motherboard material is online, but it wasn’t until CNN embedded the stuff that it spread like wildfire through the Ghanaian blogosphere. Kobby Graham, one Accra blogger who took issue with the Vice material, said it did a disservice to the entire nation. Others followed suit.

But maybe that’s what Vice/Motherboard wants: Seek controversy (“hard-core shit”), talk trash, act like you down, and don’t worry about sources, veracity or actually getting the story right.

Vice has been praised (provocative, relevant, hip) and criticized (racist, shallow, exploitive). In the end, what matters is traffic and Vice gets a lot of it. I’m not a big fan, but I guess that’s because I’m not in the target demographic. But yeah, Vice’s approach is fine for some stuff – music, technology, teen culture, etc. – but when it comes to Africa, its smart-ass, sloppy, uninformed style of gonzo journalism is more offensive than fearless. One of the “best” examples being its 8-part “Vice Guide to Liberia,” which generated a huge online controversy – and tons of traffic for Vice.

Worse than offensive, though, is the fact that this nonsense actually informs a lot of people. Despite internet and the declining cost of technology, Western media still dominates the airwaves and cyberspace. Western depictions of Africa still inform Westerners (and even in some instances, Africans) about life on the continent. When Americans think African youth are “machete-wielding rioters,” or that Nigerians are all scammers or that corruption is somehow an “African trait” and not one of our own finest traditions, those misperceptions impact policy. We base our actions on our understanding of reality, after all. And in this Western media fiction, we are not part of the problem; we just want to “help” Africa with “aid”, structural adjustment programs, democracy advisors, military interventions, etc.

As for CNN’s endorsement of the Vice approach, it suggests a desperate desire to tap into that elusive 18-25 demographic and doesn’t speak  too highly of CNN’s current standards:

The staff at CNN.com has been intrigued by the journalism of Vice, an independent media company and Web site based in Brooklyn, New York. Motherboard.tv is Vice’s site devoted to the overlap between culture and technology. The reports, which are being produced solely by Vice, reflect a very transparent approach to journalism, where viewers are taken along on every step of the reporting process. We believe this unique approach is worthy of sharing with our CNN.com readers.

I first heard about this story from an Accra-based film and television producer who worked with the VBS people last June. He asked that I don’t use his name as he’s concerned that his role in this debacle will hurt his reputation. He said that when he first saw the story he felt like he had been used. “It’s the total opposite of what I thought we were doing. I gave them access to everything that would give them a good story, not manipulative garbage like this.”

He told me VBS had contacted him saying they wanted to look into cyber scams. As the local producer, he secured for them the necessary paperwork, shooting authorizations and all the interviews. The VBS producers said they had seen a lot of sensational juju crime stuff online and wanted to find out if it was true. He told them that much of what they had seen came from Ghana’s most over-the-top tabloids and was pure fabrication.

Nonetheless VBS wanted their spectacle and insisted on visiting a juju priest who supposedly worked charms for cyber criminals. My source said that in an interview the priest told the reporter that people were trying to smear his name with all the nonsense about his juju for cyber criminals, but none of their interview made it into the video. Instead we’re offered  a scene of Thomas Morton in the middle of some undefined, “crazy” ritual with a “WTF” look on his face. The entire “juju ritual” sequence is structured and narrated to heighten a sense of incomprehensibility and otherness.

As Bright, another Ghanaian blogger, writes, “It is sad that Thomas will misrepresent a traditional cultural event as a blood ritual for sakawa purposes. This is a betrayal of the trust of the elders who gave him the opportunity to experience first hand the rich cultural practices and heritage in Ghana.”

Anyone who makes films knows that what you leave out is as important as what you put in. We all shape our material to make the strongest possible piece. But there’s a sense of ethics or truth telling that pervades the best journalism. That ethic is nowhere to be seen here.

The Vice/Motherboard video and the articles are marked by dubiousness. Early on we hear that Ghana has had “nearly 50 years of stability and growth.” Oh, really? A two-minute Google search would have showed Morton that statement was wrong. A bit later we learn that Nigerians’ “favorite pastime” is fraud. Hmm. That and oil bunkering, I guess. When we’re reducing a nation of 150 million to sensational headlines, why not go all the way? Then there is the recurring “by African standards,” a meaningless term that seems to be code for “crazy natives” – wink, wink.

At one point, Morton says, “we kind of liked the idea of making a living off the back of American stupidity, so we hooked up with a Sakawa gang led by a young Ghanaian named Sefa.”  Turns out they found these guys via an NGO that works with young people caught up in cyber fraud, giving them training and help with jobs. The Sakawa gang? They may have once been cyber criminals, but at the time of the interview they were youth in a rehab/training program.

(UPDATE: Please see update at the end of this post.)

It’s revealing that one of the people providing details about the world of juju-meets-cyber-crime-complete-with-blood-sacrifice is a Ghollywood director. This guy makes his living churning out sensational Sakawa movies – it’s his stock in trade. Is the ominous future he predicts just on the horizon or is he taking advantage of an opportunity for self-promotion? I mean come on, you can get people to tell you whatever you want to hear if you’re that kind of “journalist.”

Does Morton or Baby Balls even know that he’s simply giving his readers/viewers the updated version of the racist/colonialist narrative of Africa? Probably not. That would require some thought and self-reflection.

I found out that Morton, who apparently had never been in Ghana before, came to Accra only for the last 4 or 5 days of production. The producer, who had no experience working in Ghana either, spent a total of about two weeks in the country. The Accra producer who worked with VBS summed up the disconnect with a certain dismay: “You stay in the Golden Tulip, a $350 per night hotel, you travel from the hotel to the production locations in your production van. Somehow you come out of that comfortable space and you want to talk about privilege and exploitation?”

A couple years ago, Morton wrote a piece on Detroit, accusing “lazy journalists” of practicing the local form of disaster porn (ruin porn) while referring to them as “smug assholes with their reductive analogies and clever little pat phrases.”

I guess he forgot about that when he headed to Ghana.

***

The Ghanaian blogging community has issued an online petition in response to the Vice reporting:

http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/noracistreportingonafrica/

UPDATE:

Since writing this post I have spoken to the director at the NGO who arranged the interview with the “Sakawa gang.” According to him, Sefa and the other young men agreed to talk on the condition that their faces would not be seen. VBS assured them that their faces would be blurred. The NGO director told me he put this in writing on the release forms. Several days after the video went up, Sefa and his friends came to see the director. They told him the video was on CNN and they were extremely upset about it. Their faces were visible and they were not presented in relation to the NGO. They are now worried about trouble from the police.

 

 

 

 

5 Responses to “Ghana gets the VICE treatment”

  1. Graham says:

    This article demonstrates real journlism – fresh, insightful and well-researched. Maybe Mr Baby Balls Morton could learn something! You’ve really researched the background to Morton’s report and put things into perspective. You’ve made a new fan!

  2. […] Ghana gets the VICE treatment Sign the Petition: End the Substandard and Racist Journalism on Africa Another Fool Writes on […]

  3. Bob Paris says:

    These guys actually reneged on their promise to conceal identities?

    How low can one go?

  4. […] the room” or that critics of the Vice video were “shooting the messenger.” (Some American bloggers have also weighed into.) Some bloggers have now drawn up a petition in reaction to the Vice […]

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