Former President Barack Obama’s sober statement that “only journalists get beaten for doing their jobs” has found yet another proof in Ghana after a newsman was beaten in broad daylight by police officers in the Upper East region Friday.
Such was the brutality, considered by close observers as a mindless affront to press freedom, that floodgates of public rage have swung wide open with many calling the officers involved unworthy of a law-enforcement uniform.
Counted as one of the region’s most sought-after broadcast talents, Christopher Kevin Asima was at a scene of an afternoon fire outbreak that consumed seven business centres, including a canteen and a newsstand, on the Commercial Street in the regional capital, Bolgatanga.
Like his media colleagues who, as fire-fighters struggled with the ruthless flames, stood apart to capture the confused moments from different angles, Chris (as he is most preferably called) positioned himself among some alarmed spectators across a road opposite the burning structures to take some visuals.
To say the stockpiles of valuable items inside the structures were destroyed by fire would be an understatement. Everything, including stocked deep freezers and cash, was ‘cremated’, with the leftover ashes messing up the popular street.
Whilst efforts were underway to prevent the fire from spreading further, another development shifted everybody’s attention from the busy flames: some fuming police officers were pulling a young man through the disorganised street, some people behind them objecting to an arrest as the officers hit their ‘prey’ from back and front. The casualty turned out to be an unlikely Chris, a celebrated former host of Daybreak Upper East, a morning show programme on Bolgatanga-based A1 Radio.
The eloquent slim broadcaster was held tight by his trousers and shirt, like a most wanted drug lord pulled out from a bunker, as some of the officers hauled him from the front and the others pushed him from the back towards a standby police vehicle. Every media practitioner who saw the attack felt thoroughly beaten by the mere sight of it. He was only released when, amid an intense public clamour backed by Starr News and some regular radio listeners, his rough-handlers apparently sensed a looming clash with the community and felt the need to avoid that.
The well-respected journalist wept breathlessly in public as he relayed a street humiliation a hundred eyes saw.
“A police officer was hitting people to go back. I was by the joint. When he was hitting them coming, I already saw the line he was coming from; so, I stood back. When he hit them and passed me, I realised that they were going back and he was going back again. And I said, ‘Sir, they don’t understand the Twi you are speaking. I think it’s better you speak English or their native tongue so they can understand you and follow the instructions you are giving them’.
“That was where I went wrong. He asked me if I knew his job. He shouted on me to go back and insulted me—‘kwasia (stupid)!’ And asked (in Pidgin English), ‘You, too, wetin you dey stand here dey do?’ Then, I said I was a journalist. Then, he said, ‘You are a journalist and so what?’ He hit me hard in the chest. His colleagues came at me, pulled me, beating me and their commander said they should handcuff me,” he said as some upset men and women tried to calm him at the scene.
Unapologetic Commander Rubs Salt on Wounds
Christopher, who had placed calls to radio stations to prompt the Ghana National Fire Service to the fire through announcements before he was assaulted at the scene of fire, also had the screen to his phone seriously damaged after it fell on an asphalt road surface as the police officers struck him.
Handprints of soot could be seen on his white shirt after the street push and pull. Accompanied by Starr News, he lodged a complaint to the Bolgatanga Municipal Police Commander, Chief Superintendent Samuel Punobyin. The commander said he had not detailed any team to a fire scene. He, however, instructed two of his men to go with the complainants to identify those who assaulted the presenter.
On arrival, a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Unit commander (name yet unknown), who was in charge of the police officers at the fire outbreak scene, gave a booming response after one of the men sent by the municipal commander had announced their mission.
He exclaimed with fury as he repeatedly threw one hand in the air and held a stick with the other: “I sacked him from here! I did it! I did it! I am responsible for it! Take it to anywhere! I did it! What a hell you mean! Mother f**ker! I’ll say it again! I did it! Take him to your office! I’m coming there!”
His reaction was captured on news recorders as the press moved everywhere to elicit details from eyewitnesses, grief-stricken owners of the ruined assets and firemen as to what might have led to the disaster.
The beaten journalist returned to the Municipal Command and, because Chief Superintendent Punobyin could not say much as the SWAT team was dispatched from the regional level, he moved in the company of Starr News to the Regional Police Headquarters. The Regional Police Commander, DCOP Redeemer Vincent Dedjoe, who appears to have won the heart of the region because of his philanthropy towards the needy, consoled the journalist with a profuse apology and a firm promise to get to the bottom of the issue.
Christopher’s subsequent attempt to obtain a police medical form at the Bolgatanga Municipal Police Command was met at the counter with a frustrating excuse that only the municipal commander could handle issuance of a medical form on a matter of this kind.
Firemen under Fire for Late Arrival
The fire outbreak came to public notice after a fat woman reportedly ran out of a canteen and was seen pounding her own thighs with both palms as she screamed fire, fire!
Passersby, students from a nearby vocational school and occupants of the surrounding houses responded speedily by grabbing everything that had water, including bags of sachet water, and pelted the angry flames with it. It worsened as gas cylinders, especially those said to be inside the canteen, exploded in succession. Angry observers said it took fire-fighters more than a late 30 minutes to arrive from a fire station only about 3 minutes’ drive away.
As the wrathful flames spread unopposed, a man who obviously knew nothing about electricity riskily climbed a neem tree above the burning buildings before the khaki men arrived with their water hose and cut a live cable which had caught fire to prevent the blaze from reaching other buildings around. The losses suffered have remained inestimable, as much as the cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained, after the explosion flattened everything on the roadside plot. A man said he counted at least seven fire tenders racing to the scene one at a time before the destructive flames finally ‘conceded defeat’.
The affected structures are among the most patronised trading points found along that busy street. Many shoppers, including some journalists who “hide at the canteen” to level ‘a hill’ of tuo zaafi and berense (a vegetable soup), will miss the services of the devastated structures for now…till a possible recovery.