Letter from Africa: Eavesdropping on friends
- 6 November 2013
- From the section Africa
In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghana's Elizabeth Ohene recalls how the US spied on reports she filed nearly 40 years ago from Ethiopia.
I have been thinking about the brouhaha that has accompanied the exposure of the spying activities of the Americans.
From what I can make out, nobody thinks it is such a big deal for a country to spy; it is simply that you should not be caught doing it.
And if you must be caught it is OK if the target is a known enemy or at least an opponent of some kind.
Spying on your friends seems to be no-no. You do not do it.
What intrigues me most in the entire story is not about the targets being friends or enemies; it is the allegation that the Americans have been bugging the phones of 35 heads of state.
We all know now from documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the 35 and I think I can leave the outrage to her and the Germans.
What I am curious about is why have some heads of state been left out?
Can we take it that they are not important enough to be bugged?
Is there a badge that one can wear with the legend: "I was bugged by the Americans"?
Are there any bragging rights and if I can show that the Americans once eavesdropped my conversation does that put me in the Angela Merkel ranking?
From Morse code to mobiles
I had been under the impression the Americans were not choosy about who they bugged; they simply vacuum every sound everybody makes.
I have an experience, which goes back almost 40 years, that would seem to bear this out.
In those days journalists out in the field used to send their stories by telex - there were no mobile phones.
It used to be the most stressful part of any foreign assignment and I recall the telex department at the post office in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, being especially notorious - many a tough hack was reduced to tears at the sheer frustration of trying to file a story from there.
When I was sent to Ethiopia to cover an emergency meeting of the now-defunct Organisation of African Unity (OAU), I was, therefore, very grateful that Ghana's embassy in Addis Ababa offered to send my stories through their signal system, enabling me to bypass the horrors of the post office.
So I wrote my stories and gave the sheets of paper to the man in the code room and he sent it to the foreign ministry in Ghana's capital, Accra, and my newspaper went and collected it for publication.
I remember being fascinated by the World War Two technology, Morse code, and thrilled that my stories were being sent the same way as diplomatic cables.
I filed five stories in all and got back to Accra and was told by the news editor that my last story had not been used for reasons which I do not now recall.
A week or so later I went to a party at the US ambassador's residence and the ambassador was generous with congratulations about my coverage of the OAU meeting.
This was the emergency meeting trying to decide which liberation movement in Angola to recognise, but that is another story.
I was glad to learn the embassy was reading the newspaper so meticulously.
Then I found myself being led a little apart from the crowd and the ambassador lowered his voice and asked why the last piece I filed was not published.
I was momentarily stumped.
How did he know there was a last piece that had not been published?
I looked him straight in the face and he looked at me straight back.
I later recounted the incident to the principal secretary of the foreign affairs ministry and I remember him reacting in a quite matter of fact way: "Oh the Americans, they listen to all our traffic."
It seems nothing has changed, be it in Morse code or on mobile phones.
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