How CNN reported on 'child slaves' who were not really enslaved

CNN's documentary 'Troubled Waters: Inside the child slavery trade' is part of its Freedom Project. (Screenshot via YouTube)

CNN's documentary 'Troubled Waters: Inside the child slavery trade' is part of its Freedom Project. (Screenshot via YouTube)

On March 1, CNN aired a video report titled, Freeing the child slaves of Lake Volta, which followed a succession of similar “docufictions” and publications alleging the existence of pervasive child trafficking and child slavery in fishing communities along the Lake Volta in Ghana.

We (two academics who have studied this issue critically and carried out extensive interviews with members of Lake Volta communities and a member of parliament whose constituents overwhelmingly live on and around the lake) deem it critical to set the record straight as this is a complex social issue which needs careful analysis rather than melodrama and sensationalism.

The allegations of child trafficking and child slavery, which are mostly made by Western-based or funded journalists and non-governmental organisations with the help of local affiliates, reflect a limited understanding of the lived realities on islands and communities along the lake. Fishing is one of the few guaranteed avenues of subsistence for islanders and residents of riverine communities along the Lake Volta, and children are rightly taught fishing skills by their parents.

The lake also serves many important functions for these communities. Virtually all economic and social activities take place on or around it.
It is not only the main source of employment, but it is also the highway which connects islands, a playground for children, a marketplace, etc. It is, therefore, not unusual to find children fishing, commuting by boat to other islands or simply playing with their peers and siblings on the Lake Volta. Outsiders or those unfamiliar with this fundamental social set-up can wrongly translate the sight of a child in a boat with an adult as a child being exploited or forced to work.

We acknowledge that not all children on the islands and riverine live or work with their biological parents. However, this is not because of rampant sale or trafficking of children, as CNN and others have suggested.

The extended family system is still highly valued in Ghana as it remains integral to the social welfare system. It is, therefore, entirely normal to find children living with non-biological parents or guardians who can offer them educational, apprenticeship and other developmental opportunities.

Additionally, due to expertise and knowledge in fishing on the islands and riverine areas of the Lake Volta, it is similarly not unusual to find children from coastal and other fishing areas of the country (such as Winneba) in apprenticeships and tutelage agreements with fishermen who are not their blood relatives.

A largely ignored aspect of this practice in the CNN and other reportage of this issue is that many children and youth become self-sufficient fishermen in adulthood through these arrangements and, in turn, also train other children and youth. For sure, this form of fosterage and tutelage can be fraught with complications, particularly surrounding the mode of remuneration for child apprentices.

Some fishermen give the agreed wages for the child upfront to their parents, in cases where the child’s family is in dire need of money. That children do not get direct access to the income generated from their labour is problematic, but the transfer of money from fishermen to child apprentices’ parents does not constitute “sale” of the child.

The cases of child abuse and exploitation in apprenticeship and fosterage arrangements in areas on and around the Lake Volta are the exception rather than the norm. Also, such unfortunate outcomes from well-intentioned child upbringing practices are not unique to this part of the world.

In 2017, for example, 674 000 children in state care in the United States were abused. We cite this number not to point the finger to other countries, but to challenge the tendency by journalists, NGOs and other commentators to resort to pejorative portrayals and characterisations when reporting on such issues in the Global South. The language employed by NGOs and journalists when reporting on child rights problems in rich powerful nations is usually more tempered or considerate.

They do not describe as “child enslavement”, for example, the blatant curtailment of the freedoms of children who are cruelly caged in immigration detention as a matter of state policy in the US, the UK, Australia and other countries. We only ask for the same nuance and considered examination in recounting similar problems in Ghana and elsewhere in the Global South.

We challenge CNN, the International Justice Mission (IJM), Free the Slaves and any other actor alleging “widespread” or “pervasive” child trafficking and child slavery in communities along the Lake Volta to provide independent evidence to corroborate these claims. The fact is, cases that should be described or defined at best as “child labour” are deliberately being distorted to tell fantastic stories of “child slavery” and “child trafficking”, feeding into stereotypes of supposed primitiveness and backwardness of African communities.

The available statistics suggesting widespread child trafficking or child enslavement on the Volta Lake have been largely produced by anti-trafficking organisations and self-styled “contemporary slavery abolitionists” with vested interests in making such claims, such as fundraising efforts, a desire to boost individual and organisational profiles and so on.

The only semi-independent large scale study of children’s involvement in work on the Volta Lake, which was conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2013, is emphatic that the claims of child enslavement are exaggerated. The ILO study confirms, as we also acknowledge, that aspects of children’s work on the lake take place under dangerous and exploitative conditions. This is clearly a problem that has to be addressed. However, the study did not find any evidence of children involved in servitude or enslavement, contrary to the persistent claims by some NGOs and journalists.

The media and journalists have a responsibility to provide a balanced account to their audience. It is, therefore, unfortunate that the views of community residents and leaders are often excluded from these reports. As a result, their efforts to address the problem are ignored or undermined.

Over the past decade, a number of social intervention programmes, such as free basic compulsory education, free school uniforms for schools, school feeding programmes, livelihood empowerment against poverty (LEAP) and many more have been implemented in Ghana in an attempt to address social problems like those faced by children on islands and riverine areas of the Lake Volta.

It is clear that these interventions have not yet achieved their ultimate purpose, which is largely because of the scale of deprivation at the heart of these problems. But another reason is that international funding that could help the Ghanian government in this direction is usually awarded to (mostly Western-based) NGOs and actors who mispresent the issue to the media and make sensationalist claims about “widespread slavery”.

CNN and others who claim to have purely noble intentions have some ethical questions to answer. Did these children (and their families), many of whom are not familiar with the internet, fully consent to the use of their images in these campaigns? Are these vulnerable children and families whose pictures and videos are taken by journalists and NGOs fully aware that they are going to be used as “poster children” of child trafficking and child slavery? How would CNN et al react if a Ghanaian journalist were to travel across remote and impoverished communities in the US filming children and families who may not fully understand the purpose for the film and may not even get to see how they are portrayed?

There are potential abuses of privilege and power here, which do not seem to have been sufficiently weighed up by all actors involved.

What is more, the CNN video and other portrayals add insult to injury by promoting poorly informed, uncritical and sensational accounts which feed into threats of sanctions and other punitive measures against the entire country and, by extension, the already impoverished islanders and communities along the Volta Lake and elsewhere in Ghana. — Al Jazeera

Dr Kwame Agyeman also co-authored this article. He is a lecturer in international human rights law at Lancaster University in Ghana. 

CNN responds

In response to the above piece, Leif Coorlim, the executive editor of the CNN Freedom Project and the executive producer of the Troubled Waters documentary, wrote to the Mail & Guardian on March 25.

The basic premise of a comment piece published this week by Al Jazeera is that, despite the facts laid out in CNN’s documentary, Troubled Waters, there are no pervasive child slavery problems in Ghana’s Lake Volta region. This is profoundly irresponsible and wrong.

PACODEP is a Ghanaian non-profit based in Kete Krachi, on the shores of Lake Volta. Its project co-ordinator has spent the past 15 years rescuing children off the lake, rehabilitating and educating them at a centre known as the Village of Life.

The film chronicles the rescue of six children — a rescue carried out by local police and the charity’s employees.  It also features local fishermen, a local government official and the mother of one of the enslaved children — all of whom candidly admit to and recognise the widespread practice of selling of young children to these “masters” on Lake Volta.

The opinion piece’s authors acknowledge “that not all children on the islands and riverine live or work with their biological parents”. Their claim that this is not because of the rampant sale or trafficking of children, as CNN and others have suggested, is nonsense.

The documentary chronicles interviews and conversations with human traffickers who admit to buying children who are not related to them. The indisputable facts are that these children — some as young as five years old — are sold to people they do not know to work from sunrise to sunset on the lake for no pay.

They are deprived of an education, face beatings, malnourishment and the daily danger of drowning.  They have no option to leave of their own free will.  In short, they are enslaved.  In fact, a local government official, on camera, describes the situation these boys are subjected to as being “like a slave and a master.” Child slavery on Lake Volta has been well chronicled by many reputable and respected charities over the past decade.

In addition to the referenced study by the International Labour Organisation, the U.S. State Department, in its annual report on human trafficking around the world, also highlighted the problem.  It stated that, “more than half of the children working on and around the lake were born in other communities and many of these children are subjected to forced labour, not allowed to attend school, given inadequate housing and clothing; and are controlled by fishermen through intimidation, violence and limiting access to food.”

Ghana’s Minister of Information, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, has himself acknowledged the problem.  He appeared on CNN, just days after the documentary aired, to tell the victims that this is a matter of utmost importance to his country.

Minister Nkrumah highlighted the steps the government of Ghana is taking to tackle the issue, from a national level, adding “We have put in place a number of laws, the anti-human trafficking act, and then subsequent to that, its regulations that are responsible to close the loopholes in the legal framework, that allows people to deal with this.”

Acknowledging child trafficking in the Lake Volta area, he continued: “We have put in place programs that allow us to rescue and prosecute, rehabilitate and reintegrate the victims. Last year, for example, we rescued 252 children involved in child trafficking in general, a good chunk of which are from the Volta Lake area. We had about 13 convictions of persons who are involved in this exercise. And then you move to the long-term solutions which tackles the fundamental issues of poverty, ignorance, weak rehabilitation programs — that allow a phenomenon like this to continue for a while now.”

The facts are clear and plain: child labour, forced labour and bonded labour are all repugnant aspects of modern-day slavery. Rather than downplaying them by suggesting the vile practices on Lake Volta correlate more to “fishing apprenticeships”, the authors should support the work of charities like PACODEP, which seek to end this shameful, horrifying practice.

Leif Coorlim is the Executive Editor of The CNN Freedom Project and served as the executive producer of ‘Troubled Waters.’

Betty Mensah

Betty Mensah

Hon Betty N E Krosbi Mensah is the MP for Afram Plains North Constituency and Vice President of the Young Parliamentarians Forum, Ghana Chapter. She sits on the Gender Children and Social Protection Committee of Parliament and participated in the UN Commission on Population and Development, bringing to bear her experience of campaigning on social justice, women's rights and empowerment, education, socio-economic development, and child and youth rights over the last decade. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration and a Higher National Diplomat qualification in Accountancy.
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    • Samuel Okyere

      Samuel Okyere

      Dr Samuel Okyere is a lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Nottingham, UK. He has carried out extensive field research into children's labout mobility and involvement in precarious labour forms such as artisanal mining, cocoa farming, fishing, prostitution and others over the last decade, drawing attention to the complexities surrounding them. He is especially concerned with the need for careful analysis of the local and global contexts within which these phenomena are located, instead of the standard sensationalism and hyperbole that often characterises debates on these issues.
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