The deputy Minister for Information, Fatima Abubakar, is advocating for the repeal of the law on the publication of false news.
The deputy minister said the law “is not fit for use and should not be in our books.”
“You cannot stop people who have discretions to enforce the law, whether to use it or not to use it,” she said. She was contributing to a discussion on the safety of investigative Journalists in Ghana organised by the DW Akademie and the German Embassy in Accra.
Her comments were a reaction to concerns raised by the Editor-In-Chief of The Fourth Estate, Manasseh Azure Awuni, who recounted how the law had been the basis of arresting journalists like David Tamakloe “for publishing false news when he hadn’t even published the work”, and Mensah Thompson, a civil society activist, who later apologised and retracted his comments about the president’s family but was still arrested. He also mentioned the arrest of Bobie Ansah, a journalist who made corruption allegations against the wife of the president.
Though Manasseh condemned the conduct of some journalists who use their platform to defame others, he stated that the affected person should sue for defamation. “If you bring in the police to arrest a journalist, then it is just a reintroduction of the criminal libel law,” he said.
The German Ambassador to Ghana,… said some people who were not journalists, such as business people and the academia, had expressed concerns about the deteriorating environment for freedom of expression in Ghana.
Opponents of laws on fake news say it makes it possible for journalists and other critical voices to be arrested for criminal prosecution when their comments are merely defamatory and requires civil actions.
Section 76 of the Electronic Communications Act, 2008 (Act 775) states: “A person who by means of electronic communications service, knowingly sends a communication which is false or misleading and likely to prejudice the efficiency of life-saving service or to endanger the safety of any person, ship, aircraft, vessel or vehicle commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of not more than three thousand penalty units or to a term of imprisonment of not more than five years or both.”
But before this law, section 208 of the Criminal and Other Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29) also provides: “A person who publishes or reproduces a statement, rumour or report which is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace knowing or having reason to believe that the statement, rumour or report is false commits a misdemeanour.”
This law has been used as the basis of the arrest of journalists in Ghana in recent times.
While in opposition, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo criticized the use of the law in Ghana. In 2011, Candidate Akufo-Addo said, “Sensing that the offence of conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace could not easily be harnessed to the prosecution of journalists and media practitioners for what they say and write, the police next turned to the offence of publishing false news likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace.”
Mr. Akufo-Addo cited an incident that “involved a commentator on a morning newspaper review programme, who was arrested on suspicion of having committed the offence of publishing false news likely to cause fear and panic. Again, the outcry that greeted the arrest and the ridicule of the conduct of the police, together with the intervention of the Ghana Journalists Association, led to the release of the journalist and eventually the dropping of charges against him.”
“The other case involved an allegation made by a young woman in a radio phone-in that she was on board a bus traveling from Accra to Tamale in the Northern Region of Ghana, when the bus was waylaid by armed robbers who forced the passengers to have sex with one another. She was arrested and charged under the offence of publishing false news likely to cause fear and panic to the public. The matter is currently sub judice,” he said.
The then opposition leader also said that “the problem with our current false news law is that it is more directed at mere expression and the state of mind, namely fear and alarm, which in the best of worlds is difficult to determine.”
When he became president, however, this law has been used as the basis for the arrest and criminal prosecution of persons who made comments about him and his family.
Assault on journalists
Executive Director of the Media Foundation for West Africa, Sulemana Briamah expressed concern about the increasing attacks on journalists in Ghana in recent times.
According to him, the safety of journalists had deteriorated in the last five years, a situation, he believed was accounting for less critical journalism in Ghana.
Mr Braimah said the situation kept deteriorating because of the government’s lack of commitment to ensuring the safety of especially investigative journalists.
“We have had a government that professes media freedom and shows a lot of interest in press freedom, but, in reality, has shown a lot of aversion for critical journalism.”
In the last five years, the Media Foundation for West Africa has chronicled about 60 cases of violations against journalists in Ghana but not a single culprit has been prosecuted.
“In my opinion, it appears that the government loves journalism that does praise-singing of officialdom and not the type of journalism that is valuable to the democracy. And that is journalism that holds power to account and empowers the people.”
Ahmed Suale not a member of GJA, PRINPAG
The deputy minister said the National Media Commission’s investigations into the murder of Ahmed Suale of Tiger PI were yet to provide any evidence linking his death to his journalistic work.
“They [the National Media Commission]checked with the Ghana Journalists Association, they couldn’t find his data. When they checked GIBA [Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association], they couldn’t find his data. They checked the PRINPAG [Private Newspaper Publishers Association of Ghana]; they couldn’t find data on Ahmed Suale.
“They checked other stakeholders within the media outfit, and they couldn’t find such data and they had to resort to looking for his work, his journalistic work online, and as of now they don’t have a conclusive investigation,” she said.
This stance was met with resentment, with many, pointing out that one did not need to belong to an association to practise as a journalist.
Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Estate, Manasseh Azure Awuni, rebutted the minister’s claim, stating that Ahmed did not have to be registered with any association before he could be regarded as a journalist.
He said he was no more a member of the Ghana Journalists Association and his name could not be found with any of the associations the NMC claimed to have searched, but that did not mean he was not a journalist. He reiterated that most of his undercover agents were not professional journalists but that did not make their output any less journalistic.
He, therefore, squarely blamed the actions and inaction of the Akufo-Addo-led administration for emboldening individuals who are antagonistic to critical journalism.
Drawing from a recent judicial ruling on the killing of a Maltese journalist, Manasseh said the combined 40 years jailed term handed to the murderers would deter anybody who may habour any intention to attack a journalist in that country. He added that, although there was no evidence incriminating the Prime Minister of Malta, he resigned because of the murder of the journalist.
“Come to Ghana… there are a lot of incentives here to attack journalists,” Manasseh said, his conviction based on the numerous aggressive acts against journalists under this government, which have not been probed.
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The writers of this report, Edmund Agyemang Boateng and Victoria Enyonam Adonu, are Fellows of the Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship at the Media Foundation for West Africa.