A coalition of stakeholders in Ghana’s media is demanding the repeal of two “repressive” laws that criminalise free speech in the country.
The Ghana Journalists Association, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA), and the Private Newspaper Publishers Association of Ghana (PRINPAG) joined forces to demand the repeal of the “obnoxious” laws at a press conference on Thursday. The press conference was under the theme “Criminalization of Free Speech particularly against Journalists”.
The group said although recent harassment and detention of journalists have been rationalised as lawful, such arguments must not be advanced in a democracy.
“It may be argued that the arrests and persecutions have been in accordance with the law. It is equally true that the victims of the erstwhile criminal libel law were also dealt with in line with the law. Indeed, many of the world’s intolerant and autocratic governments typically deal with dissent and press offences by exploiting the law, hence our call for a repeal of these two laws.”
The group underscored that media practitioners sometimes act “reckless” and “unprofessional” in their line of work. However, they indicated that Ghana’s laws provide avenues for such matters to be settled civilly.
“Fortunately, the laws of this country provide aggrieved entities with remedies for civil actions against citizens, journalists and media organisations. It is regrettable, therefore, that repressive sections of the Electronic Communications Act and Criminal and Other Offences Act, (1960 Act 29) are being weaponized to muzzle free speech under the Akufo-Addo regime.”
The “Repressive” Laws
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.”
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.”
These laws have been the basis for the arrest and detention of several journalists in recent times.
The president of the GJA, Albert Kwabena Dwumfour, who addressed the press, said the joint effort was necessitated by the “recent detention” of a Radio Ada journalist, Noah Nartey Dameh.
The abuse of these laws, according to the group, is the reason Ghana is performing poorly in press freedom rankings of late.
“It is largely due to the wanton arrests and detention of journalists that Ghana plummeted from its lofty perch as the country with the freest media environment in Africa in 2018 to 13th in the 2022 global press freedom ranking by reporters without borders RSF. On the global stage also, Ghana dropped from 30th position in 2021 to 60th in 2022, the worst ranking in 20 years.”
“It is obvious that our press freedom environment is deteriorating and that the abuse of the two controversial laws has contributed massively to the deterioration,” the press statement said.
One of the incidents in which the law on false news was used involved the First Lady, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, who was accused by a journalist of corruption. A civil society activist was also arrested and detained when he alleged that the president’s family had used the presidential jet for shopping. Even though he later retracted the allegation and apologised, the police arrested, detained and charged him.
In 2011, Mr Akufo-Addo criticised the government when the police used the law on publishing false news. The group, therefore, asked the president what had changed since he assumed office in 2017.
As an opposition leader, Mr Akufo-Addo had 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 travelling 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 with the offence of publishing false news likely to cause fear and panic to the public. The matter is currently sub judice,” he said.
Veteran journalist and media consultant Dr Nana Sifa Twum, said the laws gave a lot of room for the police officers to determine whether a publication creates fear and panic.
“You realise that this law that we are talking about is so porous. Especially the fear factor. Who determines what is fearful? I think it is subjective. Some policeman somewhere can say it is fearful and then institute an action against a journalist who is genuinely working,” he said.
In October 2022, the deputy Minister for Information, Fatima Abubakar, said the law on false news “should not be in our books.” She raised concerns about the ability of the police to properly enforce this law.
“You cannot stop people who have discretions to enforce the law, whether to use it or not to use it,” she said.
Rapport Between Police and Journalists
Dr Sifa Twum, therefore, called for more collaboration between the leaders of the GJA and the top hierarchy of the Ghana Police Service. These engagements, according to him, would help the police service appreciate and deal with the persecution of journalists prudently.
Another veteran journalist, Nii Laryea Sowa, however, said the relationship between the media and the police service was now better. He said not long ago, that relationship was “non-existent.”
While emphasizing the need for more collaboration between the media and the police, Mr. Sowa said the current coalition would be sustained to ensure offending police officers were brought to book.
“We can assure you that this collaboration will continue so that, at the end of the day, we will put a stop to this impunity by operatives of the Ghana Police Service and, by extension, national security operatives,” he said.
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