Gutter journalism and Akufo-Addo’s criminal libel regime

By: Manasseh Azure Awuni

The past two weeks have seen the assault, arrests, detention and the jailing of journalists in Ghana for various reasons. Whenever any journalist suffers any of the above, my position is not the same in all circumstances. That doesn’t make me inconsistent.

I condemn any assault, threat or killing of a journalist in relation to their work without requiring a reason to do so. Unless in extremely rare circumstances such as when someone is killed in a shootout, nobody deserves to be treated this way no matter who is involved.

However, when a journalist is arrested, detained or jailed, I often tend to ask the reason. The arrest, detention of some journalists or so-called journalists, if done lawfully and with due process, is an enhancement, not an attack, on media freedom. Reckless and malicious use of media freedom is as harmful to media freedom as oppressive regimes.

Onua TV’s Morning Show host, Blessed Godsbrain Smart, popularly known as Captain Smart, was arrested and charged with “extortion and abetment to extort”. The facts of the matter are unrelated to his work, so unless otherwise proven, it cannot be said to be an attack on press freedom.

Power FM’s Oheneba Boamah Bennie was jailed for 14 days and fined GH₵3000 for contempt of court. He was cited for contempt when he claimed that President Akufo-Addo had met with judges of the Supreme Court to influence them on the judgment of the 2020 Election Petition brought by former President John Dramani Mahama and his party, the National Democratic Congress (N

In as much as I sympathise with the journalist, I agree with the judge that the 14 days sentence was lenient. Even if the wife of President John Mahama had been a judge, she would not be able to rule in favour of her husband in that frivolous election petition. However, the outcome of the case has become a reason the NDC and its communicators continue to bastardise the court and judges without any evidence.

Within the same period, Connect FM’s Eric Nana Gyetuah was assaulted by the police, and it appears he will get justice. For the first time in living memory, the average Ghanaian trusts the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Dr. George Akuffo-Dampare, to bring closure to such matters.

The journalist has confirmed that the IGP has called him personally to assure him that the case would be taken seriously.

“The IGP apologised and assured me that he would not let the issue rest until the truth is established. He told me he had instructed the Police and Professional Standards Bureau to commence investigations quickly and that someone would contact me from there,” the journalist disclosed in an interview with Accra-based 3FM.

He further disclosed that ACP Lydia Donkor, the Director-General Police and Professional Standards Bureau, called him shortly after the IGP gave him a hint that someone would call him to take up the matter. With the involvement of IGP Dampare, under whose watch there appears to be no hiding place for errant police officers, justice for Mr. Gyetuah is assured.

But he’s not the last journalist to have made the headlines in the last two weeks.

The police arrested, detained and charged Bobbie Ansah of Accra FM with the publication of false news and offensive conduct. He has since been granted a bail of GH₵50,000. Bobbie Ansah, like Oheneba Boamah Bennie, is an NDC sympathiser, whose brand of journalism has raised concerns among promoters of freedom of expression. The police arrested him because he had alleged that the first lady, Rebecca Akufo-Addo had stolen state lands. He failed to appear when the police invited him to assist in investigations into the matter.

Another person who was arrested and charged with the publication of false news is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Social Equity and Public Accountability (ASEPA).

I am not a fan of some of Mensah Thompson’s utterances. His behaviour has, on a number of occasions, cast a slur on social activism. Focusing on his arrest and detention is, therefore, based on principle and not who is involved.

Mr Thompson had alleged that relatives of President Akufo-Addo had used the presidential jet for shopping in the United Kingdom. The Ghana Armed Forces released a statement, denied the claim and put out facts concerning the presidential jet. Mensah Thompson publicly apologised and retracted the false publication.

Strangely, the Ghana Armed Forces referred the matter to the police and the police have arrested, detained and charged Mr Thompson over the publication of false news. He has also been granted bail. Here’s what the Criminal and Others Offences Act, 1960 (Act 30) says about the two offences that are being employed to criminalise speech.

Section (207): Offensive conduct conducive to breaches of the peace: A person who is a public place or at a public meeting uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or by which a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned, commits a misdemeanour.

Section (208): Publication of false news: (1) 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.

(2) It is not a defence to a charge under subsection (1) that the person charged did not know or did not have reason to believe that the statement, rumour or report was false, unless it is proved that, prior to the publication, that person took reasonable measures to verify the accuracy of the statement, rumour or report.

From the two sections of the Criminal Code, publishing false news alone does not amount to satisfy the ingredients that are needed to criminalise the speech even under offensive conduct. There is absolutely nothing in Bobbie Ansah and Mensah Thompson’s speeches that creates fear and alarm or that might disturb public peace or incite others to do so.

The fact that some of these journalists and media houses involved in recent arrests and detentions and imprisonment are some vilest on the airwaves is well-established. The Media Foundation for West Africa has cited these journalists and media houses in its reports as some of the top violators of media ethics.

The MFWA also cited NPP-affiliated media houses for similar or worse conduct. Strangely, however, those that have been arrested and charged for publishing false news and offensive conduct are only journalists sympathetic to the opposition NDC. If someone threatened a journalist and incited the public to attack him and that journalist was murdered, why should that person go unpunished while the one who publishes false information about the president’s family be punished?

If the president’s family members feel defamed by the publication of the news, they can sue him for defamation. Why should the police be involved in a civil matter?

We at The Fourth Estate and Fact-Check Ghana continue to fact-check and publish reports of falsehoods from the president, his ministers and other appointees. If merely publishing false news should be treated as such, then the president, his ministers and appointees should have been lined up for prosecution by now.

If care is not taken, arbitrary arrests and actions like this will roll back the wheels of progress, especially with what appears like a renewed and vigorous implementation of the Electronic Communications Act. It will amount to the reintroduction of the Criminal Libel Law, which continues to remain President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo’s strongest defence when mention is made of the glaring deterioration of media freedom under his presidency.

Our elders have said that a man must do his own growing up no matter how tall his father was.

The wisdom of this proverb seems to have been lost on President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and his ministers of state who continue to rely on President John Agyekum Kufuor’s major action that further opened the frontiers of free speech and expression. Kufuor and his New Patriotic Party (NPP) had promised to deal with the repressive media environment under Jerry John Rawlings.

True to his word, Mr. Kufuor’s administration repealed the Criminal Libel Law in 2001. At the time, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo was the Minister for Justice and Attorney-General of Ghana.

When Nana Akufo-Addo became President in 2017, the media environment started to deteriorate. The noose on the neck of freedom of expression became tighter by the day. The president has been very defensive and his body language has not shown any commitment to doing anything about press freedom.

On two occasions, journalists were arrested and tortured by operatives of National Security, but nothing has happened.

A leading member of President Akufo-Addo’s party, Kennedy Agyapong, put the photograph of an undercover journalist on television and asked whoever saw him to attack him. The journalist, Ahmed Hussein-Suale, was eventually murdered by unknown gunmen and the president did not condemn the action of his party member.

He rather went to the Ghana Bar Association conference in Takoradi and said the murder of the journalist should not be taken to mean an attack on press freedom.

The list of the woes of critical journalists under the Akufo-Addo presidency is very long. Civil society groups have not been spared the high level of intolerance against dissent. But the president and his team will not admit it.

They often extol the president as someone who repealed the Criminal Libel Law. The question I have always asked is whether the Free SHS programme in the Akufo-Addo era should be credited to the education ministers and not Akufo-Addo.

After five years as president, why should the 2001 repeal of the Criminal Libel Law by President Kufuor be the main achievement of Akufo-Addo in press freedom and free speech? Is that not an admission that there’s nothing to show for under his presidency for which reason he keeps running to the past?

Add the arrest of Mensah Thompson to the fact that some persons in the governing party use their media platforms to publish dangerous lies and go scot-free, and one can conclude that Criminal Libel Law is back under President Akufo-Addo.

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