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Opinions Sat, 24 Aug 2013

Criminal contempt vs modernisation

Compatriots,

Most Ghanaians have welcomed the recent decision of the nine Supreme Court judges (Mr Justice William Atuguba - presiding judge - Justices: Julius Ansah, Mrs Sophia Adinyira, Ms Rose Owusu, Mr Jones Dotse, Mr Annin Yeboah, Mr P. Baffoe- Bonnie, Mr N. S. Gbadegbe and Mrs. Vida Akoto-Bamfo) to jail Mr Steven Atubiga (a member of the communication team of the NDC) and Ken Kuranchie (Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Searchlight Newspaper). They were jailed three and ten days respectively for, ‘criminal contempt’ in contravention of the ongoing NPP versus NDC Election Petition.

Public opinion is now mercifully against the irresponsible convicted slanderers (Supreme Court Jails Atubiga And Ken Kuranchie, Rebecca Addo-Tetteh, Peacefmonline.com, 02-Jul-2013, http://elections.peacefmonline.com/politics/201307/167860.php?page=8&storyid=100&). This feature discourses the extent the criminal contempt ruling is an expose of perceptions of national development and modernisation. By misinterpreting the judges’ ruling, are some Ghanaians in contempt of National Development itself?

For now, we hurrah the judges’ whip finally cracking on the head of mouthy intellectuals, foot-soldier political functionaries and paid media gate-keepers for the main NDC-NPP political monopoly. While we await the final judgment, the raucous, libelous and slanderous misrepresentations have dropped to drip-levels. It is even hoped the net of appropriate national behavior would be cast wider to include our politicians, bureaucracy, judiciary, media personnel, teachers/lecturers, economists, doctors and people – the full gamut of ‘leaders and the led’. These are what I precisely recollect Justice Atuguba meant.

OPPOSITIONAL GRUMBLINGS

Overall, the Ghanaian public is alerted to exercise caution when adversely commenting on the Court Petition proceedings. At least, the decibel levels of the noisy extra-judiciary commentaries have dropped markedly in the media. How long, we do not know. Still, opposing utterances have been made by a few people.

Some opponents vehemently argue the actions of the Supreme Court judges amount to restriction of ‘free speech’, ‘'Kangaroo trial', ‘misconduct of the Supreme Court Judges’, ‘disingenuous’, etc. Others do a complete 360º turn by overzealously attacking any adverse criticism people in leadership, as demeaning or even unpatriotic. Dr. Agyenim Boateng best articulates the opposition voices:

‘In my opinion, the fundamental issues or principles involved in the so-called recent contempt of court trial were sidestepped or ignored by some of the so called legal and political pundits. The issue of freedom of the press and freedom of, speech though stuck out like a sore thumb, yet some of the much tooted ' legal gurus' including law lecturers and political commentators described the 'Kangaroo trial' as fair. Quiet disingenuous! They embraced the capricious and arbitrary sentencing as appropriate, as even some felt the unjust verdict as teaching tool for the culprits, in this case, the victims and future transgressors who may challenge the Justices on efforts to silence or chill the fundamental rights of citizens on use of their free speech under the constitution. What a misuse of judicial powers!’ He continues his continues:

‘To my chagrin, even the National Media Commission (NMC) and the Ghana Bar Association(GBA) joined the chorus of approval of the misconduct of the Supreme Court Judges in silencing free speech contrary to the statutory laws that repealed criminal libel under Kufuor administration. Evidently, the summary trial and sentencing of the journalist, Ken Kuranchie and other citizens were just a back door effort to resuscitate the moribund criminal libel laws’ (Abuse Of Judicial Power Through Contempt of Court, Columnist: Dr. Agyenim Boateng, 17 July 2013, Ghanaweb, http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=279707).

I will not torture the issue of the Supreme Court judgment by confusing it with the media concept of ‘freedom of speech’. The judge’s decision had nothing to do with intimidating future transgressors, nor chilling the fundamental rights of citizens. Thus Dr. Agyenim Boateng’s angry effusions are totally misguided. Why? The answer is in what Steven Atubiga and Ken Kuranchie actually did and said.

They contravened the Supreme Court’s specific order on June, 24, 2013. That nationally televised order warned Ghanaians to stop uttering comments that may prejudice and distort the facts of the election Petition proceedings. How? Atubiga said: ‘If the Supreme Court decides for Nana Akufo-Addo, I would support a coup d’etat..’ Kurankyie said: “the Supreme Court is being hypocritical and guilty of selective justice.”

Hence, the wisdom in Justice Atuguba’s judgement is in helping to defuse potential civil strife over public misinterpretation of their comments. The Justice said as much:

‘I am concerned that there should be at all times a very strong and truly independent judiciary. The health of the country must be preserved; if we don’t have a strong judiciary we will be gambling with the destiny of this country…I don’t think my colleagues would also be part of it. Ghana is a very solid country but it is breaking down because principles are being chopped down almost to pedestrian level. The Court must be strong and truly independent. The health of [our] country depends on us…Courts are there for the public and the judges are supposed to be public servants and with the exception that a matter is gravely confidential, it has to be heard in public.’ (Justice Atuguba Explodes, By William Yaw Owusu & Mary Anane, Daily Guide, Jan. 11 2013, http://www.dailyguideghana.com/?p=72087).

So we see clearly that Justice Atuguba had judicious reasons for his decision. A lot of important political commentators have praised the judges’ decision. Even ex-Pres. JJ Rawlings – renowned for his strident commentary - commended Justice Atuguba’s sense of humour defused many potentially flammable moments during the hearing sessions. He was right. The most potent explanation I have found so far in the Ghanaian media is contained in this quote by, Jermaine Nkrumah:

‘Let us take a look at the principle of freedom of expression versus the proverbial shouting-‘fire’-in-a-crowded-theater. The key word here is “crowded.” Why is it not a crime when one shouts ‘fire’ in an empty theater, but a crime when the theater is crowded? It is the same act of shouting fire, but the crime is in the reaction of other human beings, and the potential calamitous result.’

‘Now let us transpose this scenario into the current situation in Ghana versus the relative political normalcy in, say, the United States. If a commentator in America remarked that a Supreme Court decision will result in war, or he would support a coup d’etat, no one would raise an eyebrow because the likelihood of civil conflict and a coup d’etat arising out of a Supreme Court decision is virtually non-existent in the first instance and completely non-existent in the second. In Ghana on the other hand, that likelihood is very much present due to the reputation of the so-called foot soldiers, and the history of military interventions.’ (Feature Article of Thursday, 4 July 2013, Columnist: Nkrumah, Jermaine, Analyzing Justice Atuguba's Hardline Stance, http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=278514).

Regards.

Columnist: Kofi of Africa