Equality before the law: Are Ghanaian journalists immune from criminal prosecutions and comeuppance?

Zimbabwe Journalists File photo

Tue, 15 Feb 2022 Source: Kwaku Badu

With all due respect with no attached condescension whatsoever, this is not a pompous critique on the public discourse over the alleged suppression of press freedom by the current NPP administration but it is rather an honest and dispassionate interrogation.

We should, as a matter of urgency, invoke our instinct for tact and diplomacy over the ongoing hue and cry on the alleged suppression of press freedom, while we venture and critique the utterances of some journalists.

Let me, therefore, state categorically that no journalist deserves to be harassed unnecessarily in his/her line of duty.

It is also important to pose: are journalists immune from criminal investigations and prosecutions?

Equality before the law, so to speak, is often invoked to accentuate the absoluteness in the delivery of justice.

In other words, the law is no respecter of persons, and therefore, no citizen or denizen is immune from criminal investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

As a matter of fact, the law enforcement bodies have every right to arrest and question any citizen or denizen, regardless of their status, who out of impertinent boldness, can allegedly state: the “current judiciary is corrupt and made up of crooks and criminals led by a corrupt Chief Justice who’s struggling to purge himself of a $5 million thievery allegation.”

Dearest readers, let us be honest, since when did the media houses become a safe haven for suspects?

We should not lose sight of the fact that although the right to freedom of opinion and expression stretches to queer and unpopular ideas and statements which “shock, offend or disturb”, it is not absolute.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression and the appropriate permitted abridgements are detailed in international law -Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Free speech, in fact, is an inalienable right to seek, receive and convey information and ideas of all kinds and by any means which may be deemed appropriate.

In other words, the right to freedom of expression denotes the ideas of all kinds, including those that may be deemed offensive.

By and large, if freedom of opinion and expression was to become subject to ordinary legislature, executive or judicial control, it would be no different from any other statutory right which the authorities are free to confer and withdraw at their pleasure.

Thus, the restriction of freedom of opinion and expression becomes a crucial and delicate question. Suffice it to stress that any restrictions cannot be based on ideological perceptions of legislature, executive or judicial, but must be predicated on objectively founded and comprehended criteria.

Of course, in our part of the world, some governments will do everything in their power to restrict press freedom.

Take, for example, the 2016 World Freedom report by Freedom House indicated that government agencies in Ghana restricted press freedom through harassment and arrests of journalists, especially those who reported on politically sensitive issues (Freedom House, 2016).

The 2016 report however stressed that in September 2015, journalists and media organizations condemned the then presidential staffer, Stan Dogbe, who allegedly attacked Ghana Broadcasting Corporation journalist, Yahayah Kwamoah and damaged his recording device.

The report stated that media groups criticised police for failing to protect journalists from TV-Africa who were attacked while covering demonstrations in the slum known as Sodom and Gomorrah in Accra (Freedom House 2016).

In a related incident, in January 2014, police in the Upper West Region arrested the host of the radio talk program Sungmaale FM, along with two panellists, for on-air comments about police strategies toward criminal activity. The detainees were released the same day, and the acting commissioner of police of the Upper West Region apologized for the officers’ unlawful conduct”.

In March 2013, two photojournalists from state-owned newspapers were brutally beaten by security officials while they were taking photos of Mahama during Ghana’s Independence Day celebrations.

The Ghana Journalist Association (GJA) and the Media Foundation for West Africa condemned the attack and demanded an immediate probe.

The Ghana Armed Forces however conducted an investigation of the incident and exonerated the military personnel involved of any misconduct.

However, the public uproar over the exoneration led the country’s chief of defence staff back then to apologize to the photojournalists and promised to compensate them.

In January 2012, several agents of the Bureau of National Investigations attacked a reporter for the private Daily Guide when she attempted to photograph the deputy superintendent of police, who was being investigated for alleged offences.

In June 2012, four police officers assaulted a reporter for the state-owned Daily Graphic, who was covering a drug raid conducted by the police.

The NDC administration promised to carry out investigations of both cases, but no charges were brought against anyone.

In March 2011, teachers’ union members who were conducting a peaceful march against a new wage policy were subjected to beatings, tear gas, and arrest by police in Accra.

In February 2010, NPP activist Nana Darkwa Baafi was detained on charges of “publishing false news with intent to cause fear or harm to the public or to disturb the public peace.

His arrest prompted the NPP to boycott parliamentary proceedings for two days.

Baafi had alleged during a radio interview that the late President John Rawlings had set fire to his own government-sponsored residence in an effort to acquire new housing.

During Barfi’s hearing in March, NPP and NDC supporters clashed at the Accra courthouse, leaving two injured. The case was ultimately dropped in October 2010.

In July 2010, criminal charges were brought against the acting news editor of Joy FM, Ato Kwamena Dadzie, for his coverage of the scandal surrounding the STX Korea housing deal.

The list is not exhaustive, however, time and space won’t allow me to enumerate all in this article.

Although there is no justification for any government to trample on the civil liberties and personal integrity rights of journalist, some administrations have tried to restrict such rights in the past.

In sum, much as some journalists are being invited or arrested for questioning over alleged criminal offences does not mean that the culture of silence has resurfaced.

K. Badu, UK.


Columnist: Kwaku Badu