Opinions Thu, 6 Jan 2011
Insults, Abuse and the Internet, Redefining Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression by Ghanaians.In my humble opinion the most important invention of all time, is probably the flush toilet, commonly known as Water Closet (WC for short). On the other hand, if I am asked, what was the most outstanding invention of the 20th Century, my answer would be “the Internet”. For me, the Internet has presented humanity with opportunities as well as challenges to nations, states, communities and individuals all over the world that no other single or collective inventions and discoveries have been able to do so. It has linked up the world into a Global Village. There is no doubt that the world has become, truly, a small world with the advent of the internet. A lot of readers will disagree with me and that is normal and rational. People cannot have the same opinion on one subject because though we are all equal by our common humanity, we are also different by our individuality. But does the fact that we differ on the same issue give those who disagree with me, the right to insult and abuse me? It is the challenges of the Internet vis-à-vis press freedom and freedom of expression that I intend to explore in this brief article, particularly, the insults and abuses that have become the order of the day in the enjoyment of press freedom and freedom of expression in Ghana, by Ghanaians and people of Ghanaian origin.
The internet has given a true meaning to Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression by opening up all forms of media to anyone and everyone with access to the internet as well as enabling anyone and everyone with access to the internet to freely express themselves. As a result, even the most powerful government in the world, the United State government can no longer curtail Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression, for example, the Wikileaks materials. The Internet has also given a voice to the voiceless and empowered the powerless in the area of press freedom and freedom of expression. However, I believe many users of the internet are seriously concerned about the way it is being used or misused and abused in the name of press freedom and freedom of expression in Ghana and by Ghanaians. The practice these days is such that, it appears insults and abuse have become integral part of the enjoyment of these rights by Ghanaians.
The article is the result of my observation of a disturbing and dangerous trend on Ghanaweb, most Ghanaian media organisations and Ghanaian owned, managed or controlled media abroad. It is also my contribution to the ongoing discourse on the subject and a plea for a ceasefire on the continuing abuse of the right to press freedom and freedom of expression. The debate is important because as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Before I proceed any further, it will be helpful to take a look at what these freedoms mean and their limitations, if any.
What are Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression and are there no boundaries to the enjoyment of these rights, especially in Ghana, by Ghanaians and people of Ghanaian origin? Are corporate Ghana and Ghanaians by default, redefining the two rights since it has become the norm and modus operandi of politicians, the media, commentators and internet users?
Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression are enshrined in Article 19 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and also in most Regional Conventions and National Constitutions as well as other legal documents such as case law. The aforementioned Article states as follows:
(1) “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference;
(2) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his/her choice.
(3) The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) for respect of the rights or reputation of others;
(b) for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.
It is crystal clear from Article 19 (3) (a) and (b) above that, due regard must be given to the exercise and the enjoyment of the two rights. Readers should pay particular attention to the words “special duties and responsibilities, subject to certain restrictions and but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary” in section (3) above. Again, sub-sections (a) and (b) under section (3) above are self-explanatory. The respect for and reputation of individuals and organisations are protected. The enjoyment of these rights MUST also ensure the protection of public order, health and public morals.
From the above, Corporate Ghana, most Ghanaians and people of Ghanaian origin who use the media and the internet to express insulting and abusive opinions have breached the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.
At the regional level, Article 9 of the 1981 African Charter on Human and People’s Rights also states:
(1) “Every individual shall have the right to receive information.
(2) Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his/her opinions within the law”
Note herein also, the above rights are qualified. That is, they must be within the law. What does the law in Ghana says then? The 1992 constitution of Ghana also guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of expression under Article 21 (1)
“ All persons shall have the right to –
(a) Freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media; (refer to Articles 162 &163 for further details on Freedom and Independence of the Media)
In accordance with International and Regional conventions, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press as enshrined in Ghana’s 1992 Constitution are also qualified under Article 21 (4) that is, “Nothing in, or done under the authority of, a law shall be held to be inconsistent with, or in contravention of, this article to the extent that the law in question –
(c) for the imposition or restrictions that are reasonably required in the interest of defence, public safety, public health or the running of essential services, on the movement or residence within Ghana of any person/s generally, or any class of persons; or
(e) that is reasonably required for the purpose of safeguarding the people of Ghana against the teaching or propagation of a doctrine which exhibits or encourages disrespect for the nationhood of Ghana, the national symbols and emblems, or incites hatred against other members of the community; except so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the thing done under the authority of that law is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in terms of the spirit of this Constitution”.
So why are Ghanaians violating their own Constitution by using the media and the internet to freely express insulting and abusive language and opinions that disrespect the nationhood and national symbols (such as the Presidency), incite hatred against other members of the community, etc?
Without doubt those who developed Ghanweb and owners of other media avenues did not intend to create a forum for insults and abuse but rather an opportunity for Ghanaians and those with interest in Ghana, among others, to share ideas, expertise and to contribute Ghana’s development. The insults and abuses know no limits (the President, former Presidents and their ministers and families, Chiefs, party officials, public servants including the Chief Justice, Human Right Commissioners, Human Rights Activists, on and on and on).
Please do not misunderstand the rationale behind this article. I am not any way suggesting that, Ghanaians should not hold their leaders accountable or criticise them. Far from it. But could that not be done without the insults and abuses? We should be critical friends and offer constructive criticisms. We can disagree with our political opponents without being abusive. After all, political parties and politicians are in competition to win elections and not at battle to win wars. What happened to the Ghanaian respect for the age or old age?
Recently, some of the London based Ghanaian owned, managed or controlled radio stations have began to take steps to put an end to the insults and abuses by their callers. But the freedom to post comments on websites without any review of the contents such comments has made the insults and abuses inevitable. This is tantamount to a licence to abuse the rights some Ghanaian fought and died for. Most comments posted on some of these websites are nothing but pure defamation and libellous in nature and against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the Ghana Constitution.
For example, I read through the comments posted on the Asantehene’s advice to politicians and the media this week on three websites (Ghanaweb, Peace and Joy FMs) Interestingly, comments posted on the Joy FM website, which are reviewed before they become accessible to the public did not contain insults and abuses. The commentators were able to criticise the Asantehene including questioning the alleged purchase of a property in the UK without the abuse. On the other hand, most comments posted on the other two websites where they are not reviewed in advance were just insults and abuses. This behaviour or misbehaviour is polarising Ghana and Ghanaians everywhere. Therefore there is the urgency for appropriate action to be taken to address this danger and threat to the two freedoms. Those who regularly post these insulting, abusive, racist and ethnic bashing are enemies of Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression.
Sadly, I am tempted to suggest that if the insults and abuses do not stop, then, Ghanaweb and other media websites may have to introduce some software to weed out the insults and abuses. For example, in order to be able to comment on most if not all media websites in the UK, one must register with the website and provide name and contact details including a valid e-mail address and telephone number. Comments are approved in advance before they are accessible to the public. I am not suggesting this approach as Ghanaweb may not have the resources to review in advance the hundreds of comments posted on the website each day. However, if these abuses continue, then drastic measures must be introduced to stop the abusers and enemies of progress.
I accept that this would not be easy as it may be defeatist and may even not be in the true spirit of the Press Freedom and Freedom of Speech. But the enjoyment of these freedoms without due regard to the restrictions contained therein (International and Regional Covenants and the National Constitution), they would make a mockery of the very rights and freedoms we all cherish and must protect. I know for sure that, I will be subjected to insults and abuse for the contents of this article. I am not daunted, rather, I take inspiration from what Martin Luther King Jr said and I quote two of them in conclusion:
An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him/her is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
He also said, “The ultimate measure of a man/woman is not where s/he stands in moments of comfort and convenient, but where s/he stands at times of challenge and controversy”.
Happy New Year
Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK
Columnist: Ata, Kofi