By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK
Since July 2, 2013, debates on freedom of expression and press freedom have become the main political discourse in Ghana following the jailing of a party activist and a newspaper editor by the Supreme Court (SC) for contempt of court. Many have warned that, the custodial sentence passed on the contemnors posed a danger to freedom of expression and free press that are guaranteed under the Ghanaian Constitution. This week, one news report made me to ask myself, whether Nana Akufo-Addo has been a victim of freedom of speech and or free press in Ghana. This article is to share my dilemma with readers and to continue the debate on freedom of speech and free press.
Before I share my views on this important subject, may crave the indulgence of readers to offer my sincere apology for my failure to make mention of the visit to Atugiba in prison and being received on his release by NDC officials, including a minister of state in my last article entitled, “Is NPP Turning Ken Kuranchie into a Hero?”, Ghanaweb, July 6, 2013). Some readers rightly or wrongly accused me of being bias by failing to mention what NDC did and instead focused solely on NPP. I accept full responsibility for my failure. However, let me assure readers that it was unintentional to deliberately leave that out and write a one-sided article. I was genuinely unaware of the two reports and would have definitely mentioned them as well as made comparative analysis to ensure a balance view if I had read or heard about them. I admit that ignorance is no excuse, neither is it a defence. Last but certainly not the least, let me assure readers that, the objective of my articles is not to cause damage to any individual or political party but to contribute to socio-economic and political development in Ghana. I am not neutral because I have views and preferences on Ghanaian issues but I try my best to be objective.
Last Monday July 8, 2013, this headline appeared on Ghanaweb, “Akufo-Addo Accuser Dead” with a photo of Nana Akufo-Addo praying on the Wailing Wall in Israel. Though this story was sad and tragic for a man to die at the young age of 32, it also made me wonder if what Nana Akufo was falsely accused of could also be part of the Ghanaian concept of freedom of expression and free press (if there is any such thing as a Ghanaian concept of the two freedoms). For those of you who may be unaware of what I am driving at, you may recall that during the 2012 general election campaign, Nana Akufo-Addo was falsely accused of urinating on the walls of a mosque when he paid a visited the Yagbonwura Palace in Damango, thereby defiling the mosque.
In fact, I would not be mistaken to say that Nana Akufo-Addo is one of the most, if not the most vilified politician in Ghana. Tens, if not hundreds of baseless allegations and accusations have been thrown at him. His name sells like hot dog on any news items on Ghanaweb, particularly the negative ones. Various articles have been written about him (both positive and negative) and I am no exception as writer on Ghanweb.
Some of these news reports and articles as well as the false accusations contained therein are purely defamation and libellous but they appear regularly in the Ghanaian political discourse. A couple of days or weeks ago, there was a story that because of Nana Akufo-Addo, a female MP in Ghana had to hold her wedding in secrecy in the UK. Any damn fool would have known that such fabrications do not hold water but rather show the stupidity of those who manufacture such false allegations with the sole purpose of scoring cheap political points.
Is the man, husband, father, brother, uncle, grandfather, politician and once Attorney General and Minister for Justice who repealed the Criminal Libel and Seditious Libel Laws) (Amendment) Act, 2001 (Act 602), bringing an end to more than a century-old regime of laws repressive of free expression and restored freedom of expression and free press to Ghanaians, leader of the main opposition party (NPP), 2008 and 2012 Presidential candidate and now challenging the result of the 2012 presidential election, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, a victim of his own good work?
From the context of the recent debates on freedom of expression and free press so far and from some of those who sought to defend the actions of the two (unfortunately now ex-convicts) as well as the indiscipline by some Ghanaians, especially politicians and the media, it appears anything and everything could be justified as free speech and press freedom. I beg to disagree.
The fact is that Ghanaians have abused the hard work of Nana Akufo-Addo by misunderstanding what is free speech and free press. The two have nothing to do with the right to insult, abuse and defame the character of individuals and to denigrate our leaders. That is what has been happening under the guise of free speech and press freedom. In fact, if some of the false accusations made by individuals and the media against Akufo-Addo had been made in the western democracies and under their jurisprudence that are being used to justify what was said by Awuku and Atugiba and what was published by Ken Kuranchie, such people and media would have been bankrupted by civil claims for libel and defamation.
The fact of the matter is that some if not most Ghanaian politicians, especially, from NDC and NPP are politically immature. They peddle falsehood and thrive on ignorance of the masses, Indeed, such wild allegations and false accusations are rewarded and both parties take delight in levelling false accusations against leaders and members of each other. Sometimes, the allegations are even generated from within the party for political expediency.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Nana Akufo-Addo himself does not believe that he is a victim of his handiwork from what he said on this subject in 2012. In a speech delivered on “Outlawing Criminal Libel Laws in Ghana”, at a conference on the twin themes of “African Constitutionalism: Present Challenges and Prospects for the Future” and “African Constitutionalism and the Media”, at the Institute of Comparative and International Law at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, he stated, “despite claims by some Ghanaians that the repeal of criminal and seditious libel laws has made the Ghanaian media and journalists reckless and unprofessional in their work, thereby damaging the good name and reputation of public figures and endangering society as a whole, I still insist that their repeal was necessary in the public interest and marked a victory in the struggle of Ghanaians for liberty and, especially, for freedom of expression". He continued, “by this singular deed, a historic victory was won in the struggle of our people for liberty”. My modest self had a happy and privileged role in this historic process by being the Attorney General who piloted the passage of the repeal through the Parliament of Ghana’s Republic”.
I share his views that the repeal was well worth it. However, I think individuals and the media are solely responsible for the recklessness and unprofessionalism rather than the repeal itself. He is only a victim of partisan and immature politics that thrives on innuendos, character assassinations and plain falsehood. All our leaders since the repeal of the criminal and seditious libel laws in Ghana since 2001 have been subjected to such vilification by individuals and the media (Rawlings, Kufuor, the late Attah Mills and President Mahama as well as former and present ministers, MPs and other public office holders).
The public and the media have a right to hold their leaders, politicians and public officers accountable but false accusations and baseless allegations against them are counter productive. They are unsustainable, unjustified and do not help the fight against corruption, neither could they be part and parcel of the new found freedom of speech and free press.
I pray and hope that (though I disagreed with the custodial sentence passed on Messrs Atugiba and Kuranchie, since it could send the wrong message of fear and curtail free speech and free press instead discipline), Ghanaians as a whole and politicians and the media in particular, will learn lessons from this episode and impose self discipline and self regulation respectively on themselves in order to give true meaning to freedom of expression and free press which were denied us for years, that many fought for with their lives and Nana Akufo-Addo restored in August 2001, else he would become a victim and die at his own sword of goodwill.
Will the SC contempt of court judgement stop false, baseless but very damaging accusations against Nana Akufo Addo and other politicians? Only time will tell.
Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK