Opinions of Sun, 20 Nov 200517

Protect Free Speech By Going Easy On Private Media

It is hard to defend reckless journalism such as that practiced by some in the private press in Ghana. Their work is more nauseating than stellar. Nonetheless, there comes a time when one has to go to bat for these miserable souls.


However repugnant one finds these scribes, their run-amok attitudes and propensity for personal attacks, can in large part be attributed to the repeal of the criminal libel law in the early days of the NPP administration.


Free speech, an integral cog in any democratic process, is as delicate as it is replete with pitfalls. Wielded responsibly, it keeps the public informed and educated on a wide range of issues in addition to making public servants and elected representatives accountable. Misused, free speech can inflame passions and undermine legal constituted authority.


"Set free, I have no doubt our media will play their honourable role with a heightened sense of responsibility," President Kufour said at the time.


One should add that the president was being too overly optimistic because the proliferation of newspaper in the immediate aftermath of the government's directive has been both a boon and a curse.

Like prisoners sprung from prolonged captivity, journalists savored their new found freedom with relentless and sometimes scurrilous attacks on government officials and private citizens.


But in their zeal to report anything scandalous, these reckless journalists conveniently glossed over the fact that the targets of their zings could seek recourse in the courtroom. A sudden twist in irony: the hunter has suddenly become the prey.


Not surprisingly, the spate of law suits against a compendium of rags like the Chronicle, the Democrat, and the Palaver has risen steadily. Since 2004, there have been more than ten such lawsuits brought by private individuals and public officials.


Found guilty of libel and defamation and slapped with staggering fines by the courts, newspapers that once reviled in thrashing individuals suddenly find themselves in danger of shutting down.


Are they contrite? You can bet your bottom pesewa on this. The recent escapades of Jojo Bruce Quansah, the rattled editor of the Palaver, is proof positive that the fines are sending a good signal to practitioners of yellow journalism: fine tune your craft or be fined out of existence.

However justifiable the courts' actions are, they invariably raise a very fundamental question: are the courts in the business of protecting free speech as enshrined in the constitution or fining pesky editors out of work? The answer is not an easy one.


For one thing the courts have the unenviable task of keeping a wayward private press under a tight leash while simultaneously guarding it against undue interference and intimidation from authorities. To some degree, the courts have succeeded in protecting free speech.


But the recent fines dilute whatever success the courts may have had in protecting our constitutional right to yell fire in a crowded theater.


What is more, the courts' decisions may have unintentionally created the perception that the courts are attached at the hip to the executive branch of government, acting as a proxy for the NPP and doing its dirty work of clamping down on dissent.


This is very troubling, a dangerous trend, a slippery road towards eventual censorship. In some bygone era, it was thugs spraying human waste in the offices of a private newspaper to enforce silence.

It may feel good to cheer the eminent demise of papers like the Palaver - which recently, sent out a financial SOS to the Ghanaian public. But, no matter how you look at it, the unintended consequence of every successful libel suit against a two-paged newspaper with mediocre circulation is the muzzling of alternative voices. The end result is the creation of an echo chamber where the only voices heard are our own.


To stave off criticisms that the judiciary is in the pocket of the NPP, it is imperative that the courts show some semblance of independence from the executive branch, especially when it comes to rulings on free speech. Occasionally upholding the Palaver's or Chronicle's right in court to publish "rubbish" would be a step in the right direction.


Of course, it is common knowledge that judges have personal political leanings. ?Legal realists contend that, inevitably, judges are influenced by their political views and personal values, whether they admit it or not. But judges can be neutral,? Time Magazine, November edition. This is what free-speech loving Ghanaians expect from their jurists.



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