GBA Schools Journalists …On Effects Of Flouting Legal Standards
By Phyllis Osabutey
Industry observers have often times had course to complain about the articles churned out by both trained and untrained journalists that have serious legal implications for individual journalists and their media houses in general.
Also, with the repeal of the criminal libel law, there is the tendency for some journalists to think that they are free to write or broadcast anything, without falling foul of the law.
Particularly, in the wake of the New Patriotic Party’s challenge of the 2012 presidential election results at the Supreme Court, it has become necessary to remind journalists about the legal implications of publications that do not meet professional standards.
Thus, the Editors Forum Ghana (EFG), under the auspices of the Ghana Journalists Associations (GJA), in collaboration with the Ghana Bar Association (GBA) organized a media a forum on the theme, “The media and the Law: Responsibilities and Rights of Journalists” in Accra, on Tuesday.
The Chairperson of the EFG, Ms. Adjoa Yeboah Afari recounted some incidents in which the media overlooked legal implications of their report, including recording and publishing material for which they have not sought the consent of the people involved.
She expressed the belief that when lawyers and other people with legal knowledge read the papers and listen to journalists, “they are horrified by some of our reports, and the way we assassinate people’s character, knowingly or unknowingly.”
According to her, many journalists and media institutions have so far gotten away with such legal blunders, but “will we always be so lucky?” she questioned.
She noted that journalists might not always escape the wrath of the people they defame or libel either through carelessness or laziness, or unprofessional approach to their work.
She indicated that the EFG decided to arrange the dialogue between the media and the GBA because of issues of the present time including the NPP case at the Supreme Court.
This, she said, provides an urgent need for the media family to be reminded of the laws that relate to their work and “more than ever, we need to appreciate the need to be more professional in our work”, stressing, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
The President of the GBA, Nene Amergatcher, said he and some other colleagues have also had course to write to the Attorney General (AG) regarding unprofessional reports by the media on legal matters that were of serious consequences, such as personal attacks on individual judges, among many others.
They, therefore, called on the AG to intervene as a matter of urgency because such attacks have been a resultant lack of faith and confidence by some Ghanaians in the administration of justice.
He said it was important to maintain the respect and dignity of the courts and its officers whose tasks it is to uphold and enforce the law because without such respect, public faith in the administration of justice would be undermined and the law itself would fall into disrepute.
According to him, “We are not oblivious to the fact that judges and courts are open to criticism and that by the nature of the office they occupy, they cannot reply to criticisms.”
As a result, “when acts are committed and publications are made calculated to lower the authority of a court or a judge of the court, that act or publication is treated as scandalizing the court and punishable by a conviction for contempt of court.”
He stated that the conduct amounting to scandalizing the court does not exist to protect a judge personally but operate to protect the public interest in the administration of justice.
Furthermore, he hinted that despite the repeal of the criminal libel law, scandalizing the court is another law that can result in the conviction of journalists, which also does not exist to “vindicate the dignity of the person of the judge but to prevent undue interference with the administration of justice.”
He observed that if the situation was not corrected, it would be of no use to spend money to maintain an institution that Ghanaians would have no faith and confidence in.
In view of this, he said “If we want to build strong institutions of state, then it behooves on all of us to pull resources and ideas together.”
He pointed out that “Our friends in the media are not criminals and we do not want to see them in jail as has been in the past. That is, we do not think that expressing views and opinions, free speech should be criminalized such as to end a journalist in jail, but we must be circumspect in other to respect the laws of the land so that we do not fall foul.”
He lamented that by the media’s unprofessional reports and attacks on the judiciary, “you are not building the country and not helping to build our democracy, rather, you are helping to destroy it.”
However, he advised that when journalists have any evidence that a person or judge is unfit to occupy that high office, then it behooves on the journalist to bring it up in the appropriate forum so that the process would start towards either the impeachment or removal of the judge form that position.
Giving an overview of the topic, the National Public Relations Officer of the GBA, Mr. Anthony Forson Jnr., defined law as “the aggregate of rules set by men as politically superior or sovereign to men as politically subject.” Thus, law is the command of the sovereign that imposes a duty, and is backed by sanctions.
He said for the rules to be effective, there are sanctions behind them because they are made to serve some purpose either social, or the personal ends of a despot.
Touching on defamation, he said it may be defined as the publication of an untrue statement of fact, which reflects on a person’s reputation, and tends to lower him in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally or tends to make them shun or avoid him.
He mentioned libel (written) and slander (oral) as the two types of defamation, and in some respect, different rules are applicable to each but both concepts seek to protect the reputation of a person.
However, “there is no infringement unless there have been a communication or publication of the defamatory matter to a third party for it is the opinion held of the person defamed by others that matter”, he noted.
He explained that any medium whereby thought or ideas can be expressed or conveyed may constitute a publication of defamation, thus, “words, pictures, gestures, music or statutes are all examples of such publication.”
It is, however, the choice of medium which determines whether there is libel or slander and anything communicated in the form of a permanent character and visible to the eye is libel. Also, anything temporary or merely audible is slander, thus, “books, newspapers, letters and even effigies are libel and spoken words are slander.”
In respect of remedies, apologies mitigate any damages which are placed on the defendant and other remedies available to a plaintiff who is successful in a libel action against a defendant include damages or monetary compensation to be paid.
He indicated that although the law states that damages are not a good recompense for lowering of a person’s reputation, so far, it is found to be most suitable by the courts and therefore punishes the person economically. There is also a remedy of injunction to prevent further publication of the defamatory material, he added.
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