Editorial: Repeal of Criminal Libel Law: not yet uhuru?
On Friday July 27, 2001, the Parliament of Ghana unanimously repealed the Criminal Libel and Seditious Laws, which were used as weapons to arrest and detain a number of journalists. The decision followed the passage of the Criminal Code (Repeal of the Criminal and Seditious Laws – Amendment Bill) Act 2001.
Before this momentous decision was taken by John Agyekum Kufuor’s government, Nana Kofi Coomson, Publisher of The Chronicle, Eben Quacoe, Editor of Free Press and its publisher, Tommy Thompson, were standing trial under these repealed laws and could have been sentenced to serve ten years imprisonment had they been found guilty of publishing stories that injured the reputation of the state.
The New Patriotic Party (NPP), as a political party, became friends to the private press, in particular, as a result of this singular decision, because the Jerry John Rawlings’ administration was using the colonial law as a weapon to suppress the freedom of the media. But whilst journalists celebrated the repeal of the law, which was spearheaded by the current President, Nana Akufo-Addo, it appears all is not over as we, as journalists, had presumed.
Now the state security agencies, especially the police, are using another colonial law, section 208 of the Criminal Offences Act, Act 29 of 1960 that criminalises freedom of expression.
The said Section 208 reads: A person who publishes or reproduces a statement, rumour or report which is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace knowing or having reason to believe that the statement, rumour or report is false commits a misdemeanour. It is not a defence to a charge under subsection (1) that the person charged did not know or did not have reason to believe that the statement, rumour or report was false, unless it is proved that, prior to the publication, that person took reasonable measures to verify the accuracy of the statement, rumour or report.
In our candid view, the above mentioned law infringes upon Article 162 clause (4) of the 1992 Constitution. This Article also reads: Editors and publishers of newspapers and other institutions of the mass media shall not be subject to control or interference by Government, nor shall they be penalized or harassed for their editorial opinions and views, or the content of their publications. (5) All agencies of the mass media shall, at all times, be free to uphold the principles, provisions and objectives of this Constitution, and shall uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people of Ghana.
But this notwithstanding, a number of journalists since the repeal of the criminal law have been harassed or arrested by the police for publishing false news contrary to section 208 of the criminal code. Among those who have suffered under this repressive law is Nana Darkwa, who though not a media practitioner, was arrested and detained for two weeks for alleging during a radio discussion that the late Jerry John Rawlings set fire to his own house.
On July 15, 2010, Ato Kwamena Dadzie, the then News Editor of Joy FM, was charged with “publishing false information with the intention to cause fear or harm to the public”. Ato Kwamena’s crime was that his station had carried a report to the effect that an umbrella body of building contractors, Ghana Real Estates Developers Association (GREDA), had been issued death threats to withdraw a petition that it had sent to Ghana’s Parliament to oppose a controversial STX deal Ghana had signed with a Korean company.
It is also on record that on Wednesday, July 21, 2010, the Editor of the
Ghanaian Times, Mr Enimil Ashon, was asked to report to the CID Headquarters for allegedly spreading false news to cause fear and alarm.
And just a little over a week ago, another journalist, David Tamakloe, was arrested and charged under the same Section 208 of the Criminal Code of 1960.
The Chronicle is not in any way trying to support the recklessness of the media, but as Walter Cronkite put it, “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”
Indeed, one cannot talk about the democracy Ghanaians are currently enjoying without mentioning the crucial role played and still being played by the media. As the adage goes, it is the one who goes to the river side to fetch water to quench the thirst of the household that will, at the same time, break the pot used in fetching the water. Journalists are not saints – they are also prone to making mistakes like any other person – but using criminal procedure to rein in erring practitioners is not the best of options if we are to ensure proper tenets of democracy in the country.
The Chronicle is, therefore, appealing to President Akufo-Addo to initiate another move to repeal the controversial Section 208 of the Criminal Code to ensure proper and holistic press freedom in the country. Until this is done – the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law – which was done during his tenure as Attorney General, it will become useless in not too long a distance. Freedom of the media to practice is an essential part of modern democracy, and nothing must be done to stifle it.