IPI – International Press Institute (Author)
|2000 World Press Freedom Review
By Issa A. Mansaray
In general, the government of Ghana has shown respect for freedom of speech and allows opposition parties and journalists to voice criticism in the media. Moreover, the government has begun to reduce its control of the print and electronic media by transferring elements of it to the private sector. However, there is a dark side to the governments nature that has seen it use a number of aggressive tactics to intimidate the media.
Common methods used against journalists and media organisations include criminal defamation charges, threatening telephone calls, and the use of the military. These are all applied with the intention of forcing journalists to fall into line and renounce attempts at reporting the news objectively. As a consequence of this tangible pressure, many journalists practice self-censorship.
Government laws, particularly the criminal defamation laws, are also prohibitive and applied with little or no discrimination. The criminal defamation laws have a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment and the government has shown a willingness to apply them to the full. Another feature of the libel laws in Ghana is the number of prosecutions brought by high-ranking officials in the government. These appear to provide evidence that the government actively encourages individual ministers to pursue libel actions.
An examination of the printed press reveals over a dozen government-owned dailies, two government-owned weeklies and several privately owned newspapers published weekly, biweekly, or triweekly. However, only one of the government-owned dailies has national circulation with most newspapers circulating only in the regional capitals.
On 13 January, Kabral Blay Amihere, president of the West African Journalists Association (WAJA) and an executive member of IFJ, was picked up by armed military personnel. The military authorities claimed that the arrest was due to an article published in The Independent newspaper of which Amihere is editor-in-chief. After being picked up, Amihere was sent to the military camp in Accra, Ghana's capital city.
Once at the military camp, armed soldiers questioned him on an editorial he had written, calling for a boycott of the country's annual military parade. In the article, Amihere described the parade as a relic from the days of army control over all state agencies and affairs in Ghana. No charges were laid against Amihere, but he was asked to publish a rejoinder, which the army had prepared, apologizing for his "irresponsible" opinions regarding the traditional 31 December parade. He was released on 14 January.
On 3 February, Amihere was once again summoned to the Criminal Investigations Department of the Ghana Police and informed that he was being investigated for possible sedition charges in connection with the editorial. He was released again after several hours of interrogation. Under Ghana's criminal code, sedition carries a minimum prison sentence of five years.
The Ghanaian journalist, Eben Quarcoo, managed to avoid a two-year prison sentence in a libel case following the payment of his fine by IFJ. Quarcoo, former editor of the biweekly Free Press, was sentenced in October 1999 to a 90-day imprisonment for alleged intentional libel of the first lady of Ghana, Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings. In addition he was fined approximately US $400 and would have served an additional two year sentence if he had defaulted on the payment of the fine. Following a request to IFJ by WAJA, an amount of US $800 was provided for payment of the fine and his upkeep in prison.
Sedi Bansah, a Ghanaian journalist who works for the private biweekly The Crusading Guide, was arrested on the orders of the country's deputy minister of defence, Tony Aidoo, on 19 September. At the time of his arrest, the journalist was covering a story about an alleged assault by the deputy minister on a civilian and had contacted the minister for his version of the story. According to information provided to the journalist, the deputy minister had allegedly been involved in an altercation with a security guard at a gas station. Keeping to the arrangement to meet at the newspapers offices, the deputy minister arrived with four military officers, who detained the reporter and took him to police headquarters. Bansah was held at the police headquarters for over eight hours.
In the early hours of 2 October, unidentified individuals smeared human waste on the entrance of the offices of The Crusading Guide. According to the newspaper's editor, Kweku Baako, Jr., he arrived early at his office to find a pungent smell and human waste smeared all over The Crusading Guide's office's front door.
The action, which has been described by the local press as excrement "bombing" has been condemned by a large section of Ghanaian society, including the ruling party, the National Democratic Congress and opposition parties, as well as by the Ghana Journalists Association. Unfortunately, the culprits have never been arrested. This is the third time under the present regime that human waste has been smeared at the offices of the private press as an intimidation tactic. Both the Ghanaian Chronicle and The Free Press have been subjected to the same treatment. The Crusading Guide, which was established two years ago, has been championing human rights and has a reputation for investigative journalism.
On 6 November, Nana Kofi Coomson, the publisher and editor of the private newspaper Ghanaian Chronicle, a newspaper which had been involved in reporting the case of Bansah, was arrested by officers of the Bureau of National Investigations (BNI). Coomson was picked up at his office by armed security personnel who demanded and were given five diskettes that they said were stolen from the government. He was then detained and interrogated at the organisations headquarters. He was later released on bail. Also arrested at the same time was Kwesi Koomson, a former editor of the Business Chronicle. Reports say that the two were denied food and water for the period that they were held captive. An Accra Circuit Tribunal remanded George Paa Graham, the man believed to have given the diskettes to the Ghanaian Chronicle, in custody. While the newspaper says it received the diskettes as part of its legitimate business of gathering information, the authorities have accused the newspaper of purchasing stolen items.
Felix Odartey-Wellington, a media critic on Ghana Television (GTV), the national television network, was also arrested by personnel of the BNI for alleged libellous statements against President Jerry John Rawlings. He was arrested at the BNI headquarters where he had been invited by an operative of the security agency who said his boss wanted to see him. Sources from WAJA say Odartey-Wellington was then put in chains and driven to the police headquarters to be interrogated. He was informed at the police headquarters that he was being investigated for describing the President as a con man and a political fraud. Odartey-Wellington, who is a son of one of the officers killed when Rawlings first came to power in 1979, was granted bail.
In addition to the arrest and detention of journalists in the latter half of the year, the authorities also closed down a radio station. On 10 November, a private radio station, Chris FM, was closed down in the western town of Berekum following violent disturbances between members of rival political factions. The station was allowed to reopen on 21 November.
Issa A. Mansaray
In Ghana, the trouble, strife and court battles for the independent media from the political cabal and sections of the populace who only want to listen to or read favourable news, are becoming a never-ending-story for journalists in the country. Others think some news or information is still taboo.
In March, when Kwabena Sarpong Akosah reported on the BBC-Focus on Africa that the "Asantehene" (the Asante King) Ofumfuo Opoku Ware II was dead he was strongly criticised, since reporting that the King is dead is taboo. He should have reported that the king has gone to his village. One chief told him that the elders would have punished him for lack of respect by sending him to the village (they would have him killed) to serve the dead king in the afterlife.
A few days after the kings death, in Manhyia, the royal palace, chiefs were meeting daily, debating over the news leak, and what should be done to the journalist. Akosah was advised to disappear, and he went in to hiding. Later he was obliged to broadcast an apology on a local radio.
On May 18, Ebo Quansah, editor, and Mohammed Affum, deputy editor of The Ghanaian Chronicle were fined one million cedis each (US$ 400) for contempt of court. This came as a result of an article in their newspaper captioned "Bribing the police: Rev Annor-Yeboah style", published on April 14. The applicants Rev. Samuel K. Asare and Rev. Dr. A. Annor-Yeboah, chairman and secretary general, respectively, of the Christ Apostolic Church, said the article prejudiced a case pending in a circuit court.
Justice R. K. Apaloo, who presided over the case, ordered the journalists to publish a front page apology and retraction of the allegedly contemptuous article. They were obliged to apologise to the police, judiciary and applicants in a form to be approved by the court. Judge Apaloo reasoned that the two journalists attacked not only the applicants, but the police service and the judiciary.
On June 1, a huge libel award of 42 million cedis (approx. US$ 17,500) was imposed against the Ghanaian Chronicle. The award was the higest in Ghanaian history. The newspaper was sued by Edward Salia, Minister of Roads and Transport. The Ghanaian Chronicles trouble started with its February 24, 1997, edition. Its story headlined "The Vetting Begins, Minister In a Bribery Scandal", alleged the involvement of Minister Salia in corrupt practices. The paper also stated that documentary evidence and investigation suggested that Salia requested US$ 25,000 from Millicom Ghana (operators of Mobitel Cellular Phones in Ghana).
Salia promptly sued the newspaper. The court found that Salia had suffered damages to his reputation, and was entitled to forty million cedis (US$ 16,700) in damages, and two million cedis (US$ 835) for costs, to be covered by the editor of the Ghanaian Chronicle, and its publishers General Portfolio Limited.
The Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) viewed the exorbitant fine as a measure or policy adopted by authorities that would destroy the press as an important pillar of good governance. GJA fears that it also constitutes a threat to press freedom in Ghana.
On November 5, Eben Quarcoo, former editor of The Free Press newspaper, was found guilty in a court for libelling Nana Konadou Agyemang Rawlings, the nations first lady. He was remanded in custody until November 11. His case dates back to 1994, when he published allegations that President Jerry Rawlings wife smuggled gold and drugs on a foreign trip. He could have faced up to three years in jail but was given an alternative to pay a fine of 1.5 million cedis (US$ 600). The publisher of the Free Press was also charged, but he died before the trial. In his defence, Quarcoo reminded the court that the news was already in the public domain before his publication
In December, the joint action committee of opposition parties took to the streets to protest against Rawlings government. At a political rally the same month, Rawlings described the activities of the media and his critics as persistent campaign of misinformation, lies and distortions. The Ghanaian added that: The opposition machinations, some of which are put on the Internet, are designed to create confusion, fear, and insecurity about Ghana in the eyes of investors, discouraging them from investing in the country.
But, in Ghana, the growing discontent about the economy is always a story for the media. In a recent protest by the National Union of Ghana Students demanding a decrease in academic fees, the government did not yield. The students took to the streets heading to the Castle to deliver a strong-worded resolution to Rawlings. They were brutally attacked and beaten by riot police about 200 metres from his office. Many of the students went home with broken legs and bleeding faces.
GHANA, like other parts of Africa, has seen an abundant growth of private newspapers and radio stations. A closer look, however, shows that they are not as free as they appear. The glut of private newspapers - more than 20 titles, and radio stations - give an impression of a vibrant, dynamic sector with plenty to read and listen to. But scratch beneath the surface, and you see the limitations of Ghana's media scene. Outdated and dangerously vague press laws are increasingly being used against journalists who write unfavourable reports about the government. Most newspapers are read in the urban centres and most private radio stations beam only into the capital, Accra. Much of the debate in the print media remains polarised, with no effective checks on the government's influence over the state-controlled media. The privately owned newspapers have gained a reputation for their exposures on alleged corruption and political and personal scandals involving top government officials. Ghanaians are treated to screaming headlines declaring government involvement in the smuggling of cocaine and arms caches. The Government is indifferent to these allegations. However, these reports were one-sided, characterised by a shortage of quotable sources or reactions from the authorities or people implicated in their journalistic investigations. The authorities simply refuse to co-operate with editors and journalists of private newspapers. The private press is still excluded from covering news events at Osu Castle, President Jerry Rawlings' office. The situation between the government and the private press is so intense that editors of independent newspapers do not even bother to seek comment from the authorities. The government has turned to the courts to silence the press. Initially, it relied on civil libel suits, aimed at dealing the newspapers a crippling financial blow. For example, the Ghanaian Chronicle, established five years ago, is faced with about 16 libel cases, several charges of contempt of court and one case of sedition. This does not include other libel cases against its sister paper, the Weekend Chronicle. Kofi Coomson, managing editor of The Chronicle, said these cases would not deter him from continuing to publish aggressively anti-government stories, though he admitted that he was more "careful" in ensuring the paper had all its facts right.
Recently, the legal channels to the press have moved up a notch in severity, from civil to criminal. Following the publications of allegations, of drug-trafficking by the government, charges of sedition were laid against The Chronicle and The Free Press. This means that journalists face punishment warranting a second degree felony - punishable by up to ten years in prison. When the anti-government newspaper, The Free Press, published a story alleging that the First Lady, Nana Konadu Agyemnan Rawlings, was involved in cocaine smuggling, she chose to charge the editor and publisher with criminal rather than civil libel. On October 15, Steve Mallory, editor and publisher of the weekly, African Observer, was charged with intentional libel, together with two reporters - Kwesi Biney and Gordon George-Iroro - after alleging that the Minister of Justice was corrupt.
An American diplomat, Nicolas Robertson, was expelled from Ghana on may 22, after allegedly expressing concerns about the country's press laws and criminal libel trials of editors of independent newspapers.