Recent events in Ghana have the potential to push Ghana backward in the free speech league table and a threat to the liberty of citizens following the jailing of a journalist, the arrest and detention of others and an activist. One wonders what is happening to free speech in Ghana today if journalists, activists and citizens are under attack by the state. What is disturbing is that the alleged crimes of those arrested, detained and charged by the police are libel (written or broadcast defamation) and or slander (spoken defamation). Defamation is always a civil matter that should not result in arrest and detention by the police even if the crime is against the state. This is because civil matters are between two or more parties that one of them goes to court to seek redress, including damages. Therefore, why these arrests, detentions and charges by the police are disturbing.
Another worrying element of the above development is the deliberate reliance on Sections 207 and 208 of Ghana Criminal Code,1960 by the police because the obnoxious PNDC Criminal Libel and Seditious Law was repealed in July 2001, which was led by the then Attorney General and Minister for Justice and now president, Nana Akufo-Addo. This article is a discussion of the threat to freedom of expression and free press in Ghana with reference to some of the specific arrests, detentions and charges.
Let me put on record that I abhor and condemn in no uncertain terms the practice of people including journalists, activists and politicians peddling falsehood about individuals, public officers and organisations in the name of free speech and free media, activism or accountability. Such people have no place in a democracy and in fact, they are disservice to free speech and press freedom because free press is about accurate and fair reportage. Free speech does not mean the freedom to say anything and everything. Instead, it means the freedom to say what is right and wrong without fear or favour responsibly, to hold duty bearers accountable and to defend the weak and vulnerable in society. Above all, it also means, defending the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the constitution.
Section 207 of Ghana’s Criminal Code of 1960 (Act 29) states, “a person who in a public place or at a public meeting uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or by which a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned, commits a misdemeanour. Section 208 (1) also states “any person who publishes or reproduces any statement, rumour or report which is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or disturb the public peace, knowing or having reason to believe that the statement, rumour or report is false is guilty of a misdemeanour.”
My understanding is that misdemeanour is an non-indictable or less offence, therefore why the high-handed approach by the state with arrests and detentions prior to charges beggars belief, except to say that it is nothing but the usual mentality of showing you where power lies and teaching you a lesson. This is unacceptable and simply abuse of power by the state and unnecessary curtailment of citizens’ rights to freedom of movement and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention.
A BBC Media Monitoring report on 9 February 2022 stated that a Ghanaian court has sentenced a journalist to 14 days imprisonment for contempt of court. Oheneba Boamah Bennie, a radio presenter at Power FM, reportedly issued a series of threats to President Nana Akufo-Addo in a live video on his Facebook page. The journalist allegedly claimed that president Nana Akufo-Addo met some judges of the Supreme Court to influence them in the opposition’s petition against the results of the 2020 elections. Attorney General, Mr Godfred Yeboah Dame said Bennie’s remarks were meant to bring the judiciary into disrepute.
It is not clear if Oheneba Boamah Bennie was arrested and detained prior to his trial and also not known whether the contempt was committed in court or whilst the case was pending before the Supreme Court or after the Supreme Court had disposed of the case. These are important because the nature of contempt determines it’s seriousness in terms of whether there is serious or real risk of causing prejudice or bringing the judiciary into disrepute as charged. What is clear is that the Attorney General is reported to have said that “Bennie’s remarks were meant to bring the judiciary into disrepute”. The question is, was the judiciary brought into disrepute by the comments? In my view, absolutely not. Therefore, the prosecution and conviction are unsafe.
I believe that after over two decades of the constitutional dispensation under the rule of law and independent judiciary, Ghana’s judiciary should be strong enough to withstand such allegations not to be concerned with such politically motivated allegations bearing in mind that the case before the Supreme Court was political. Moreover, in any case whether political or not the losers are often unhappy and may act on sour grapes.
In fact, it would have been more appropriate, if the Attorney General had charged and prosecuted Mr Bennie for his threats to the president. That was criminal but the Attorney General knew that such prosecution would have been unpopular and regarded as politically motivated so, he went for the easy option of “meant to bring the judiciary into disrepute, when there was no such risk because all sorts of allegations were made against the judiciary during the 2020 presidential petition and is the judiciary in Ghana that weak not to withstand such an allegation? I also remember that some were tried and jailed by the Supreme Court for contempt during the 2012 presidential petition.
The case of Mr Oliver Mawuse Barker-Vormawor is well known and needs no introduction except to recap that he was picked up by the police on the evening of 11 February 2022 at the Kotoka International Airport upon his arrival from the United Kingdom and detained. He was originally cautioned for the misdemeanour offence of offensive conduct conducive to the breaches of the peace contrary to section 207 of the Criminal Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29) for two Social Media posts on 9 February 2022 as follows: “If this E-Levy passes after this cake bullshit, I will do the coup myself. Useless Army”. After some criticism by the public he replaced it with, “Okay, let’s try again. If this E-levy still passes after this bullshit, then may God…. Help us all to resist oppressor’s rule, with all our will and might forever more. Useless Army, Anna, the value is the same?”. He was finally granted bail by a hight court on 16 March 2022 and released by the police the next day after University of Cambridge, where he is a PhD student released a statement expressing concern over his unfair treatment.
His posts were serious and I have no intention of dismissing them. Again, despite my past association with PNDC military government, I have no sympathy for those who may want to interfere with the Ghana’s constitutional order. Under no circumstances would I welcome another military intervention in Ghana. In fact, even if a president changed the constitution to be president for life or imposed one party rule on Ghana through flawed elections, I would not want the military to intervene. Instead, I will prefer civil disobedience by the masses to restore constitutional democracy.
Having said the above, did the two posts by Oliver Barker-Vormawor require the state to abuse their power to deny him his constitutional rights? Do two wrongs make one right? The fact is and from what happened between the state and the lawyers for Oliver Barker-Vormawor in court, there is no doubt that the state abused its power as well as abused the judicial process.. For example, putting him before a court that had no jurisdiction over the case and unable to grant him bail. That was deliberate to just deny him bail and keep him in detention. It is also important to note that his legal team was led by no mean Attorney than the very person who led the President’s legal team at the Supreme Court in the 2020 presidential petition, Mr Akoto-Ampaw. This alone says a lot, though of course, an Attorney would sell his or her services to anyone client in need and could afford to pay. However, from my personal knowledge of Mr Akoto-Ampaw, he is a principled person who would fight to challenge abuse of power irrespective of where it is coming from.
A critical examination of the two posts in my opinion did not require this high-handed response from the state because it would have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that Oliver Barker-Vormawor is incapable of organising a military coup d’etat in Ghana. Gone were the days when a few soldiers seized Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) and announced the overthrow of the government. Today, there are many radio and television stations across Ghana. In fact, I do not listen to or watch GBC apart from their Sunday old hilife tunes on Uniiq Fm. Throughout the week, I listen to Citi Fm and Newsfile on Joy. Therefore, organising a successfully coup d’etat in Ghana today would not be as easy as previously. For this reason, Oliver Barker-Vormawor did not need to be arrested, and detained, let alone be persecuted. He should have been arrested, cautioned by the police and released.
The question is, why did the state take the heavy-handed approach? It is an open secret that Oliver Barker-Vormawor has embarrassed the government through his “Fix the Country” campaign as well as his involvement with the Kaaka family case. Therefore, the state wanted to teach him a lesson for his civic and political activism.
The other reason that many Ghanaians ignore is that the president, Nana Akofu-Addo has been hurt and rightly so by Social Media posts from a woman who described herself as Serwaa Broni. The wild and unsubstantiated allegations she has made against the president are hurtful and I have sympathy for the president. I do not want to see or know what my president does in his privacy, let alone post half-dressed pictures of the president on Social Media. I will only be worried if the president’s actions and omissions put the country at risk.
The consequences of Serwaa Broni’s wild allegations against the president on Social Media, is the crack down on free speech in Ghana by the government of the very person who repealed the obnoxious PNDC Criminal Libel and Seditious Law in July 2001. The person who also said, “I prefer noisy scandalous media to sycophancy” (see Ghanaweb, July 18, 2017) and considered to have championed free speck/media by many.
My advice to the Attorney General and the government is, please do not overreact to social media posts and damage the credential of Nana Akufo-Addo as the Attorney General and Minister for Justice who made free media possible in Ghana. The Attorney General should also remember that the president’s late uncle, JB Danquah suffered such injustice and died in prison. Of course, I am not comparing the two situations because they are not the same but irrespective of the different circumstances, what happened to Oliver Mawuse Barker-Vormawor is abuse of power, politically motivated and a disgrace to Ghana that should not be repeated. It is nothing but revenge for his civic and political activism.
Many will disagree with me that the case went to court and the court remanded him into custody. For those of you who do not understand politically motivated persecution, any government could get any judge to do their bidding if they want to, particularly in Africa, whether there is independent judiciary or not. That is why the initial judicial process used by the Attorney General was fraud.
It is also my candid view that every government has the right to raise income through taxes and therefore it’s wrong to threaten the government with military coup d’etat because of the E-levy. Let the government implement its tax policies and the people will hold it accountable come 2024. As far as I am concerned, the posts by Oliver Barker-Vormawor is nothing less than youthful exuberance that should not have been glorified by such unwarranted and draconian measures. This is not to dismiss some of the important national issues he has raised through his activism.
For those who have kept quiet over the recent abuses of power in Ghana, including the Ghana Bar Association, the religious leaders, National Union of Ghana Students, the Trade Union Congress and others, shame on you. I leave you with the words of Martin Niemöller, a German Pastor during the 2nd World War. “First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then, they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then, they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me”.
Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK