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01.03.2006 General News

90 per cent of libel cases involve journalists

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Agona Swedru, March 01, GNA - Mr Ace Ankomah, a lecturer at the Ghana School of Law, University of Ghana, has said that close to 90 per cent of libel cases at the Fast Track Court involves journalists and media houses.

He said in most of the cases, the journalists or the media might have, out of ignorance, allowed themselves or their media to be used to publish libellous and defaming material without proper crosschecking. Mr Ankomah, who is also a member of the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) Governing Council, therefore urged journalists to be circumspect in their reportage and if in doubt, seek legal advice about information available to them before going public with it. He made the call at a two-day seminar at Agona Swedru on "Journalists and the Law" organized by the GJA and sponsored by the British High Commission.

The seminar, attended by 30 editors and reporters of various state-owned and private media houses, was intended to remind journalists about the legal and ethical responsibilities with the view to minimizing the situation where journalists fall foul of the law and heavy fines slammed on them.

Mr Ankomah said journalists and media houses in the country had become so vulnerable to the extent that lawyers could easily cash in on their numerous daily mistakes both in print and on the airwaves. "We lawyers have decided to treat you with kids' gloves, otherwise we would always take you on everyday for the libellous and slanderous material you publish in print and especially during radio and television discussions, phone-ins and text message contributions."

He said other areas where journalists and media houses often fell foul of the law included recording of conversation between two persons other than the journalist and another person, extortion, threat of slander, advertising unlicensed products, operating unregistered newspapers, refusal to publish rejoinders.

Mr Ankomah said court reporters, in particular, often fell foul of contempt of court from the way they conducted themselves in court and the way they reported court proceedings.

"We need to organise some training for our court reporters and I recommend para-legal courses at the School of Law, which would teach court reporters the meanings of legal terms, what constitute contempt and other important things".

He deplored the situation where some court reporters invited to court by interested parties were bent on publishing skewed stories in favour of the party which invited them, without due cognisance of the consequences.

"It is a fearful thing to fall in the hands of the law," he said, adding that journalists who thought they were bigger than the law should be reminded that before the law 'Obia nnye obia'," borrowing from the hit hip-life song, meaning "we are all equal."

"I have seen senior journalists who carry some air of arrogance and pomposity around them and very high people reduced to their knees and in tears like crying babies in court because they fell foul of the law." Mr Ankomah urged media houses and journalists to make use of apology in cases of default to reduce fines or damages against them. He pointed out that an apology was an admission to the fault and it was therefore better to take precaution before publishing stories.

Professor Henrietta Mensah-Bonsu, a lecturer at the School of Law, noted that journalists usually fell foul of the law because they assumed that their sources were always authentic and so they refused to crosscheck properly before going public.

"It is wrong and dangerous to always think that people of high office are always right and those down the ladder are always wrong.'' "Ethically, journalists are bound to protect their sources and that is the more reason why you need to be sure that the information you are publishing is true and will not land you in jail," she advised. Prof. Mensah-Bonsu, who was also a member of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), said her experience at the NRC indicated that people of high office were not always right and in most cases they were not willing to defend their allegations in public. She said journalists and media houses should be reminded that reputation outlived life and so people would go to whatever extent to protect their reputation.

Mr Yaw Boadu Ayeboafo, Editor of Daily Graphic, who is also a lawyer, told journalists that it was not enough to enjoy free speech without taking responsibility for whatever one said. He said the repeal of the criminal libel law did not mean that the legal regime had been softened for journalists to slander and libel people without a just cause.

Mr Ayeboafo gave examples of heavy fines for libel and defamation in other jurisdictions, saying that in the UK the minimum fine for libel was 50,000 pounds sterling (750 million cedis), which was far higher than the recent 400 million cedis slammed on Mr Jojo Bruce-Quansah that attracted hue and cry.

Mr Bruce-Quansah, Editor of the Ghana Palaver, said it was really a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the law, especially when politicians were involved in the case.