The Supervising High Court Judge in Tamale, Mr Justice Victor Doegah, has stated that some of the punitive damages awarded against some media houses were harsh.
He said although there was the need to check on the excesses of the media, it should be done cautiously in order not to hinder the meaningful contribution of the media towards national development.
Justice Doegah further called for the passage of a draft bill on defamation which was drawn in 1984, into law, stressing that currently there was no specific law on defamation, which affected easy interpretation of defamation cases, and understanding of what media practitioners were expected to do or not to do.
The High Court Judge said this at the opening of a two-day workshop for journalists in the northern sector in Tamale on Thursday.
Thirty journalists from the Brong Ahafo, Ashanti and the three northern regions attended the workshop which was aimed, among other objectives, at reminding the participants about their ethical values and laws that govern their profession as a way of helping to curb the increasing spate of civil libel suits against the media by the public.
It also discussed such issues as press law and rights of journalists, defamation, the Freedom of Information Bill and ethical challenges of post-criminal law regime. The workshop was organised by the Ghana Journalist Association (GJA) and sponsored by the British High Commission.
Justice Doegah emphasised that at the moment, the law on defamation had not been codified and that the country relied on the common law as obtained in Commonwealth countries.
He, however, reminded media practitioners that every individual was entitled to good name and reputation that must not be toyed with.
“In performing your duties you have to use your discretion because you can build and destroy,” Justice Doegah cautioned. A private legal practitioner, Mr Ben Saibu, emphasised that media practitioners needed to be enlightened in order to be able to educate, inform and entertain the public effectively.
According to him, arbitrary arrest and harassment of media practitioners in the performance of their duties must be avoided, adding that “the media should feel free to expose the excesses of key players in the political arena without fear or favour”.
Mr Saibu equally cautioned against the tendency of some media practitioners to hide behind press freedom to infringe on the rights of individuals. “I would, therefore, urge media practitioners in the north to go the extra mile of reporting more on issues that affect human rights and the hidden potential of the area,” the legal practitioner stated.
The outgoing GJA President and Editor of the Ghanaian Times, Miss Ajoa Yeboah-Afari, said heavy damages imposed on some media houses and practitioners who were found guilty “must make all of us to sit up and arm ourselves against that danger”.
She, therefore, stressed that the time had come for the media to undertake some “soul-searching and win back the goodwill we are losing”.
According to Miss Yeboah-Afari, a journalist's role of information dissemination required that he/she must first be truthful and responsible to the people whom she/he served.
The acting Director of the School of Communication Studies of the University of Ghana, Legon, Dr Bonnah Koomson, pointed out that journalists should be intelligent and intellectually honest.
He observed that mediocrity, ignorance and incompetence were some of the challenges that had over the years affected the ability of the media to perform creditably.
Dr Koomsom, who is also the Chairman of GJA Ethics and Disciplinary Council, stated that media practitioners had no moral justification to point out the mistake of others if they were also found wanting in ethical issues.
The Managing Director of Diamond FM in Tamale, Mr Edward Ameyibor, urged the GJA to initiate discussions on the need for the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill into law, which he said was necessary in encouraging public participation in democracy.
He created some humour when he called for a truce this year between all those who might have been wronged by one publication or the other in the media as a first step towards creating a congenial atmosphere to encourage “the powers that be” to pass the Bill into law”.
“I am calling for a truce; all those who have either sent cases to court or are about to do so against journalists should ceasefire because this is a forgiving year and we should seek for reconciliation after 49 years of independence,” Mr Ameyibor appealed.
Story By Vincent Adedze, Tamale