Ghana: Led by ex-crusaders for free speech, the government is cracking down on dissent

By Kent Mensah
Posted on Wednesday, 2 March 2022 11:19

Ghana's President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo in Brussels, Belgium, February 17, 2022. John Thys/Pool via REUTERS

Once renowned for their feisty media and defence of political liberties, Ghana’s journalists are under siege by the police. And this crackdown is happening under a government whose top officials prided themselves on fighting for civil liberties during the decades of military rule.

In January and February, at least five journalists and activists were arrested for “false publication” and writing stories “that could threaten the security of the country”.

Another journalist was allegedly assaulted by the police while filming a group of detainees in western Ghana. That’s the fifth time a journalist has been attacked in Ghana since the start of the year.

“In a country where arrests of journalists had become an exception, these cases of detention and violence are very disturbing,” Sadibou Marong of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) said in a statement.

The authorities must stop resorting to prison sentences for press offences and must prosecute and punish those who assault journalists.

Ghana was ranked 30 (3rd in Africa) out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index but these developments reveal disturbing new trends.

Marong argued that the quality of Ghana’s news reporting was due to freedoms accorded to journalists, warning that these are now under threat.

“The authorities must stop resorting to prison sentences for press offences and must prosecute and punish those who assault journalists,” he added.

Concerns have also been raised by civil society group such as Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), IMANI Africa, Africa Center for International Law & Accountability (ACILA) and Star Ghana. They argue the country is heading back to the days when politicians resorted to oppressive laws to persecute journalists.

A return to the use of criminal law enforcement

“We are deeply troubled by the growing use of the prosecutorial and judicial power of the state to punish speech that allegedly injures or damages the reputation of other persons or of an institution of State,” the groups said in a joint statement.

They also warned that returning to the use of criminal law enforcement to regulate the media would take Ghana back to its authoritarian era when journalists were jailed for libel.

On taking office in 2016 President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo burnished his reputation for favouring a free media. In 2001 when he was attorney general, he went to Parliament to repeal the criminal libel law used to suppress press freedom.

Under this government, the Right to Information (RTI) law was passed giving the media access to state-held information, 20 years after the bill was introduced in parliament.

‘Dangerous blueprint’- Mahama

Now opposition politicians are joining critics of the government’s record on press freedom. Akufo-Addo’s predecessor John Mahama accused the government of criminalising free speech.

“This is a dangerous blueprint you are fashioning for our dear nation. Your actions as President have totally discredited your self-acquired accolade as a human rights lawyer and activist,” said Mahama.

Writing on a social media post, Mahama said that unless Akufo-Addo changed track fast, he would not be able to count freedom of speech and the media as part of his legacy.

‘We’re not prosecuting free speech’- Government

Yet the government rejects all the complaints.

On World Press Freedom Day in 2018, Akufo-Addo commended critical journalists: “I prefer the noisy, boisterous, sometimes scurrilous media of today, to the monotonous, praise-singing, sycophantic one of yesteryear.”

And state officials argue he remains true to that view but insist that with free speech comes responsibility.

“The Akufo-Addo government is not against free speech. The president has fought for freedom of the press and he still believes in that,” Kofi Amankwa-Manu, a deputy Minister of Defence told The Africa Report claiming that “Free speech doesn’t mean that you can say anything at all that you want.”

“We are not prosecuting free speech. There are limits and there are laws in this country against false publication. People must be responsible.”

This doesn’t convince Sulemana Braimah, executive director of Media Foundation for West Africa, who believes the government is trying to intimidate the media.

“I am not against regulation but what is happening makes a lot of journalists feel unsafe,” he tells The Africa Report. He argues the restrictions will lead to self-censorship.”

Martin Kpebu, a constitutional lawyer and director at the Human Rights and Governance Centre, condemns the Rambo-style arrest of journalists, saying the state should have used civil instead of criminal law procedures.

“State agencies are becoming overbearing,” Kpebu tells The Africa Report. “We have the National Media Commission, so apart from going to court, the state has options available to report journalists who have flouted the rules.”

Erring journalists, says Kpebu, can be sanctioned and order to retract accusations and apologising. Complainants can be given the right to rejoinders. But heavy-handed tactics and dramatic police arrests are unnecessary, “We are sending wrong signals to the rest of the world.”

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