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Ghana: Arbitrary arrests & torture of journalists, how free is the press?

By Jonas Nyabor
Posted on Wednesday, 26 May 2021 17:43

People read newspapers in the capital Accra. REUTERS/Yaw Bibini

Although Ghana is highly respected for its press freedom credentials globally, the rights of its journalists have often been abused. In the last decade, the number of reported cases of torture and abuse of journalists by Ghanaian security agencies have increased significantly and the lack of prosecution or sanctions against errant officers is believed to have made the situation a worsening epidemic.

Broadcast journalist Caleb Kudah, working with Accra-based Citi FM was physically abused on Tuesday 11 May 2021 while in national security custody without any formal charge.

His recollection of the abuse he was subjected to was vivid and detailed, but it was not unique.

Many journalists in the country have shared similar experiences at the hands of different security agencies including the police, the military and the national security operatives.

Free range

In the last decade, regimes in Ghana have superintended a similar national security structure that has largely operated freely without proper and effective accountability mechanisms.

Arbitrary arrests, torture, assault, verbal abuse, seizure and destruction of material have become commonplace, with journalists as the primary victims.

The Media Foundation for West Africa, a civil society group, has identified over 150 incidents of violation against journalists since 2002, with the majority being physical attacks mostly perpetrated by security agencies.

  • In 2017, when Nana Akufo-Addo took office, at least 10 incidents were reported.
  • The following year on 27 March, Latif Idris, a journalist with the Accra-based Joy News, was beaten to near death at the headquarters of the Ghana Police Service, leaving him with a fractured skull.

“Sadly, from all the incidents listed above and several others, no perpetrators have been punished. At best, the cases die with mere assurances of investigations by the police,” the Foundation said in its report.

Disturbing trend

Old newspaper reports and social media posts indicate a growing and disturbing trend of security officials using torture and physical abuse during investigations, to get coerced responses from persons in their custody.

Lawyer Yaw Twumasi Ankrah, who once took up such a case, says he noticed that his client had been tortured. The client was subsequently released after officials found nothing incriminating against him.

Failure of the Akufo-Addo administration to deal decisively with the matter could be a significant blot on the governing party as well as president’s personal record as a renowned human rights lawyer.

Emmanuel Ajafor, an editor for ModernGhana.com, recounted a similar ordeal in July 2019.

“They slapped me and used a taser on both arms… They also made me go ‘head down legs up’ against a wall. I did this till I could no longer continue then they hit my back and I fell. They commanded me to do some push ups. I got exhausted and couldn’t do it anymore. One officer pulled me up by my trousers and another knocked my back with his elbow and I fell again,” he said during a radio interview.

Ajafor and two other colleagues were in the office on a Thursday afternoon when heavily armed officers stormed their office, seized material and arrested them.

According to him, this was occasioned by two articles published on his website that the national security minister, Albert Kan Dapaah, considered to be in bad taste.

In the case of Caleb Kudah, he was arrested and detained for allegedly filming state-funded vehicles that were abandoned around the national security office. He says some officers showed him messages he had posted on social media in the past that were critical of the government.

“They pushed me in a chair and slapped me from the back… They took me under a mango tree, one officer came and asked me to kneel down. He kicked me in the groin and gave instructions for me to be beaten… The officers remarked that I’m a dead man since they’ve been instructed to ‘deal’ with me.”

“I was commanded to do 30 push ups… I was so tired and fell on the ground. They hit me in the back… When they said I needed to write a statement, one officer said he will dictate some things for me to write,” he said.

One of the officers took Kudah’s phone and sent a WhatsApp message to Zoe Abu Baidoo, the colleague he had sent the footage to when he realised he was in danger.

Baidoo remembers receiving the message at 2:34 pm that day. “Am hungry 😋. Let’s go fine [find] something to eat,” the message read, but she got suspicious and did not reply.

However, an hour later, about seven heavily armed security officials in three pickup vehicles arrived at Citi FM to take her into custody without any explanation.

Violation of the laws

Each of these incidents are in violation of the country’s laws. Article 14(2) of Ghana’s 1992 constitution states that “a person who is arrested, restricted or detained shall be informed immediately, in a language that he understands, of the reasons for his arrest, restriction or detention and of his right to a lawyer of his choice.”

The same is captured in international laws such as Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Ghana ratified in September 2020 when Jerry John Rawlings was president. All forms of torture are proscribed.

Other targets

Besides journalists, national security operatives have been cited for many other incidents of abuse including the alleged slapping of a non-commissioned military officer, WO 1 Mashud Salia, in November 2020 for failing to give way during a traffic congestion for a convoy they were part of (whose principal occupant was unknown).

And opposition MP Sam George was slapped by a national security operative while agitating over some incidents at a polling station during a parliamentary by-election in January 2019.

The commander in charge of the National Security SWAT team, DSP Samuel Kojo Azugu, later claimed before a three-member commission – set up by President Akufo-Addo to probe such cases – that George had made provocative statements, hence the assault.

No accountability

Most of the commission’s recommendations, such as prosecution of officers involved, were rejected by the government. Further, the commission’s finding “that the use of masked men in electoral security policing represents a deviation from standard practice in Ghana” was dismissed.

To date, there is no public record of prosecution for the abuse of suspects in custody. There are rarely any external eyewitnesses or available CCTV footage to corroborate victim’s claims. Ghana’s security apparatus have consistently denied the allegations.

Some government officials and institutions also downplay such offences, terming them as false claims.

  • “The ministry takes with all seriousness, the allegations of manhandling of the two journalists during the interrogation. The ministry has therefore initiated investigations into the said allegations,” the National Security Council Secretariat said in a statement, regarding the arrest of Caleb Kudah.
  • On Emmanuel Ajarfor’s case, the secretariat said: “We consider it to be a clear and deliberate attempt by the suspect to discredit the investigations and the case against him… Torture and manhandling of suspects are not part and parcel of the culture and architecture of the secretariat under the administration of President Akufo-Addo.”

Doctor’s reports on the two journalists however confirm that they had been subjected to some form of physical abuse.

Bottom line

Over 10 local and international organisations, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have called for a thorough probe into the cases.

RSF has written extensively about the slow progress in the investigation into the 2019 killing of Ghanaian journalist Ahmed Suale.

With a constitution that recognises media freedom and independence, a huge obligation is placed on Ghana’s leadership to protect journalists.

Failure of the Akufo-Addo administration to deal decisively with the matter could be a significant blot on the governing party as well as president’s personal record as a renowned human rights lawyer, and one who championed the repeal of criminal libel law in Ghana.

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