Attacks on the Press 1999: Ghana

Struggling to maintain their independence in Ghana, journalists continued to run the risk of violating the country’s criminal- and seditious-libel laws. Some of these laws date back to the colonial era and carry such penalties as exorbitant fines and prison sentences. The recent rise in the number of libel suits against Ghana’s indepen-dent press continued unabated, with more than 120 libel cases pending in the courts in 1999.

The majority of those suits were brought by government functionaries and members of the ruling National Defense Council in response to press coverage of official corruption and other abuses of power.

Of such cases, the most widely publicized was the November jailing of journalist Eben Quarcoo for allegedly libeling the wife of President J. J. Rawlings. At around the same time, police arrested and questioned eight staffers from the Weekend Statesman newspaper and the radio station JOY FM in connection with the latter’s broadcast of a tape recording that implicated President Rawlings in criminal acts. Some of the journalists were charged with abetting the publication of false news–an offense punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment–and released on bail.

While police investigations were under way, a Communications Ministry spokesman called the airing of the tape “a very bizarre twist in the unending saga of vicious efforts to sow seeds of disaffection against the government in a pre-election year,” as well as an attempt to “foul the atmosphere” just before Queen Elizabeth II’s historic visit to Ghana. Indeed, it seemed that not even the British royal family is immune to Ghanaian libel laws. A Ghanaian Chronicle editorial reminded the queen’s husband that his “utterances and pejorative characterizations of people come squarely under our criminal-libel and seditious-libel laws.” Prince Philip, who has been known to blurt out racially insensitive remarks, chose his words carefully while in Ghana.

Yet the repressive legal climate did not deter Ghana’s vibrant press from reporting on sensitive issues, including the purchase of a new presidential jet while the country was suffering serious social and economic malaise. Newspapers also attacked high tuition fees at the University of Ghana, which was later closed down after students went on strike over the issue.

May 14
The Ghanaian Chronicle LEGAL ACTION

An Accra high court ordered the triweekly independent Ghanaian Chronicle to pay a record fine of 42 million cedis (about US$17,500) for libeling Edward Salia, minister of roads and transport. The court ruled that a February 24, 1997, article entitled “The Vetting Begins, Minister in a Bribery Scandal,” had damaged Salia’s reputation.

The Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) reacted with dismay to the unprecedented fine, describing it as “a threat to press freedom, pluralism, and diversity.” The newspaper subsequently paid the fine, according to the GJA.

May 18
Ebo Quansah, The Ghanaian Chronicle LEGAL ACTION
Mohammed Affum, The Ghanaian Chronicle LEGAL ACTION

An Accra high court fined Quansah and Affum, respectively editor and deputy editor of the triweekly independent paper The Ghanaian Chronicle, for contempt of court. They were given seven days to pay fines of 1 million cedis (US$400) each or face six-week jail terms. The newspaper’s publisher, General Portfolios Ltd., was also fined 2 million cedis (US$800).

The case resulted from an article written by Affum and published in the April 14-15 edition of the newspaper. It was entitled “Bribing the Police: Rev. Annor-Yeboah style.” The Reverend Annor-Yeboah, general secretary of the Christ Apostolic Church, along with one of his colleagues, filed charges against the newspaper. The plaintiffs claimed the Chronicle article was intended to prejudice another case pending before a circuit court.

The defendants were also ordered to publish a front-page apology and retraction of the article in question and to apologize to the police, judiciary, and applicants in a court-approved form. Reportedly, the defendants complied with all the court orders, including payment of the fine.

October 31
Ferdinand Ayim, Weekend Statesman HARASSED
Yaw Amfo Kwakye, Weekend Statesman HARASSED
Nana Akufo-Atto, Weekend Statesman HARASSED
Samuel Okyere, Weekend Statesman HARASSED
Mawuko Zormelo, JOY FM HARASSED

At various times between October 31 and November 2, Accra police detained staff members of the independent Weekend Statesman newspaper and the private radio station JOY FM, most of them for several hours. The journalists were questioned about the dissemination of a tape recording that sought to implicate President Jerry Rawlings in criminal acts.

Ayim (chief reporter), Kwakye (managing director), Akufo-Atto (publisher and leading member of the opposition New Patriotic party), and Okyere (receptionist), all of the Weekend Statesman, were charged with abetting the publication of false news and released on bail. Zormelo (news editor), Mensah (program director), Twum (chief executive), and Ocloo (general manager), all of JOY FM, were also questioned by police with regard to the tape recording. It is not known whether the JOY FM employees were formally charged.

The Weekend Statesman published transcripts of the controversial tape on the weekend of October 30, shortly after it was aired by JOY FM. The tape contained what appeared to be a confession by members of President Rawlings’ entourage that they had engaged in terrorist acts authorized by the president, including the 1992 bombing of a hotel that was being used by the opposition. Authorities claimed the tape had been forged by certain opposition elements who sought to discredit the government.

No trial date was set. Some journalists in Ghana seemed confident the case would never come to trial.

November 4
Eben Quarcoo, Free Press IMPRISONED

An Accra circuit court convicted Quarcoo, former editor of the Free Press, a bimonthly independent newspaper, on two counts of intentional libel against Ghana’s first lady, Nana Konady Agyeman Rawlings. One week later, Quarcoo was sentenced to 90 days in jail. He was also fined 1.5 million cedis (US$600) and told that he would have to serve two years in prison if he failed to pay.

The newspaper’s publisher, Tommy Thompson Books Ltd., was fined 5 million cedis (US$2,000). Managing director Tommy Thompson was originally charged along with Quarcoo but died before the case ended.

The judge said that while the offense carried a maximum three-year sentence, he decided to impose the minimum sentence “in order not to send chilling waves down the spines of media practitioners in the country.” He deducted from the prison term the month that Quarcoo had already spent in custody.

The case resulted from an article published in the Free Press in its December 30 1994 Ð January 5, 1995, edition, alleging that the first lady trafficked in gold and narcotics on unannounced trips outside Ghana.

Quarcoo was released from prison on December 29, following payment of the fine.