Attacks on the Press 2000: Ghana

ON SEPTEMBER 27, GHANA’S VIBRANT INDEPENDENT MEDIA hosted Africa’s first-ever live presidential debate in advance of the December 7 national elections. The debates included six out of seven candidates for the presidency, reached an audience of several million Ghanaian voters, and helped boost the international popularity of outgoing president Jerry Rawlings, who stepped aside peacefully after nearly two decades in power. But they did not mean that Ghanaian authorities were abandoning their suspicion of the independent press.

On January 13, soldiers arrested Kabral Blay-Amihere, president of the West African Journalists’ Association (WAJA) and editor of The Independent. Blay-Amihere was interrogated about an editorial in which he called for a boycott of the traditional December 31 military parade, arguing that it no longer reflected Ghana’s political realities. The veteran journalist was ordered to run a retraction and threatened with sedition charges if he did not comply. Blay-Amihere was released hours later following an international uproar. And although he agreed to run the retraction as a condition of his release, he never in fact did so.

With many officials unsure about their political future, resentment ran high against journalists who broke unfavorable stories about those in power. In October, unidentified individuals smeared excrement all over the offices of The Crusading Guide, an independent weekly based in the capital, Accra. The attack followed the September 19 arrest and interrogation of Crusading Guide reporter Sedi Bansah, who had written about an altercation between Deputy Defense Minister Tony Aidoo and workers at an Accra gas station.

Like many African countries, Ghana has harsh criminal and seditious-libel laws, some of which date back to the colonial era. Violators face exorbitant fines and prison sentences. The libel laws featured prominently in the presidential debates, which included an ex-publisher and the former owner of a pirate radio station.

During the first debate, opposition leader John Agyekum Kufuor said he wanted to abolish the “colonial” libel laws, but added that journalists should also be “responsible.” After a tightly contested race, Kufuor won the presidency in a December 28 run-off. It remains to be seen whether the new president will keep this campaign promise when his government faces criticism in the press.

Kabral Blay-Amihere, The Independent

Blay-Amihere, head of the West African Journalists’ Association (WAJA) in Accra and editor of The Independent newspaper, was arrested by armed soldiers.

The soldiers intercepted Blay-Amihere’s car and then drove him to a military base, where he was held among criminals.

Ghana’s military chief of staff justified the arrest by referring to an editorial by Blay-Amihere in which the journalist called for a boycott of the traditional December 31 military parade. The parade, a relic from the days when the army controlled all state agencies and affairs in Ghana, is held in remembrance of the bloody 1981 coup that brought President Jerry Rawlings to power.

In the editorial, entitled “Soldiers Refuse to March for Dec. 31,” Blay-Amihere argued that celebrating Ghana’s army amounted to praising an institution with a criminal past, and alluded to several cases of human rights abuses by soldiers during the army’s decade-long rule over Ghana. He called on Rawlings, himself a former soldier, to hold members of the military accountable for any crimes they may have committed.

No official charges were pressed against Blay-Amihere, who was released some 24 hours later after he agreed to publish a retraction in The Independent (he never actually did so).

On February 3, Blay-Amihere was again summoned to the Criminal Investigation Department of the Ghana Police, where police said they might file sedition charges against him in connection with the same article. The journalist was released after several hours of interrogation.

CPJprotested Blay-Amihere’s detention in a Februrary 7 letter to President Jerry Rawlings.

Stephen Owusu, Free Press

A High Court judge in the capital, Accra, sentenced Owusu, an editor for the private weekly Free Press, to one day in prison for publishing a story that led to a legal battle between shareholders of the Ashanti Goldfields Company Limited (AGC) and its board of directors. Owusu was also ordered to pay a fine of one million cedis (US$250) or else serve an additional 21 days in jail.

The judge ruled that it was inappropriate for Owusu to write about the AGC case because it was already before the court. He also criticized Owusu, who is not a lawyer, for expressing an opinion on legal issues, and accused the journalist of having fabricated some of the information in his January 26 article, “More on AGC Crisis.”

The article alleged that AGGboard members and other executives had secred lucrative compensation packages even as the company’s overall profits were down.

Sedi Bansah, The Crusading Guide

Bansah, a reporter for the private newspaper The Crusading Guide, was arrested while investigating a report that Deputy Defense Minister Tony Aidoo had assaulted a security guard at a local filling station and threatened him with a gun. Bansah contacted the security guard and confirmed the report. When he phoned the deputy minister to ask for his version of the events, Aidoo insisted on speaking to the reporter in person.

The deputy minister arrived at The Crusading Guide‘s offices with four military officers and demanded to see the security guard who had made the allegations against him. When Bansah told him that the guard had left earlier, he was taken to police headquarters and held for seven hours. He was then released on bail and asked to report back the next day.

After numerous local and regional press organizations denounced the deputy minister’s actions, Aidoo dropped his case against Bansah.

The Crusading Guide

Kweku Baako, editor of the thrice-weekly newspaper The Crusading Guide, arrived at the paper’s offices in the capital, Accra, to find the floors, windows, and veranda smeared with human excrement. Police launched an investigation, but had not identified the perpetrators at year’s end.

This was the third time in recent years that the offices of an independent newspaper had been vandalized in this manner. The Ghanaian Chronicle and the Free Press were similarly attacked in 1994 and 1996, respectively. All three papers had published articles critical of the government.

CPJ protested the incident, as well as the September 9 attack on the paper’s reporter Sedi Bansah, in an October 12 letter to President Jerry Rawlings.

Nana Kofi Coomson, The Ghanaian Chronicle

Coomson, publisher and editor of the independent Ghanaian Chronicle, was arrested in his office by agents of the Bureau of National Investigations (BNI) for possession of five computer diskettes that had allegedly been stolen from the Accra headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC). The officers confiscated the diskettes and took Coomson to BNI regional headquarters. He was detained for twelve hours and then released on bail of five million cedi (US$722). Kwesi Koomson, a former editor of The Business Chronicle who is now director of a printing press, was also brought in for interrogation in the same matter.

According to Coomson, the diskettes were given to him by Reform Party member George Paa Graham, who had himself obtained them from a technician who serviced the NDC’s computers. Believing that some of the information on the diskettes might be newsworthy, Graham contacted Kwesi Koomson, who referred him to Coomson.

The initial batch of information that Graham provided was apparently not newsworthy. A couple of days later, however, Graham brought other computer diskettes that contained detailed information on NDC strategy for the upcoming general elections. After reviewing the material, Coomson published a document that implicated the minister of national security in improper use of government personnel for political ends.

Coomson was arrested soon after this document appeared in print, but was not formally charged with receiving stolen property until December 23, after he published an article about the ruling party’s presidential candidate.

At year’s end, Coomson was obliged to report to BNI offices three times a week.

Meanwhile, Coomson was on trial for the more serious charge of seditious libel, in a separate case that dates back to 1996. The verdict was expected in late January 2001.

Chris FM

Chris FM, a private broadcasting station in Brong Ahafo Province, some 100 miles north of the capital, Accra, was shut down by soldiers acting on the orders of Donald Adabre, the regional minister and chairman of the Regional Security Council.

Adabre was angered by the fact that Chris FM had aired an interview with a parliamentary candidate from the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP). Five days later, the official Ghana News Agency quoted President Jerry Rawlings as saying that he agreed with the ban on Chris FM. Rawlings charged that the opposition “was using the station to destabilize the peace and security of the area.”

The station resumed broadcasting on November 21.