In Beacon of Press Freedom, Dark Spots Persist

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In Beacon of Press Freedom, Dark Spots Persist

Africa, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom This article is part of a series of stories and op-eds launched by IPS on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. ACCRA, Apr 30 2018 (IPS) – Ghana is a living contradiction, at least in the arena of freedom of expression, free speech and press freedom. It is touted as one of the continent’s best atmospheres for media workers and does have a highly free media space, being ranked number one in Africa and number 23 in the World Press Freedom Index 2018 by Reporters Without Borders. But that only gives half the picture of the culture of freedom of speech, information and the press in the country. Just last month a journalist from one of the country’s top media houses was beaten to near death by the police. His crime was that he was doing his job as a journalist and had asked a police officer who had been deployed to disperse a demonstrating crowd the name of one of the anti-riot vehicles. That harmless question was enough to provoke the officer, who pounced on the journalist and was later joined by other officers who had no clue what crime the journalist had committed. Latif Iddrisu suffered facial, neck and rib injuries and has been experiencing intermittent pain since. He was diagnosed with a fractured skull after four X-ray examinations and a CT Scan. The journalist, who has been recovering at home for close to a month now, says he’s been traumatized as he awaits doctors’ final verdict about whether “I will be in a position to work actively again”. “For now, all that I have been praying for is a good outcome so that I can get back to work and do even much better, much more ground-braking documentaries and impactful investigative stories to help build the nation,” he told IPS. The vicious attack on Iddrisu was not an isolated incident. It adds to a long list of attacks on journalists by politicians and their supporters as well as ordinary people, with personnel from the security forces, especially the police, leading the onslaught. Such abuses against journalists are commonplace in the West African sub-region in particular and Africa in general. The Media Foundation for West Africa’s compilation of abuses against journalists in the region gives a very gloomy picture of press freedom culture. In the past 15 months alone, the Foundation has compiled 12 such assaults with a total of 17 journalist victims in Ghana. And these are just the cases that caught the attention of the Foundation. In the sub-region, the Foundation says it recorded “nine violations in six countries during its monitoring of the freedom of expression environment in February 2018. Five incidents of physical assaults were recorded in four countries – Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Ghana. Mali, Togo and Nigeria recorded one incident each of arrests and detentions, while Benin recorded one incident of suspension of a media house. The violations affected ten journalists, 11 citizens and one media organisation”. Colonial-era laws persist despite new constitutions These abuses continue despite the embrace of democracy and the rule of law by all countries in the sub-region. New constitutions guaranteed basic human rights, including freedom of expression and, in many cases, freedom of the press. But many countries still maintain what some have described as colonial-era laws that restrict free press and expression which are inconsistent with their constitutions. A typical example is the use of criminal defamation laws – laws which criminalise the publication of untrue statements, reports or rumors that are likely to alarm the public – in African countries to harass, detain and imprison journalists, as well as impose hefty fines. In the sub-region, countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia have long promised to repeal the laws, but this is yet to happen. Liberia, for instance, attracted the world’s attention in 2013 in what is arguably the most infamous libel defamation judgment in West Africa. The Supreme Court on August 20, 2013, sentenced Rodney Sieh, the Managing Editor of the FrontPage Africa newspaper, to 5,000 years in prison after the journalist was unable to pay a fine of 1.5 million dollars in a civil suit for defamation brought by then Minister of Agriculture, Chris Toe. Of course the jailing of two editors of the Independent Observer within hours of publishing a column comparing Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma’s behaviour to that of a rat also attracted global attention and condemnation. The 10-court-appearance case dragged out for six months (October 2013 to March 2014) and eventually saw the cautioning and discharge of the journalists after they were forced to plead guilty to conspiracy to defame the president as part of a deal to end the case. Commenting on the case, Reporters Without Borders said, “The government’s policy of harassing the media is a threat to fun
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On April 30, 2018
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