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Opinions of Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Columnist: Stephen Agbai

Freedom of expression without responsibility is chaos

File photo. File photo.

Article 21(1)(a) of the 1992 Republican Constitution of Ghana guarantees all citizens of Ghana a fundamental human right to "freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media".

To that end, it is not in the power of any individual or organisation to deny any citizen his or her right to speak or express their rights uninhibited.

This ,however, does not mean that one can, in the course of expressing oneself in the exercise of one's fundamental human right, infringe others' rights not to be defamed, provoked unnecessarily and abused.

For every fundamental human right, there exist legal parameters within which they must be exercised.

Unfortunately, however, many people erroneously think that they have unrestrained and unfettered rights to say and write anything about anybody. No.

Freedom and Responsibility are identical and inseparable twins which ought not be put asunder for convenience. Some people (or do I say human beings in general?) would rather own their thoughts and and expressions but disown the responsibilities that go with them.

As far as they go, the consequences that their comments produce, that is if they turn out to be negative and distasteful, should be ignored or worse yet borne by others who have no reason and/or obligation to do so. Consequently, the imaginary devil and his demons are often the ones who take the flak for it while the perpetrator assumes the role of an angelic hero or heroine, or God.

I have news for such people. We are in a new dawn and as such must face the full rigours of our speeches and actions. When the law is concerned, there should be no respecter whether on grounds of social or economic status. We are all equal before it.

Now to the point. The week gone by marked another blip in our nascent democratic experiment.

A sitting Member of Parliament (MP) and another opposition party member of the PPP stock (later disowned: http://www.ghanamma.com/2016/07/02/ppp-disowns-member-who-threatened-supreme-court-judges/) decided to test the law and our resolve for decency in public discourse by engaging in diatribes against very eminent officers of the state.

First, it was Mr. Kennedy Agyapong, who has become well known for engaging in regular unsavoury and provocative public commentaries about anybody he disagrees with or who disagrees with him. This time around, the target is not the President. It is not the Vice President. And it is not Afia Schwarzenegger, Alhaji Bature, Ama Benyiwa Doe or Kenneth Kuranchie. It is about the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Ghana.

What did she do to be on the MP's critical radar? She is in concert with the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) to steal this year's election for President John Dramani Mahama, having been appointed not on merit but on sexual favours to influential people in government, he alleges.

The MP's remark which was made on his party's campaign platform in Asokwa, Kumasi, was transcribed in part as follows: “Charlotte Osei, bring your buttocks (sexual affair) in exchange of EC Chair position (fa wotobe gye golf)... If indeed Nana Addo wins according to the pink sheets and Charlotte Osei dares to rig the elections by twisting our arms in favour of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), we will not allow it to happen in Ghana."

Many right-thinking and well-meaning Ghanaians and institutions have come out to reproach the MP unreservedly. Some, including MP for Asuogyaman Constituency, Mr. Kofi Osei Ameyaw, have gone further to call on Mrs. Charlotte Osei to institute a legal action against Mr. Kennedy Agyapong if she feels she has been defamed, and if the timing will be politically and rationally okay to engage in such litigation a few months into a General Election.

I fully join myself to the concerns and opinions expressed by all who have condemned the MP's incendiary and sexist remarks. But then, I will not play the ostrich by burying my head in the sand. I was not the least taken unawares by the MP's latest verbal diarrhoea. This is because, since he undertook this wayward journey of mudslinging and badmouthing his political opponents and dissenters, he has never looked back. He is not on record anywhere to have withdrawn any of his previous slighting comments and apologised to any of his victims.

Rather, he has grown by leaps and bounds with stronger wings and with even wider, unfettered access to the media, chiefly his own newspaper, radio and television stations where he engages himself in a poorly refereed one-man no-holds-barred contest.

He has threatened almost everybody in this country including his own party's standard bearer and party members. He has called them all manner of names unfit for public consumption and threatened to withdraw both financial and material supports for the party if he does not have his way.

While all that goes on, the MP is ignored by all those who we pay to protect our rights and privileges. The feeble attempt made by the police following an order of arrest made by the Accra High Court in October 2012, ended in a fluke. As expected, his case died a natural death.

That was all we could summon against a man who has proven resolute and unrepentant in his erring ways.

Clearly, the state has not discharged its duty well in the interest of democracy and the people. And it is little wonder that the state pretends about his latest reprehensible utterances. Maybe, they want him to start physically attacking people and harming them before they apply the law.

Perhaps the dire consequences of his harmful comments, which are fast sinking deep and thick into the heads of many gullible fanatics of his, are being underrated — even by the leadership of Parliament.

We have a Legislature which many believe has over the years demonstrated palpably strong will and partiality towards non members who are cited for comments that perceptibly drag the image of the house in the mud. As to why the same Parliament through its Committee of Privileges cannot exhibit the same will and forthrightness in dealing with their own who carry themselves in public in the most disgusting and unparliamentary manner makes one wonder if some persons are more equal before the law than others on the basis of their socio-political and economic status.

I am by this appealing to the current leadership and members of the Committee of Privileges to take a firm but fair view of the conduct of Mr. Kennedy Agyapong and rein him in before he crosses his bounds (if he's not considered to have done that several times already). The least said about his party which appears powerless and blackmailed and therefore voiceless, the better.

At the closing end of the week under review, another revelation was made about a former Progressive Peoples Party activist who decided to threaten our Supreme Court and High Court Judges and take them to the cleaners on a radio programme that is gaining notoriety in opening its platform up for people who cannot exercise utmost prudence in their utterances even without provocation.

Mr. Alistair Tairo Nelson, among other ill informed comments, was quoted as saying, "God has really opened the way for these Judges who would want to plunge this country into chaos. I know each and everyone’s house. I know where the Judges live in Accra here.

I can show you …I know their quarters – the Supreme Court Judges. I also know the High Court Judges. I am telling you God has a way to show … If they like, they should bring up something – it will start from their residences … I am telling you in their neighborhoods and when we finish them, then it will be over … and we will come back to govern our country."

As he went on this perilous tangent, the host, Mugabe Maase, who himself was cited much earlier to have predicted the death of the Flagbearer of the New Patriotic Party, Mr. Akuffo-Addo, sat aloof. Apparently, it fell perfectly into his grand agenda to do damage to a certain group of people. Pathetic!

It is noteworthy that after the Ghana Bar Association came out with a press statement condemning Mr. Nelson's offensive and potential nation-wrecking comment, he came out with an apology letter in which he admitted crossing the line of free speech and sought forgiveness.

While this is in order, the far-reaching damage done to the hard-won reputation of the bench and the persons of the individual judges as well as the judicial system by Mr. Nelson must be considered and mitigated. He must be summoned by the appropriate authorities and made to suffer the consequences. That is without prejudice to whatever the individual judges affected will opt for.

It is high time our laws were put into full, swift, fair and proportionate effect. If people like Messrs Agyapong and Nelson are left off the hook, we can be sure that many more of them will emerge from among the public and do all of us in, especially as we enter the last and most critical lap of campaign period for the 2016 General Elections. A stitch in time saves nine, the proverb goes.

We can only do this by taking stringent actions against all and sundry who fall foul of the law. The monitoring and regulatory roles of the National Media Commission must be given full expression. They must not hesitate to withdraw the license of any media organisation that acts carelessly and irresponsibly. Thankfully, the Media Foundation for West Africa is already naming and shaming some of the notorious ones, but that is not enough.

Laws are made to bite errants. The cost of plunging this dear nation of ours into chaos will far outweigh that which will come with closing down stations and denying a few people employment and means of daily bread for a few days.

Admittedly, the harm of handing license to extremists who are burnt on plunging this nation into unrest in order to attain their parochial and self-aggrandising interest has already been done. What we cannot afford to do is to fold our arms and watch them pursue that agenda to the detriment of the general public.

There is no such thing as an unfettered fundamental human right. As such, our rights must be expressed alongside utmost responsibility where those who breach the law are brought to book fairly and squarely. Rights must come with responsibilities and consequences.

Stephen Agbai is a Supply Chain Management (SCM) Professional, an administrator and the producer of Accra based Prime 89.1 FM’s weekend current affairs programme, Wonsom Wonsom.

Writer's e-mail: agbai49@gmail.com

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