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Opinions of Saturday, 30 July 2016

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

If you do not like a law, campaign for its abolition!

Ghana is not the only country in the world in which the law of contempt is detested in some quarters. This is because wherever that law exists, it can be misused to shut journalists up when they stumble upon news whose publication could cause embarrassment to some people.

The prosecution authorities in some countries take the trouble to inform the media that certain cases the police have been investigating have reached a point where prosecution might be mounted against the individuals or bodies concerned in the investigation and therefore the media had better lay off the subject matter(s) or face contempt charges. The rationale for that is to prevent the media from discussing issues that go before the courts, or in legalese, that are sub judice.

Now, the police and the media have a different approach to crime, so this idea of stopping the media from touching subjects which the police are investigating is an anathema to the media. Their concern is this: suppose the police are corrupt and they stop investigating the issues the media are also interested in – for reasons known only to the police?

Furthermore, the legal teams of individuals or companies, can, on hearing about media investigations that concern them, go to court to obtain an “injunction” to gag the media and prevent the media pursuing their investigations. Some of these injunctions cover such a wide field that they are known as “super-injunctions”. If a court grants a litigant a “super-injunction”, the media can be prevented from even mentioning the fact that a super-injunction has been obtained with regard to the subject matter concerned!

These are serious constraints on freedom of the media and journalists, especially in the UK, have been pressing for the law to be changed so as to enable the media to carry out their duty of being the public watchdog.

And that is where I want journalists in Ghana to try and acquire a little more knowledge about how life is lived in a democracy. If there is a law in a society which militates against the public weal, the way to deal with it is to get legal experts to come on side and help the media to campaign against those laws. To break the law as it stands, because one does not like it, is suicidal, because the courts are obliged to interpret and apply the law as it stands, not as it should be, in the opinion of anyone, including media practitioners.

The very first article I ever published in the DAILY GUIDE dealt with the law of contempt. I made the point, in that article, that journalists should be careful of that law because if they infringe it, not only can they as journalists be punished but that the editors and proprietors of the media organs in which their contempt is expressed would also be liable to punishment.

I don’t know whether the Montie Radio “journalists” ever read that article. If they had read and understood it, they would not be where they are today. Nor would the world have heard the directors of their company going to court to denounce the output of their own employees. It was pathetic to hear directors saying that they set up a radio station but had no knowledge of how the station operated from day to day.

Radio is a very powerful weapon and that is why in every violent change of government, the insurrectionists make it a point to capture the radio stations that can give a different message to the populace than what the insurrectionists want to convey to the public.

To put people in charge of such a sensitive institution and not make sure, through training and constant monitoring, that they are not infringing the laws of the land, let alone the ethics of the journalistic profession, is to be guilty of negligence of the first order. I think the Supreme Court judges dealt with that aspect of the matter very well.

The media are not there just to be used obtaining power at all costs. Nor are they there to be used to make money at all costs. They have to operate within the tolerance levels of the societies which they serve. These tolerance levels are made explicit in such laws as the law of defamation or libel; the laws regarding the publication of obscenity; and, of course, the contempt of court laws.

Not all these laws ALWAYS serve the public interest. And that is why journalists should be knowledgeable enough to be able to convince legal experts and law-makers to make changes to the law, where necessary.

That is how a democracy improves itself: campaigning plus education. (By the way, that is how the criminal libel law was jettisoned from Ghana).

Ignorance of the law, as is often pointed out, is no excuse for breaking the law! Be you a mere journalist or the director of a company that employs journalists, you must acquire knowledge about the limits of the freedom that may be enjoyed by the media.

If you are not satisfied, campaign, campaign and campaign, until the law is changed. Breaking the law as it stands is to court disaster. To ask the president to grant a pardon to people who deliberately break the law, because they do not know that there are restraints to the free expression of views, is as ignorant as it is dangerous.

For after all, who made our current President the President? Was it not the law as interpreted by Supreme Court Judges? When they ruled in his favour, they were all right, but when they punish followers of his who threaten the lives of judges and insult them, then he must overturn the rulings of the self-same Supreme Court that made him President? That is against natural justice, and the country would not tolerate it. So, education is the answer. Journalists can say things in ways that do not break the law. Let them learn how to do that before they even begin to call themselves journalists. —