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Opinions of Sunday, 2 December 2018

Columnist: Charles Prempeh

Free speech, 'Montie 3' and democracy in Ghana

On November 21, 2018, the consolidation of the freedom of the ‘montie 3’ (Salifu Maase, aka Mugabe; Alistair Nelson and Godwin Ako Gun) was upheld by the Supreme Court of Ghana. Five justices of the court; Justices Alfred Benin, Sophia Adinyira, Yaw Appau, Gabriel Pawmang and Baffoe-Bonnie, held that the president’s power to remit a conviction covers that of contempt of court. Two other judges on the panel Justice Enin Yeboah and Jones Dotse held a contrary view. The ruling of the Supreme Court brings relief to the three.

At least it frees them from having to think about the possibility of going to spend a few more months in prison. However our opinion on the ruling is, there is no doubt that Ghana’s democracy is deepening. This is precisely because most Ghanaians consider the Supreme Court as the highest arbiter of all legal issues, and its decisions are considered binding.

Ghana's democracy is celebrated as a model for the rest of Africa. Considering the fact that for about 25 years, since the birth of the country's Fourth Republic, political power has successfully alternated between two political parties – the New Patriotic Party and the National Democratic Congress – through the ballot box (instead of the barrel of the gun), makes Ghana's re-democratization worth celebrating. The democratic credentials of Ghana crystallized, following the Supreme Court’s ruling on the 2012 election petition. The verdict of the Supreme Court had major impact on the outcome of the 2016 elections. At least, as a consequence of the verdict, there were many outstanding electoral reforms. Political parties were engaged in internal reforms. The electorates were informed about the dynamics of elections. More importantly, the live screening of the court proceedings of the petition on air (television and radio) significantly contributed to deconstructing the myths about the court and other legal institutions in Ghana. There was also the deconstruction of the 'Strong Room' of the Electoral Commission. The autonomy of the Electoral Commission was also tested.

Put together, Ghana's democratic experiment has come far. But one issue that we are still weaving through is the question of free speech and responsible speech. Vocal power is one of the gifts the Triune God has given to human beings. Our ability to use symbols and gesticulations to communicate ideas, knowledge, and issue instructions offers us the lofty place as the crown of God's creation. Linguists have pointed out that language is the vehicle through which culture travels. This means that our ability to exercise free speech is necessary for the preservation of cultural values.

Incidentally, one of the foundations of democracy is free speech. As opposed to the use of guns, free speech enables citizens to participate in their nation's governmentality (to use the term of Michele Foucault). Free speech is articulated through writing, symbols and other forms of communication. The power to speak, aside its political importance, has psychological effect on human beings. The ability for one to speak one's mind freely (especially in tense moments) is a form of catharsis relief. There is healing in speaking. We speak to power. We speak to authority. We also speak to free ourselves. Speech also affords sociality. In fact, among some ethnic groups in Africa, the non-speaking person is anti-human and the most 'ugliest'. For example the Baganda of Uganda say that, 'An ugly, talkative person, is better than a beautiful person who is reserved.' The Massai of East Africa say that 'unkind is the person who does not speak.' The Yoruba add: 'One does not qualify to live with a person without also qualifying to talk to the person.' Speech (communication) is the hoe with which relationships are cultivated (to paraphrase, Prof. Kofi Asare Opoku).

The problem, however, is how to navigate the complex terrain between free speech and responsible speech. My presumption is that free speech and responsible speech are not necessarily the same. There is a joke that is spuriously attributed to Idi Amin Dada Oumee, the former leader of Uganda. Accordingly, Idi Amin said, "Freedom of speech I can guaranteed, but freedom after speech, I cannot guarantee." One of the fallouts this assertion clearly articulates is the distinction between free speech and responsible speech. Throughout the practice of democracy, leaders have struggled to establish clear lines of demarcation between free speech and responsible speech. How do you keep people from abusing free speech? In an era of hate speech, how do leaders use libel laws? How can libel laws be appropriated without jeopardizing freedom of speech? Are libel laws antiquated?

On November 22, 2018, I spent part of my evening watching a one-on-one discussion between Kojo Yankson and one of the "Montie 3", Alistair Nelson, on Joy News. Alistair Nelson admitted that he was overtaken by emotions when he spoke the way he did on Montie Fm on July 2016. He also expressed the fact that he learned many lessons, when for a few weeks he had a stint with the prison system in Ghana. He said something that struck me, which was that prison is the institution of higher learning. According to him (with my elaboration), in prison, you learn how to manage your finances well (because you never have enough); you learn to take your freedom seriously (because you are quarantined); you learn to trust in God (for possible redemption from the four corners of the prison); you learn to relate well (because you come to appreciate that, in prison, your achieved and ascribed statuses do not matter), and finally you learn to be responsible about what you do (to take care not to aggravate your situation).

Many people who have gone to prison before have expressed similar lessons. One person, whose experience in prison changed the face of Christian evangelism, was the late Charles Colson. As a result of the Watergate-related charges, Charles Colson found himself on the wrong side of the law, and was incarcerated for seven months. But it was during his experience in prison, that he built on his Christian faith. He also popularized Christian prison ministry when he was released. Indeed, the prison, especially the ones we have in Ghana, should not be considered safe for any human beings.

Much as we should learn lessons from every experience we go through in life, sometimes, we just have to avoid bitter preventable experiences. One of such is the use of our vocal power. Here, I will make reference to my Christian faith. The Bible cautions us to be mindful of how we use speech. This is to the extent that the Bible warns us that every idle word that comes out of our mouth will be accounted for on the judgment day (Matthew 12:36). We, therefore, cannot afford to abuse our freedom of expression. In Ephesians 4:29, the Bible cautions, "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear."

Anything free is in the long run not free, because it comes with responsibility. We should be careful about the words that proceed out of our mouth. Someday, we shall render account for every idle word we used. Social media has created cyber human beings, who hide behind the Internet to throw insult, use intemperate words against persons they would otherwise not insult were they to meet face-to-face. Social media and the Internet have reconstructed our humanity from social beings to cyber beings. Usually, we sit in the comfort of our rooms or the café to speak anyhow we want. We recklessly use our phones to defame people. We hardly think about the impact of our words on social media. But, however we use social media, we should know that there is judgment for every word that slips out of our mouth.

To conclude, I appreciate the Supreme Court for upholding the redemptive decision of erstwhile president of Ghana, his Excellency, John Dramani Mahama, concerning the "Montie 3". But the lesson we should all learn is that we will be held accountable for the words we use. Until Jesus Christ returns, take charge of your speech. Let no idle word proceed out of your mouth.

Satyagraha

Charles Prempeh (prempehgideon@yahoo.com), African University College of Communications, Accra