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Opinions of Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Columnist: Sidibe, Abdul

Freedom Of Speech Has No Limitations:

The Ghanaian criminal libel law is wrong Citizens of a free society should be able to freely express themselves without fear. Ghanaians should have the right to speak, including the right to make boorish statements without being paraded before court. The law that allows the police to arrest and charge individuals for their comments or statements has no room in free society. The arrest of the NPP supporter who said he had evidence that Rawlings caused the burning in his house has no place in a democratic society. Neither does the law under which the police again arrested an NPP supporter for comparing the President Mills to a chimp. We disagree with such uncivilized statements, but defend the right of those individuals who made those statements.

The laws question sections 183a and 207 of the criminal libel law, which prohibit Ghanaians from using insulting language about the president, and the section that makes it legal for Ghanaians to make statements that are intended or likely to cause the breach of public peace, are not just unconstitutional but also illogical. They are unconstitutional because they violate the freedom to speak as guaranteed by our constitution. Any law that limits a constitutional right should not be obeyed. Limits to constitutional rights are only allowed in extreme circumstance such as during a state of emergency or war times.

The dilemmas that such a law brings in our society are both reprehensible and could lead to serious problems in the future. Supposing a president orders the arrest and detention without trial of a person or group of persons, and a Ghanaian was courageous to say the president is a tyrant. Under these laws, the courageous Ghanaian could be arrested and charged. Last week an article on Ghanaweb argued that Nana Akufo Addo is not qualified to be President. Supposing that argument was made on a radio station and a crowd got incited by the statement and besiege the radio station, the person advancing that argument could arrested and charged under these undemocratic laws for undermining public peace. If a cartoonist caricatures a leader of a political the way supporters of the party dislike and the supporters decide to besiege the office of the cartoonist. Instead protecting the cartoonist’s for expressing his God giving talent, our police would rather be charging the cartoonist for disturbing the public peace. These are just a few examples to illustrate how unjust and very backward the sections in question could be applied.

What is annoying about the Laws is the discriminatory manner with which the law is applied. It seems those sections of the criminal libel is only use to intimidate the little guys and let the big guys go free. When Mr. Rawlings compared Mr. Kufour to Atta Ayi, the armed robber and President Kufor called Rawlings the devil, no one arrested or called for the arrest of both arch rivals. It was within their right to spew their rivalry. Those of us in public listened in awe or excitement depending on the side of the political divide we stood.

A civilized people we should denounce boorish and uncivilized statements in our public life from both sides of our political divide. But we should protect the rights of people to make such statement even if they insult our senses. Democracy and freedom of expression requires that we protect the rights of people to speak even if we, as a society, disagree or do not like such boorishness in body politique. Using our laws to bar such rights reduces democracy to the tyranny of the majority. The government of the people and by the people should not restrict the right of the people to say as they please. The ability of people to say what is their mind, boorish and uncivilized as they may sometimes sound, is the starting point of civility and ingenuity. Freedom of expression is the corner stone of democracy and development. Any form of government that places a limit to what people can say, whether public or private, is tyranny. In Ghana we had such tyrants in the past; it is time to say enough. Next to right to life is the right of expression.

Abdul Sidibe