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Opinions of Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka

Is It A Crime To Criticize Or Insult The President?

Should It Be?

On Monday the 8th of September, 2003, the Public Agenda newspaper carried a story about the dilemma facing our police force. You see, the police arrested one Kwebena Kusi, a mechanic in Kumasi for insulting president Kufour. On or about the same time, some traders were also suspended from the Sogakope Bridge for hooting or shouting unpleasantries at our supreme commander. The turbulence at that time centered on the creeping intolerance of harsh criticism towards our now I am here, now I am not, president.

This incident eventually faded off the news radar without incident. After all, the minister of information at that time, Nana Akomea, informed the press that the minister of Interior then, Hackman Owusu Agyeman, has asked the police to release braa Kusi because the government was not interested in pursuing the case. Smart move by the NPP but pertinent issues remain!! Is the law valid or not? This incident raises a stack of issues for me and I hope it does for you as well. Was the police right in arresting poor Kwabena Kusi for making personal observations about Kufour? The police believes that it was right in arresting Kusi because of a 1969 law promulgated by the then NLC military junta, a creation of the UP tradition with the aid of the CIA. The police officers say the law was specifically promulgated to curb offences against the safety of the state and has remained on the statute books since 1969. Did a recent publication at this site not tell us that folks jubilated and supported the overthrow of Nkrumah overwhelmingly? So why this law passed to protect the ever popular NLC government then? Never mind this minor digression!

The police cited Criminal Code-Section 18 3(a) as the basis for arresting braa Kusi. According to Public agenda, “a top ranking police officer told Agenda that the police acted within the law. Section 18(a) of the code titled “Defaming the President” states that “Any person who, with intention to bring the President into hatred, ridicule or contempt, publishes any defamatory or insulting matter, whether by writing, printing, word of mouth; whatever concerning the president shall be guilty on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding ¢7million or to imprisonment not exceeding three years or to both.” The Agenda goes on to state further that, “The police officers say the law was specifically promulgated to curb offences against the safety of the state and has remained on the statute books since 1969. Section 18(a) of Criminal Code originated from NLC Decree 398, which was passed in 1969 to curb the spate of insults, hooting and jeering targeted at the members of the military cum police junta that overthrew the Convention People Party government of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah”. Now for the avoidance of doubt, this is what braa Kusi is reported to have said, “that your Kufour has come to Kumasi. Your Kufour who cannot sit in Accra and work and is roaming about unnecessarily." Was Kusi being prophetic? Was he telling the truth as he saw it? Is this really an insult? Yes, Kusi has other charges outstanding but he was charged specifically under the said law. Personally, I do not see anything wrong with his statement even if he just murdered someone. This statement by itself does and should not subject braa Kusi to arrest. Amen to that!! No? Secondly, If this arcane and freedom busting law indeed applies in present day Ghana, I will like to know why the minister of interior then and/or his superiors, decided to stop the police from prosecuting the alleged crime? I say or ask this question with keen awareness that the AG department can review a case and decide whether it has prosecutorial value or not. In this case though, no mention was made of the AG. Of course the magistrate presiding over the case asked that the case be referred to the AG for advice when Kusi was hauled before him. If this case has not merit, why didn’t the magistrate dismiss it outright on grounds that it has no legal legs? At least the police officers were confident enough to send this poor man to court. What a bloody waste of resources! No? This case, besides reminding us of our sordid past, informs us about all kinds of arcane laws comfortably sittings on our outdated books. The more troubling aspect is that any government can use it against its political enemies if it so chooses. The police folks, who for once tried to follow the law, were accused of being over zealous. I am not entirely buying the charge against the police officers because they had legal basis, or believed to have such to effect the arrest. Of course some of our police folks carry around this mentality that they can invoke all kinds of nebulous laws to nail you if you turn out to be a tough or obstinate customer. So, it begs this question, is this law alive and well on the books or does our current constitution terminate the law? Do we have constitutional lawyers out there who can help clarify the air for us? I am not ready to go to prison for criticizing the president of Ghana at anytime. Insults also are very subjective.

So why decides when an insult is really a insult?

Folks, this situation further reminds me of the enormity of work that needs to be done in reforming the laws of the land. What really has our parliament done lately? Do we have a potent legislative body? Are they there only for car loans? Some of this archaic laws date back to colonial time. We must sanitize our criminal code and bring it inline with our current reality. This kind of criminal code that lacks creativity and continues to send coconut hustlers to jail for 5 years must be revamped with God’s speed. I am sure we’ve all seen some of the ridiculous sentencing coming out of our unrestrained courts. Now is the time for our parliament to revamp all these mundane and ineffective laws of the land. Reasonable and useful laws can help accelerate our development at the same time ensuring harmony. It can also change behavior in a lot of ways. We must give our parliamentarians an earful on this issue. For the car loans that we give them, we deserve far better than the rubber stamp activities that we witness from parliament. Of course the real crust of this matter is the kind of candidates we attract at the local level. Are they really legislative body material? Now there is one more reason why voting at the local level should be taken very very seriously.

Lastly, this current government must make it a point to remove Criminal Code-Section 18 3(a) from the books if it still has teeth. Our freedom to air views about the president must never be in doubt. If we want the unfettered right to criticize Mugabe for arresting opponents who insult him, then we should not nurse any such situation at home. I mean not even the faintest doubts should exist. This idea of some powerful minister or his boss authorizing a zealous police officer to knock it off is not my idea of the rule of law. The police must be allowed to do their job within the law. If the laws are not consistent with the constitution repeal them. The enforcement of the law must not be at the prerogative of politicians who push forward when it suits them and withdraw when the estimated political fallout is nothing but disastrous. Our freedoms must never be at the whims and caprices of politicians who can be vindictive on occasion.

Change this law now! Viva Ghana!!

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.