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Opinions of Friday, 3 June 2011

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Is the BNI Taking Ghana Back?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

A lot has been said and written on Ghanaweb and other media avenues regarding freedom of speech and expression following the banning of the four lawyers for freely expressing their opinions on corruption within the judiciary and or accusing Judges of being corrupt. My contribution to the debate on the protection and preservation of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms in Ghana as enshrined in the Constitution is not on the boycotting of the lawyers by Judges but on the role and actions of Ghana’s Bureau of National Investigations (BNI) and their attempt to curtail freedoms guaranteed under the constitution, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. In fact, earlier this year, I posted an article on the abuse and misuse of these same rights by Ghanaians through especially, the electronic media. This is therefore my second article on the same subject in less than six months but from different perspectives.

Media reports from Ghana this week were that, the BNI led an operation in Accra and seized thirteen thousand copies of CDs of the latest movie to hit the Ghanaian market entitled “Atta Mortuary Man”. Initially, we made to believe that the action was justified because the movie had not received the necessary approval. When this was contradicted by the institution charged with responsibility for approving movies, the public were told that the leaflet advertising the movie had not passed through the right channel. Again, this was denied by the same institution legally mandated for that role. These manufactured reasons were provided by the Deputy Minister for Information, who also claims to be a member or Chairman of the organisation that approves movies for public viewing. By this time, all rational and objective Ghanaians at home and abroad (and probably even foreigners) following this story had drawn their own conclusion. The only reason why the CDs were seized was the title of the movie. Simply put, in the “irrational” minds of those who took this illegal action and those who defended the indefensible, the title is denigrating the President. What a sad day for democracy, the freedom of speech and expression in Ghana?

For easy reference, I quote from the relevance sections of the 1992 constitution of Ghana on freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Under Article 21 (1) “All persons shall have the right to – (a) Freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media” In accordance with International and Regional conventions, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press as enshrined in the Constitution are also qualified under Article 21 (4) that is, “Nothing in, or done under the authority of, a law shall be held to be inconsistent with, or in contravention of, this article to the extent that the law in question – (c) for the imposition or restrictions that are reasonably required in the interest of defence, public safety, public health or the running of essential services, on the movement or residence within Ghana of any person/s generally, or any class of persons; or (e) that is reasonably required for the purpose of safeguarding the people of Ghana against the teaching or propagation of a doctrine which exhibits or encourages disrespect for the nationhood of Ghana, the national symbols and emblems, or incites hatred against other members of the community; except so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the thing done under the authority of that law is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in terms of the spirit of this Constitution”.

The question that the BNI and Baba Jamal should be answering is, which of the above Articles and their subsections did the producer of the movie contravened to justify the seizure of the movies in with armed officers? Are they seriously implying that the movie or the title is a doctrine which exhibits or encourages disrespect for the nationhood of Ghana or the national symbol (the President)? Do those involved understand the country’s constitution and the laws of the state? Do they also understand the role of the BNI and is the action, not an abuse of power and misuse of the BNI?

From the Ghanaian media, most readers would be aware of the genesis of the title of the movie. For the benefit of the doubt, let us accept that former President Rawlings used his analogy of the life of his friend, Atta Mortuary Man to indicate that the President was underperforming, does a movie bearing the same name constitute a crime and if so what crime? Does the Presidency has copy rights to the name Atta Mortuary Man or has the President been given sole copy right to the name Atta? After all, is Atta or Ata not the Akan name for twins in Ghana? (I was born a twin so I bear the name Ata). If there is anything wrong with the use of the name Atta Mortuary Man, it should be the person who bears that name if he was not consulted by the movie makers in case he has copy rights to that name (which I doubt), then he is the one that can take civil action against the movie producers.

The behaviour of the BNI should be a concern for Ghanaians because impunity by the state should not be allowed to gain roots again in Ghana. It appears to me that either the BNI do not know their role or those in-charge do not understand their role in a democratic society. I stand for correction but my view, the main role of BNI should be matters of national security. Neither the movie nor the title constitute a threat to national security in any shape or form (economic, social, political, etc). So, why the involvement of BNI is inexplicable? It appears to me from what the BNI get involved in, that they have no legitimate work for some of its staff, so they go round looking for work. The BNI appears to be out of control and this should be worrying for Ghanaians because they pose a threat to Ghana’s democracy and the enjoyment of rights guaranteed under the constitution. For example, I once read that BNI operatives were used to look for someone’s lost puppy or dog. Was the loss of a dog a threat to state security? Those who ordered and took that action should have been charged with causing financial loss to the state. Again, it is reported that BNI is to investigate the gay community in Western and Central regions. What for and do gay men pose a threat to Ghana? I know there are strong opposition to same sex relationships in most societies but I am not sure if they pose a threat to any state.

Recently, Nana Konadu Agyemang Rawlings was reported to have said at the launching of her campaign for the NDC Priamries, that she wants to take Ghana back. Is the BNI not already taking Ghana back through their illegal actions? Did the BNI enter the premises of the producer on a court order? Even the BNI has no authority to enter private premises to seize someone’s property without a warrant from the court, unless they can justify that, the threat to the state was such that, it would have been unreasonable to obtain the warrant before the action. I wonder if state organisations and institutions such as the BNI have legal advisers and if so do they consult them for advice prior to taking such illegal acts? Do they know the rights of citizens as enshrined under the constitution?

I also do not understand the rationale behind the use of soldiers by BNI in this illegal operation. In democratic societies the use of soldiers outside military operations should be limited to most serious cases such as natural disasters, serious emergencies and conflicts such as those in the north. I do not even think that armed police should have been used on that occasion let alone the army. Police officers with truncheons could have been used unless there was credible information that the police would be attacked or those on the premises were armed. This was fragrant abuse of power and all those who were involved or justified it should be ashamed.

Because the BNI do not know and or understand their role, it failed to invite or interview the ex-president when he claimed that he has a tape that the Presidency intended to use $60 million for the NDC Flagbearership campaign. This allegation if true, could constitute an economic threat to Ghana unless the President could prove that the money was obtained legitimately and did not belong to Ghanaians. These are issues that should be of great interest to BNI and Ghana. Instead, what did we hear from the National Security Adviser? That, the media should ask the ex-President for the tape. The media like all other institutions has a role to assist the security agencies but not to take over their functions. This clearly is an indication that there is lack of understanding of the role and functions of the BNI by the very people who are responsible for their effective operations.

I now understand that the company that produced the video was not registered and had not paid taxes. Again, company registration and tax evasion is the role of other agencies such as the Inland Revenue and not the role of BNI. Tax evasion is also not a threat to state security unless it is on a massive scale, so the BNI cannot justify their involvement or the action.

The other issue that worries me on this particular incident is the fact that, Ghana has a President who was a Law Professor. I am tempted to believe that he does not sanction these illegal operations by the BNI. But is he not aware of them? At the end of the day, the buck stops with him. I also believe that the head of BNI reports directly to the President or indirectly through the National Security Adviser. If so, why is the President allowing the breach of the constitution and violation of the rights of citizens? The BNI is not doing the Presidency or the NDC any good by these illegal actions. At best, they are showing that the Presidency is intolerant and reminding Ghanaians that the NDC is anti freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

I do not accept that either the Presidency or the President should be made fun of or deliberately targeted for the fun of the public. Nonetheless, in all democratic societies, there are satirical programmes on radio and television, movies and other forms of informative, educational and entertainment about politicians and other public figures. Here in the UK, no one is spared, including the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, Ministers, MPs, Lords, celebrities and other public figures (depending on the national and international events). Newspapers and magazines are full of cartoons of politicians and others including world leaders such as Obama. It has become part and parcel of free media, freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I once listened to a programme on this topic on BBC World Service that featured an Indian Minister who had called a popular political cartoonist to complain that the cartoonist has stopped featuring him in his cartoons. In fact, such programmes play a critical role in the ensuring accountability, often watched by politicians and should be welcomed by the Presidency.

If the BNI is trying to indicate to Mrs Rawlings that Atta Mills can be tough, they are mistaken. Instead, they are being rough and to avoid endangering the cherished freedoms, staff of the BNI should familiarised themselves with the constitution, the rights and freedoms guaranteed to Ghanaians and their role in a democratic society. BNI operatives should be given training in human rights and how to conduct legitimate security operations without breaching the constitution and violating the rights of individuals.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK.