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Opinions of Sunday, 24 July 2016

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney

The sentencing of Nelson and Gunn next Thursday

By George Sydney Abugri

The nation is waiting with bated breath for the sentencing on Thursday by the Supreme Court, of NDC communicators, Alistair Nelson and Godwin Ako Gunn, who in the course of a radio panel discussion recently, threatened to kill some justices of the Supreme Court if they ruled against the Electoral Commission in the legal dispute overy the voters’ register. The two and the programme host have been found guilty of contempt of the Supreme Court.
My dictionary says contempt means to hold something or someone in scorn or very low esteem. An acquaintance of mine who is a judge however assures me with a malicious grin, that as surely as the sun rises and sets, he would slap a contempt charge on me if as a newspaper columnist, I ever commented prejudicially on a landmark criminal trial before his court.
He tells me most courts around the world take contempt very seriously, and have been granted great powers by the constitutions of their countries to deal with offenders.
Are the courts enemies of freedom of expression? Has our own constitution made earthly gods of our judges? No, says the judge. Judges do not consider themselves to be special but hey, the courts need to guard their dignity and that of judges as representatives of the Law.
One lawyer conversant with media law on the other hand, says that with the exception of offensive conduct in court, trials by jury and direct interference with the work of the courts, contempt can hardly be justified.
According to him, the public should have the right to know through the media, what is going on in trials before the courts, provided this is done accurately, fairly and in a manner that does not jeopardize the chances of an accused person getting a fair trial.
Contempt refers particularly to conduct that insults, defies or disrespects the constitutionally-mandated authority and dignity of the court. To treat such conduct lightly could only undermine the judiciary and the administration of justice and lead eventually to total lawlessness and social chaos, some criminal and constitutional lawyers have argued.
Contempt may be civil or criminal. Civil contempt seeks to compel the offender to carry out a court order the offender refused to carry out. Criminal contempt seeks to punish the offender for his conduct to serve as a deterrent to individuals who may be inclined to disrespect the authority of the court.
Criminal contempt is the trap journalists and other media people and public commentators are most likely to fall into. Whether it be in a case of civil or criminal contempt, the offender may be incarcerated by the judge. It is also the judge who decides what type of contempt to cite an offender for.
Nelson and Gunn may have forgotten forgotten so soon, how two hapless men fell into the criminal contempt trap during the Supreme Court hearings of the presidential election dispute in 2012: NDC communications team member Stephen Atubiga sat outside the court room and threatened Armageddon in the event of the Supreme Court annulling the Electoral Commissioner’s results.
In the case of Searchlight Managing Editor Ken Kuranchie, he run a front page commentary in which he expressed perfect agreement with then New Patriotic Party Deputy Director of Communications Mr. Samuel Awuku’s description as “hypocritical and selective”, a warning by the Supreme Court that it would sanction anyone who made statements contemptuous of the authority of the court or prejudicial to the hearing of the election dispute.
Awuku had earlier been summoned before the court over his statements but escaped incarceration when he showed remorse and rendered an apology to the court.
Any criticism of the Supreme Court or its justices and any imputation contained in any such criticism, would not constitute contempt unless it is shown by the court, that the imputation made has no basis and is malicious.
Where it is clear that the defendant in a contempt case exercised the right of criticism responsibly and did not act out of malice or attempt to impede the administration of justice, the defendant should be immune to contempt.
For judges, the administration of justice must sometimes be like walking a tight rope and especially in cases of the charge of contempt. The challenge is to employ the law of contempt for protecting the authority, integrity and dignity of the court and its justices, while ensuring that the court’s powers to punish for contempt is not misused to stifle genuine criticism against the court or any of its justices.