Press freedom in Ghana received a major boost on Friday, January 13, 2023, with a court ordering the heads of three major State institutions to apologize to a journalist whose rights were abused.
The Human Rights Division Court 2 in Accra ruled that Ghana’s National Security Coordinator, the Inspector General of Police and the Attorney General render an apology to Emmanuel Ajarfor Abugri, Editor of online news portal, ModernGhanaonline.com for the abuse of his rights.
The court also ordered the head of the State institutions to pay compensation and costs to the journalist. The respondents are also to pay for the journalist’s gadgets including a laptop, two mobile phones and a tablet which were seized by National Security agents.
The lead lawyer for Mr. Ajarfor Abugri, Samson Lardy Anyenini, confirmed the judgment to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in a phone conversation. He explains that the court presided over by Justice Nicholas Abodakpi, had adopted the terms of settlement that the parties had filed.
“These are terms of settlement that we had reached with them (respondents) after they had deliberately wasted a lot of time filing baseless defences,” Lawyer Anyenini said.
The decision is with respect to the violation of the human rights of the journalist who in 2019 was abducted and tortured by National Security operatives over two articles that his platform had published about National Security Minister, Albert Kan Dapaah. The heavily-armed security agents stormed the offices of the online news portal on June 27, 2019, and arrested Emmanuel Ajarfor Abugri and Emmanuel Britwum, a reporter of the online news portal.
Without telling them their offense or presenting any warrant, the officers bungled the two into a black van, strapped their heads in black polythene bags and sped off.
Following the virtual abduction of the journalists, the Ghana Journalists Association and the MFWA issued statements condemning the action and demanding the release of the journalists. The MFWA would later threaten court action.
Emmanuel Ajarfor Abugri, later told the media he was subjected to torture, including being afflicted with electrical shocks while in detention. The National Security Secretariat denied the journalist’s allegations, claiming the two were picked up for allegedly engaging in cybercrime.
On July 5, 2019, State prosecutors filed cybercrime charges against Emmanuel Ajarfor Abugri, Emmanuel Britwum and an Editor of a local radio station, Peace FM, Obeng Manu, alleging unlawful access to an email account belonging to Peace FM.
Lawyer Anyenini told the MFWA that the cybercrime charges were part of face-saving shenanigans that the State had resorted to.
“How do you sue the Editor of Peace FM for cybercrime, claiming he and the two ModernGhana journalists illegally accessed the emails of Peace FM to publish a story?” Lawyer Anyenini asked rhetorically.
The State was forced by the Accra High Court to drop the charges the first day the journalists appeared in court after the judge, Afia Asare Botwe, pointed out glaring errors in their claims.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ajarfor on July 11, 2019, initiated legal action against the National Security Coordinator, the Inspector General of Police and the Attorney General for the torture he suffered at the hands of the national security operatives.
The journalist prayed the Human Rights Division of the High Court to direct the Attorney-General to find, name and subject the National Security Coordinator and the officials who were involved in the violation of his human rights to criminal prosecution or punishment. Additionally, Mr. Ajarfor Abugri prayed the court to order the immediate and unconditional release and surrender of all seized items to him.
The application for the enforcement of Mr Ajarfor’s fundamental human rights was filed on his behalf by Samson Lardy Anyenini who was working with a legal team including Dr Justice Srem Sai and Nii Kpakpo Samoa Addo.
On October 8, 2021, the MFWA led a group of journalists who had been abused, including Emmanuel Ajarfor, to engage the Minister for National Security, Hon. Albert Kan-Dapaah on a growing trend of attacks on journalists by security agents.
The meeting was called by the Minister after the MFWA mobilised 642 journalists and supporters of press freedom to petition the Minister and Parliament to take steps to end the wave of attacks on journalists in the country. The Minister expressed regret over the incidents and affirmed his commitment to protecting the safety of journalists.
Decision hailed with caution
The judgment comes at a very sombre time for the press in Ghana – it coincides with the 4th anniversary of the gruesome murder of investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein Suale who was shot by unknown gunmen on January 16th, 2019.
It therefore should lift the mood within the media fraternity in Ghana, which has recent times come under intense attacks, particularly from State actors.
However, Lawyer Lardy Anyenini said he had little reason to be happy. “If you look at the way the case went, the perpetrators, which are state institutions, were not willing to admit their faults. They used all manner of delay tactics including filing those baseless cybercrime charges. This does not give hope that these institutions will in future be protective of journalists.”
Lawyer Anyenini said his consolation is in the fact that the courts can be relied on to do justice in press freedom violation cases.
The judgment has been received with excitement by the media and press freedom advocates in Ghana.
“MFWA welcomes the decision of the court as a major breakthrough in the fight against impunity. This is particularly significant because the perpetrators are institutions that are themselves expected to have been playing frontline roles in protecting journalists from attacks but who have unfortunately abdicated this responsibility. We hope this decision causes these institutions to sit up,” said Muheeb Saeed, Head of Freedom of Expression at MFWA.