On Wednesday, March 8, 2023, Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo-Addo, President of the Republic of Ghana, delivered the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Parliament. Among the many issues he reported on was the state of freedom of expression in the country, which he boasted has reached enviable heights.
“Today, we live in a country in which we enjoy complete freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and political affiliation. Indeed, freedom of speech has now reached such heights that even members of the diplomatic corps feel able to join in our national discourse…,” President Akufo-addo said.
The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) contests as inaccurate the President’s idyllic assessment of freedom of expression in Ghana and avers that the facts on the ground do not look half as cheerful as the president claims.
While freedom of expression is guaranteed under Ghana’s 1992 Constitution, this freedom is undermined when those exercising it fear retribution in the form of threats, arrest and physical attacks, as has been the case for many journalists and activists under the Akufo-Addo administration.
From 2021 to 2022 the MFWA recorded 30 press freedom violations in Ghana, with the state security agents accounting for 67% of the abuses. This is captured in our recent report on press freedom under the Fourth Republic, which was also published in the Daily Graphic (January 27, 2023 edition). We, therefore, consider President Akufo-Addo’s Freedom of Expression claim as incorrect, and the following are further reasons.
Ghana dropped from having the freest media environment in Africa in 2018 to 13th in the 2022 global press freedom ranking by Reporters without Borders (RSF). The ranking saw Ghana outdone even by strife-ridden and junta-ruled Burkina Faso. On the global ranking, Ghana dropped from 30th position in 2021 to 60th in 2022, the worst ranking the country has received in 20 years. This is obvious evidence of deterioration, not improvement.
It is under the Akufo-Addo regime that Ghana has recorded the most brazen attacks on press freedom, such as the killing of Ahmed Suale Divela. As is well-documented, Suale’s death followed a campaign of incitement against the journalist by a leading member of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP), Kennedy Ohene Agyapong. Regrettably, the authorities have ignored the politician’s costly incitement.
While it is obvious that Suale’s killing was because of his work, the President, at the 2019 Ghana Bar Association meeting held in Takoradi, and his Attorney-General, at a forum to mark World Human Rights day 2022 in Accra, took turns to dismiss any suggestion that Suale’s murder was an attack on press freedom.
In an operation that one could not imagine under a widely admired democracy such as Ghana’s, some heavily armed national security operatives raided the premises of two media organisations in 2019 and 2020. In the first incident, the security agents arrested two journalists of ModernGhana.com and seized mobile phones, tablets and computers. One of the victims, Emmanuel Ajarfo, alleged that he was tortured during his three days in detention over a report on the Minister of National Security.
In the second incident, another group of armed security officers stormed Citi FM/TV in a bid to retrieve some video files from journalist Zoe Abu-Baidoo. The security agents accused Abu-Baidoo of receiving files from Caleb Kudah also of Citi FM/TV. Kudah had earlier been arrested and abused for filming abandoned vehicles at the National Security Ministry and sending the files to Abu-Baidoo.
While mass failure to renew broadcast licenses is common under all previous administrations, it was under Akuffo-Addo’s regime that over 50 defaulting radio stations were shut down; in a largely opaque and discriminatory exercise that targeted certain critical and pro-opposition stations.
In an act denounced by the MFWA as a dangerous precedent, the National Communications Authority (NCA) shut downRadio Tongu over alleged disturbing content and mismanagement. This was a flagrant usurpation of the functions of the independent National Media Commission, the body constitutionally mandated to regulate and sanction inappropriate content. It was widely condemned as dangerous because it could be politically-motivated. The board and Director General of the NCA are political appointees and are subject to the directives of a Minister of Communication with political interests.
The government is also accused of circumventing the repeal of criminal libel by using the Electronic Communications Act and the Criminal Code, specifically Section 208 of the Criminal and Other Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29), to go on rampage against a number of journalists and civil society activists for their publications in the media.
Indeed, between May 2021 and February, 2022, five journalists and one civil society activist were arrested on accusations of publishing false news. These include Noah Dameh, a journalist with Radio Ada based in the Greater Accra Region; Nhyiraba Paa Kwesi Simpson, a radio presenter with Connect FM based in Takoradi; Kwabena Bobbie Ansah, a presenter at Accra FM; and Mensah Thompson, the Executive Director of Alliance of Social Equity and Public Accountability (ASEPA), civil society organisation.
The crackdown became so intense that on February 12, 2022, four civil society organisations, (CSOs) Ghana Centre for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), IMANI Africa, STAR-Ghana and the Africa Center for International Law & Accountability (ACILA), jointly issued a statement demanding an end to the sneaky return to the days of criminal libel.
“Instructively, during the heyday of the criminal libel law in the 1990s, the criminal law was used in precisely the way it is now being used: to prosecute and punish journalists and public speakers for allegedly false or defamatory statements against certain family members or associates of the President”, the CSOs said in a statement.
Earlier on July 19, 2021, the MFWA mobilised 642 journalists and press freedom supporters to petition Parliament and the National Security Minister over the wave of attacks on journalists, especially by state security agents.
In its recent report marking the 4th anniversary of the unresolved killing of Ahmed Suale, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), cited several press freedom violations against journalists in Ghana. “Since Divela’s [Suale] death, at least 30 other Ghanaian journalists and media workers have faced abuses in connection with their work, including attacks, threats, and arrests,” CPJ stated.
The MFWA recognises that the media and journalists can sometimes be reckless, unethical and unprofessional in the discharge of their duties. The laws of the country provide remedies for civil actions against journalists and media organisations. Under the Akufo-Addo administration, however, the criminalisation of free speech under the guise of publication of false news has been used to harass journalists.
Many have criticised this approach as being high-handed and in line with the manner in which intolerant and autocratic governments typically deal with dissent and press offenses. With these and other incidents under the current administration, Ghana’s press freedom record under Nana Addo’s government is far from the rosy picture the President painted in his State of the Nation Address.