Ghana as a haven for free speech was put to severe test last Wednesday when the apex court (Supreme Court) slapped a four-month jail sentence on the Montie trio contemnors for scandalising the court, defying and lowering the authority of the court and bringing the court into disrepute.
Additionally, the directors and owners of the Network Broadcasting Company (NBC), the owners of Montie FM station, were also found guilty of contempt and were fined GH¢30,000 to be paid to the court by close of last Thursday or face a jail term.
Since then their punishments have been greeted with mixed reactions. Some angry National Democratic Congress (NDC) members besieged the party headquarters in Accra, to put pressure on leaders to call on President John Mahama to use his powers to grant the three pardon. Some of the party members also held a vigil in solidarity with the trio and signed petitions for their release. Alternatively, others have condemned calls for the release of the trio and rather wished that they were given heftier sentences “to go to the prisons, see how bad our prisons are and maybe they would come back as advocates for the prisons and not want anybody else to go there.”
“Political war” gone wrong
Yes, it was a “political war” gone wrong. A war the “Montie trio” engaged in to win Election 2016 at all cost for their party, the NDC. But the war came with a heavy cost – four months’ imprisonment.
The trio: Salifu Maase, popularly known as Mugabe, the host, Alistair Tairo Nelson, and Godwin Ako Gunn, who were panellists on ‘Pampaso’, a political talk show on Montie FM in Accra, on June 29, warned judges of Ghana’s highest court to be wary of their conduct in the case involving the Electoral Commission (EC) and Mr Abu Ramadan if they did not want to suffer the fate of the three members of the bench who were shot to death and burnt on June 30, 1982 in the era of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC).
First hard lesson
My focus is not really to examine the merits and demerits of the sentence and whether it was measured or not. But now that the dust is settling and the three are by now also settling in ‘’their new home’’ – Nsawam Prisons – my thoughts are with them imagining how they are faring. They will sooner than later realise they are in jail all alone and not together with their supporters, serial callers, or even their paymasters.
The first hard lesson to be learnt rather belatedly -’Suffer Alone’, has been learnt.
By now, Maase, Nelson and Ako Gunn, the contemnors, have realised that once they have been convicted, they will be left alone. Sooner than later, the trio will also realise that those that they expect to come and show them love will turn their back to them when the euphoria dies down.
Intriguingly, it should not surprise anyone to observe that while the trio will spend the next four months all alone at the Nsawam Prisons, they will come out of the prisons to meet a tumultuous welcome.
Once again an organised crowd of supporters, sympathisers and so-called well-wishers will converge on a designated location, as usual to pour powder on the trio.
Before they were jailed, we saw similar pockets of sympathisers and supporters massing up at the precincts of the Supreme Court and the NDC headquarters in Accra shouting, chanting and ranting, demanding the NDC leadership and the President to intervene.
Unfortunately, that is all they could do for the trio. The chants and the rant will not reverse the decision of the Supreme Court and the trio will have to wallow in jail all alone. Is this what the trio had in mind when they began the “political War” to win election 2016 at all cost for their party?
Any lessons learnt?
What has happened to the trio is not in isolation. We recall the 2012 Election Petition when the former NPP General Secretary, Mr Kwadwo Owusu Afriyie, aka Sir John, Mr Sammy Awuku, Stephen Atubiga and Ken Kuranchie were all hauled before the justices of the Supreme Court for contempt. Indeed, Tommy Thompson, Kwaku Baako, Haruna, and among others, have all suffered charges of contempt before. But the question is: Have we learnt any lessons since?
As a nation, there is no denying the fact that we have all reached a consensus on the need to frown on hate speech. This is because hate speech is simply not freedom of speech. However, we are yet to agree or reach a consensus on how to tackle, deal or punish those who engage in hate speech.
The great lesson, however, is that because contempt cases are largely discretionary, every contempt case will be examined case by case and punitive actions could differ because the law is not specific on a uniform sentence.
As we soberly examine the hard lessons which we might overlook and Election 2016 draws closer by the day, I do hope it will serve as a good learning curve for all of us media practitioners and communicators of political parties who have the opportunity to be on radio, television and even write for journals to be professional.
By all means, this should not cow the media and society into docility. So far as we engage our political discourse with greater responsibility, media practitioners and society need not fear any of the three arms of government be it the judiciary, legislature or the executive.
We must not give opportunities to these arms of government or even the civil society to regulate our actions and inaction. If the media fails to self-regulate, then the courts will jump in to regulate our actions, thoughts and deeds. That is the hard lesson starring at us.
Though Ghana has been described by the international community as an oasis for peace and the beacon of democracy in the sub-region, regrettably, there are countless instances of cases of intolerance in our political discourse. There exists potential conflicts in some segments of society. That is the more reason why hate, intemperate and reckless speech by politicians and individuals both in the electronic and print media cannot be tolerated or excused.
The politicisation and deepening of suspicion and mistrust in the political arena are also not helping matters.
The media, therefore, has a very big role to play during Election 2016 and beyond. The challenge is for the media to "cleanse itself" of all persons who give the profession a tainted image or risk being dragged to court for contempt and handed hefty jail terms.
Let us take note that Article 35 (6a) of the 1992 Constitution enjoins us to “foster a spirit of loyalty to Ghana that overrides sectional, ethnic and other loyalties.”
This will inure to the growth and consolidation of the country’s democracy.