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My question for CSOs: what about the rights of victims of lies?

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

As a recent victim of brazen lies circulated online, I have been trying to understand the viewpoint of the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) which issued a press statement a week ago, with the heading, “STOP RE-INTRODUCING ABOLISHED CRIMINAL LIBEL REGIME”.

According to them: “We are deeply troubled by the growing use of the prosecutorial and judicial power of the State to punish criminally speech that allegedly falsely injures or damages the reputation of other persons or of an institution of state” (emphasis added).

An informed source explains Criminal Libel as a “deliberate publication of defamatory lies which the publisher knows to be false”.

The statement notes that: “In the latest of such episodes, the Executive Director of the Alliance for Social Equity and Public Accountability, Mr. Mensah Thompson, is being prosecuted on a charge of publication of false news … (on Facebook) … alleging that certain relatives of the President traveled to the United Kingdom on the official presidential jet for pleasure and shopping during the (2021) Christmas season.”

It continues: “It is noteworthy that … Mr. Thompson publicly retracted the allegation and apologized to the Ghana Armed Forces …. ”

They are imploring “the Attorney-General to discontinue the prosecution of Mr. Thompson…and stop … re-introducing in another guise the long-discredited and abolished criminal libel regime.”

That, they argue, would take Ghana back to “a bygone authoritarian era where journalists and others were jailed for politically disagreeable libel.”

Notably, the statement also points out that “the abolition of criminal libel …, a move popularly championed by President Akufo Addo as a private lawyer … and, later, in his capacity as Attorney-General, left injured parties free to resort to civil alternatives and remedies to deal with false and libelous publications.”

In conclusion: “We also urge media practitioners and users to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric that has contaminated our public square and airwaves, desist from knowingly or recklessly making or publishing false statements ….”
The statement’s signatories are:
1. Ghana Center for Democratic
Development (CDD-Ghana)
2. STAR-Ghana Foundation
3. IMANI Africa
4. Africa Center for International Law & Accountability (ACILA)

Interesting that they give advice about toning down “inflammatory rhetoric” and “recklessly making or publishing false statements”.

Nevertheless, coming at the end of their curious claim about what they see as a return to the Criminal Libel era, and their plea to the Attorney-General, their conclusion appears somewhat contradictory.

Anyway, does the repeal of that law give anybody the licence to circulate untruths?

Remarkably, I don’t find in their statement any sympathy for people who are maligned, whose reputation is soiled, sometimes forever, by such fabrications, blatantly circulated for cynical, political purposes.

An example of that sort of sinister agenda is what I, and other media colleagues suffered recently.

On February 9, I was shocked to find my name on a list reposted on a Social Media platform of the Ghana Association of Writers (GAW). Its explicit, derogatory heading was: “30 JOURNALISTS WHO ARE NOW APPOINTEES OF AKUFFO (sic) ADDO BECAUSE OF THE E-LEVY”.
The following is a summary of the rebuttal I posted on the same GAW platform:

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“Lots of mistakes – and lies – in this scurrilous list. When was the E-Levy proposal announced? And when did those on this list become “APPOINTEES OF AKUFFO (sic) ADDO BECAUSE OF THE E-LEVY?

Obviously the compilers are not interested in facts, but because mud tends to stick, the following are the FACTS concerning Ajoa Yeboah-Afari:

“I was Editor of the Ghanaian Times (New Times Corporation) from January 2004 to November, 2008 when I resigned.

“I was on the Board of the Graphic Communications Group Ltd from October, 2017 to October, 2019.

“In both cases, my appointment was through the National Media Commission. The Times vacancy was advertised; I applied, went to an interview and emerged successful.

“Was the E-Levy proposal in existence in 2004 or 2017?

“As I pointed out in my column (in The Mirror, issue of February 5), I regularly pay an electronic transmission tax/levy (commission), when I do remittances. The commissions I pay benefit the telephone company and the agents.

“Why then should I object to paying a similar tax which the Ghana Government will use for development projects?”

“For the record, I don’t need any inducements or reward to support the proposed new tax, because I believe in the E-Levy idea as a means to widen the tax net,” I concluded.

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Strangely, what appeared to be the same list, unsigned, had been circulating earlier, around January 20, but under a different heading: “Check out the list of key media practitioners (journalists) who have taken up jobs in the Akufo-Addo government”.

Probably the link of the February heading to the E-Levy was an intention to be more destructive to the reputation of those listed.

Both postings concluded with this defamatory comment: “Do you now realize why all the key media houses in Ghana are always singing the praise of the government? The sages say ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. Now be your own judge.”

My question to the CSOs so valiantly fighting for Mr Thompson is: what about the rights of the innocent victims of inventions calculated to smear them?

Where were those CSO leaders when the allegation about the Presidential-Plane-Christmas- shopping-spree came out?

Did any of those CSOs issue even a general caution about such unfounded, wicked allegations? If they had, probably it would have assuaged the hurt of those affected by the Thompson publication.

Also, it would have made their present plea to the Attorney-General more credible.

Conspicuously, as I pointed out in my column of January 15, 2022, Thompson offered no apology to President Akufo-Addo, who was clearly the target of the allegations now a court matter.

Why do those making baseless allegations about others, as in my case, deserve consideration, when they show no such concern for their intended victims?

Significantly, the Criminal Libel Law was repealed in July, 2001, before the growth of the Social Media age, which enables a lie to go viral in seconds and then become a false, but permanent, global record.

So what is needed now is strong deterrent action, through the courts if applicable.

If a court finds that a case is without merit, fine. If a court decides that a tissue of lies is only “politically disagreeable” and nothing more, okay.

But surely, victims, too, have rights; and those should be respected.

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