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The law and freedom of the press

BY: Larweh Therson-Cofie
Journalism exists to protect these rights because the journalist is a watchdog and watch eagle of the rights and privileges of the people.

LATE last month, 25 Ghanaian judges attended a three-day course at Ho, capital of the Volta Region, on issues of freedom of the press and safety of Ghanaian journalists.

The topics dealt with included the following: international and regional standards of freedom of expression; freedom of expression and legitimate restrictions; ECOWAS and its role in the protection of freedom of expression and safety of journalists, and the right to information.

The training was jointly organised by UNESCO, the Japanese Embassy in Ghana and the Judicial Training Institute in Accra.
United Nations Representative to Ghana, Abdourahamane Diallo, said at the ceremony that the course would help meet the UN objectives towards the media environment.

“By reinforcing the knowledge and capacities of the judiciary, it will contribute to the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity adopted by the UN Chief Executive Board in 2020,” the UNDP representative said.
He added that more than 18,000 operators in the judiciary and civil society fields had been trained through the initiative since 2013.

Dr Angela Lusigi, Resident Representative of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said the training was an essential component toward attaining Sustainable Development Goal 16, which focused on protection of peaceful inclusive societies, providing access to justice for all and building accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

According to her, technological transformation and pandemics had affected the way the human communicated, stayed informed and socialised.
She added that freedom of the press had been tested in many jurisdictions, in the sense that just when journalists were needed to spread reliable information, debunk anti-vaccine messages, illuminate response effects and expose corruption, access to information was curtailed.
How was access to information curtailed? What are the legitimate restrictions on press freedom?

Dr Lusigi was obviously referring to fake news, falsehood, misinformation and disinformation in the media made possible by the advent and advancement of information communication technology.

Through the information superhighway, it has become easier and faster to spread information in sound and written words and pictures through the use of the computer and mobile phone.

Unlike print, radio and television journalism, it is difficult to detect, edit and remove wrong information on the internet before publication.
The negative aspects of journalism and the mass and social media remind one of the limitations or restrictions the law places on press freedom.

It is a fact that freedom of the press is an extension of freedom of expression contained in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Freedom of expression, as part of the UN Declaration, is part of all other fundamental human rights.
Journalism exists to protect these rights because the journalist is a watchdog and watch eagle of the rights and privileges of the people.
In this wise, the journalist should be the last person to seek to abuse the rights of others.

Disseminating false and fake news and absolute lies about others, their offices or businesses, are abuses of rights.

That is why the law has, universally, made provisions for the protection of those rights against abuse.
Because of that, freedom of the mass and social media is not absolute.
Indeed, there should be no absolute freedom anywhere in the world, because nature abhors absolutes. Nature thrives on the principle of eternal polarity.
Limitations placed by the law on freedom of expression and of the press are meant to ensure that no citizen in a country is deprived of his/her rights.
Limitations to freedom of the press are set out in the statute books of member countries of the UN.
In Ghana, most of them are contained in the Ghana Criminal Code, Act 29 of 1960 and presented under civil law and criminal law.
Defamation or defaming a person by way of libel in written form or slander by the spoken word, is one of the limitations of freedom of the press.
Parts of the Criminal Code, relevant to the mass media, have been codified and expatiated on in books by legal luminaries – The Law and the Journalist (1997) by Prof. Henrietta Mensah Bonsu, and The Law of the Press, A Ghanaian Perspective (1998) by Andrew O. Amegatcher.

Section 114 of the Criminal Code defines a defamatory matter as one “which imputes to a person any crime of misconduct in any public office or which is likely to injury him in his occupation, calling or office or to expose him to general hatred, contempt or ridicule”.
The law forbids publication of innuendos.

It prohibits a person from defaming another through indirect spoken or written remarks about the person.
The law provides means by which the journalist can defend his/her publication in the court of law.

The defences available includes the following: justification, privileges (absolute and qualified), fair comment and remedies, such as apology and retraction.
Law of sedition is an area of the law that also concerns the professional journalist.
Sedition or seditious libel is “oral or written publication or words with seditious intentions”.
Sedition is one of the known four libels. The rest are: defamatory libel, blasphemous libel and obscene libel.

The following are various types of seditious intentions: intention, short of committing treason; an intention to bring into contempt certain institutions and bodies, including the Government; an intention to stir up discontent or class antagonism; false accusation against officials and defaming the President.
There is also seditious action.

This, under the Criminal Code, includes conspiring with “any person to carry into execution any seditious enterprise involving the intentions listed under section 183 (11) (a-g), namely to advocate the desirability of overthrowing the Government by unlawful means or by falsely accusing any public officer of misconduct in the exercise of his official duties, knowing the accusation to be false”.

Printing or publishing any matter that expresses sedition indicated in section 183 and selling, distributing or reproducing a newspaper, book or document or part of it, constitute seditious action.

Publishing false or fake news and rumours has become rampant in Ghana and the rest of the world.
In Ghana, the Criminal Code provides for such matters.

Section 208 of the Code has made two provisions – (i) False reports injuring the reputation of Ghana and (ii) publication of false news with the intention to cause fear and alarm to the public contrary to section 208.
Publishing false or fake news or rumours can constitute a threat to national security.
Defaming or disparaging an identifiable group or traditional ruler in Ghana can lead to violence, attacks on journalists and breach of the peace.   

Other areas where restrictions are placed on the journalist include the court of law and Parliament, by way of contempt of court and of Parliament and privileges.

A journalist must have had a pass mark in law of the mass media at the School of Journalism, and should be seen applying the principles in practice.
Journalism is an important adjunct of democracy; therefore, the journalist must be given the freedom to practice.
It is also the duty of the journalist to protect the rights and privileges of the people and that of the State.
This article ends with the following quotations.

“The legal frame for the media plays a key role in the development of the media and their role in the democratic set up. To know the legal system, to understand the problems and to understand the pitfalls and limitations is crucial for every media practitioner.’’ (Prof Audrey Gadzekpo in Foreword to the book, The Law and the Journalist.

“That the modern journalist needs to be well acquainted with the legal regime governing the practice of journalism is merely to state the obvious.” (Prof Henrietta Mensa-Bonsu in Introduction to her book, The Law and the Journalist).
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