Ghana is normally seen as a beacon of press freedom in West Africa, where some governments keep a tight control on the media. But press freedom advocates note an alarming surge recently in arrests and assaults on journalists.
Activists are raising questions as to whether Ghana is returning to the days where criminal libel laws were used to suppress free speech.
Two journalists were arrested last month after alleging the first lady acquired state land to build a personal home. Another was arrested after accusing the president of influencing the decisions of judges in electoral petitions.
All three were accused of publishing fake news, and they could face time in prison if convicted.
Sulemana Braimah, the executive director of Media Foundation for West Africa, tells VOA the state is hiding behind the police to criminalize free speech.
“I don’t think that if the president is fundamentally opposed to something it will happen, unless of course he is constrained or restrained by law. I believe that criminalizing speech in the manner that we’re seeing it is fundamentally detrimental to our democracy,” Braimah noted.
He also says the government should give greater powers to the National Media Commission, the agency tasked to regulate and monitor the media, if it wants to assert more control of the airwaves.
“I think as a country we need to revisit that conversation about empowering the National Media Commission. The other thing is about the broadcasting law, two decades on we’ve been talking. I think that if the government is indeed interested in sanitizing the airwaves what we must be seeing is a very committed strong effort at getting the broadcasting law passed. So that at least people will know that we have to operate within certain confines.”
Palgrave Boakye-Danquah, a government spokesperson on security and governance, tells VOA News the state sees the media as a partner in development and will never criminalize free speech.
But, he adds, officials are concerned about the abuse of freedom of expression in the media. He says the journalists who accused the president and his wife of wrongdoing had no evidence.
“It’s clearly the rule of law that is working. It’s quite unfortunate that people are abusing the freedom of speech, which as a government, we’re concerned about, and as a government, as well, we’re not trampling upon the freedom of people.”
He said the media should operate without fear or favor – but he said reporters must be responsible in their reporting.
“The president is very confident with freedom of speech, supports freedom of speech and encourages Ghanaians to have constructive criticism of government. I think that if you’re against government, there is a civil way to go about it.”
Police did not respond to requests to comment on the recent arrests of media personalities.