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AEP Explainer: The Montie FM Contempt Case and Its Implications On Ghana's Democracy

As part of our issues based coverage of Ghana’s Elections 2016, Penplusbytes’ African Elections Project (www.africanelections.org/ghana) presents an in-depth Explainer on Montie FM contemnors’ saga where two panelist and the host of the ‘Pampaso’ political show on Accra-based Montie FM threatened to kill judges (Listen to Audio) of the Supreme Court during a radio discussion and ended up in jail)

 

What are the key Issues:

Are radio presenters guided by professional journalism ethics?

How do we balance freedom of expression and responsibility of the media?

Danger of low self-regulation by Ghana’s media

Challenges of politicians owning media houses

The role of the judiciary in protecting Ghana’s constitution.

 

The story so far

On the Wednesday 29th June, 2016, the host of the ‘Pampaso’ political show on Accra-based Montie FM (100.1Mhz), Salifu Maase, alias Mugabe, and the two panelists, Alistair Nelson, and Godwin Ako Gunn, whiles, contributing on the court case challenging the validity or otherwise of the voters’ register threatened the lives the Supreme Court and High Court judges if their verdict was not in favour of the Electoral Commission (EC). Coincidentally, that day marked the eve of 34th anniversary of the martyred judges in Ghana where three judges were kidnaped and cruelly murdered.

 

The threats swiftly received widespread condemnation from individuals, professional bodies, political parties, think-tanks, civil society organization among others.

 

Supreme Court Summons Montie FM Owners, Show Host and 2 Panelists

The host, and owners of Montie FM Harry Zakour, who incidentally is also the Second Vice Chairman of the governing National Democratic Congress (NDC), Ato Ahwoi, a Former Presidential Advisor, and two others Edward Addo and Kwesi Kyei Atuah were summoned by the Supreme Court to appear before it. The subpoena was announced by the Chief Justice Mrs Georgina Theodora Wood on Tuesday 5th July, 2016,. Ahead of the court hearing, the Bureau of National Investigations (BNI) investigated the issued a statement saying the two did not have the capability of unleashing mayhem on the judges since they made the claims “in a show of needless bravado.” The 1st Hearing saw Chief Justice Georgina Theodora Wood and Justice Nasiru Sulemana Gbadegbe, on 12th July, 2016 recuse themselves from the contempt case citing specifically being named in the contempt comments as the reason. They were replaced by Justice Sophia Akuffo and Justice Julius Ansah. The case was then adjourned to 18th July, 2016. Another judge, Justice Bonnie also recused himself due to family ties with a Director of Montie FM, Mr Baffoe Bonnie.

 

The contemnors were found guilty together with the owners of the station on the the 2nd hearing and sentencing was scheduled to July 27.

 

Sentencing

The Supreme Court handed a four-month prison sentence and a fine of Ghc10,000 each to the three contemnors. The owners of the Montie FM, Network Broadcasting Company were also fined Ghc30,000 and in addition, they were also to provide measures they would put in place to prevent such inflammatory comments on the radio station.

 

Why this ruling is important

This case illustrates the tension between freedom of expression and the administration of justice because of the high public interest in maintaining and protecting both principles.

·         In the first instance the NDC has issued a statement expressing their displeasure with the ruling other statements have also been issued by the Ghana Journalists Association, The Ghana Bar Association

 

·         The ruling behooves on media houses across Ghana to go back to the basics and train their personal on good journalism practices on regular basis. Media houses should also develop a comprehensive policy and guidelines on general ethics of journalism and how their journalists should engage and professionally conduct themselves and with third parties. This policy should address a wide range of topics from their interaction online including social media, selection of topics for radio station programme and the of quality panelists they invite on their media platforms.

 

·         Again, the policy should institute a self-censorship to help control outbursts during live broadcasts. However this self-censorship should not be too stringent that will make journalists be too careful and afraid to carry-out investigative and in-depth reportage.

 

·         There should be a guideline interpreting freedom of speech and the boundaries that exist within the laws of Ghana covering contempt of court, etc.

 

·         The judiciary and parliament should clearly define what constitutes contempt since at the moment it is being used haphazardly by the 2 arms of state to sanction journalists. The state should be mindful of the fact that journalism even though always survives does not strive to play its critical oversight role in an atmosphere charged with fear.

 

·         In going forward, the Supreme Court should expedite the case between the National Media Commission (NMC) and the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA) on the media legislative instrument (LI) on Content Standards Regulation 2015. This LI when fully functional will cure some of the ills in the Ghanaian media landscape which this judgement in Montie FM case seeks to achieve.

 

·         Finally, just as rights goes with responsibilities, freedom of speech as a right is guaranteed by the constitution but it must be exercised with responsibility.

 

 

[This Explianer Article was made possible with funding from NED.]

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