Where are the gatekeepers?

The passion for freedom is ineradicably ingrained in every human breast. In fact, when you see children displaying any streak of rebellion at that tender age, it is an outward manifestation of an inward disposition for freedom. But they soon realise, regretfully though, that there is a limit to their freedom. That is when their parents rightly heed the advice from the Holy Scriptures to not spare the rod. I know this from experience.

In God’s opinion, “Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child, but the rod of correction shall drive it away from him,” Proverbs 22:15. I do not think that back in the day, there was anyone as effective as my mother in applying this time-honoured catchphrase. Talk of a thoroughbred matriarch! That refers to my mum, Auntie Aggie, as she was popularly called.

She was as indulgent as she was penalising in her approach to nurturing. Her penetrating gaze in your direction while you misconducted yourself, was enough warning. That space meant grace for you. But to persist in your indiscretion implied courting trouble and reaping the due recompense. The rod would definitely be applied without any more grace. How I miss her!

Without any doubt, democracy thrives on liberty whose roots are in the freedom of the press, including freedom of speech. Professor Wole Soyinka, the man whose political activism made him a constant thorn in the flesh of Nigeria’s military dictators, once said: “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.” But as scathing as he was in his publications, the Nigerian Nobel laureate who became the first African south of the Sahara to be so honoured in 1986 in the category of literature, did not just use his pen or voice to fight for the oppressed. He did so responsibly because he knew the implications of default.

In the former Soviet Union, a fresh wave of freedom hitherto unheard of in that rigid, iron-clad regime, blew across the republics of the federation when Mikhail Gorbachev, emerged as the new head of state. He quickly moved towards reform highlighted by his policy of openness whose core features were “glasnost” and “perestroika,” the terms for political and economic reform respectively.

In the process, he turned out to be the unlikeliest of leaders to become a proponent of free speech. “How can we live if not through criticisms from below, correcting our policies, fighting negative phenomena? I cannot imagine myself living without this form of democracy,” he famously said as he embarked on his bold agenda to dismantle the suffocating culture of silence under which dissent was a crime. No wonder, he also won a Nobel prize for peace.

Just as in the Soviet Union, maybe in less severe terms, a culture of silence prevailed in Ghana. Various governments, right from Ghana’s early days under colonialism, through to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s post-independence era, as well as the military regimes that followed, hid behind the criminal libel law to hound and punish people for the slightest hint of opposition which was synonymous with pointing out wrongdoing. Given the latitude and scope of the law, Ghanaians were deprived of any safeguards against excesses of that draconian statute. You criticised the government at the peril of your life. Extra-judicial killings were rampant.

Editors of private newspapers were tortured. Notable among them were Dr. Chris Asher Snr of the Palaver who blazed the trail in the struggle to entrench freedom of the press before the likes of Tommy Thompson and John Kugblenu, publisher and editor respectively, of the Free Press, took over with Haruna Atta of the Statesman, Kweku Baako, Kwesi Pratt and Ewusi-Brookman of the Pioneer.

Also deserving of recognition are columnists such as Professor P.A.V. Ansah of the Chronicle, who was the Dean of the School of Communications Studies, University of Ghana, Legon; Professor Adu Boahene, and Lawyer Obeng Manu who wrote for The Pioneer.

Gradually, the struggle yielded dividends reaching its climax with the repeal of the Criminal and Seditious Libel Act by Parliament on Friday, 27th July 2001. This was in fulfillment of a pledge by candidate J.A. Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) to do so if he was elected.

The dismantling of the harsh law immediately led to a proliferation of the media in all its forms. More private newspapers have since been established. Radio stations have sprung up in every nook and cranny of the country, leading to a very vibrant and robust media free to voice views contrary to that of the government. Social media platforms are also inundated with all sorts of contrary opinions that have all served to make Ghana one of the most media-friendly and free countries in Africa, and indeed, the world.

Unfortunately, a section of the media appears to be on a downward trajectory. Some are taking this newfound, hard-won freedom farther than it was intended. They are behaving as if the floodgates have been opened for irresponsible journalism. To them, freedom of the press has no boundaries. They misconstrue freedom of the press to mean the right to venture into prohibited territory at will without any scruples. That is a false paradigm.

Madam Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the longest-serving American first lady, (1933-1945), who was a great champion of freedom, disagrees with that notion. She says, “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.” That responsibility is to be law-abiding or face the consequences of your breach. Pope Paul II puts it this way: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought,”

Many unscrupulous people, taking undue advantage of the decriminalisation of free speech and the ensuing liberal media climate, have resorted to crass disregard for ethics and are unprofessionally spuing messages that are obviously defamatory and seditious, all in the name of freedom of the press.

And people who should know better are rather leading the parade of coup mongers to beat war drums. When you willfully cross the line to challenge the boundaries of the law, that is presumptuous trespass. It is as if you are testing the limit of what is tolerable, and you must not blame anybody if you find yourself in an unpleasant embrace of the long arm of the law.

Governments are ordained by God to regulate society. In fact, governments are described by the Holy Scriptures as ministers of God for the praise of those who do well and the punishment of those who breach the law. God says they do not bear the sword in vain. In other words, governments have punitive powers. For that matter, we are told to expect punishment when we fall foul of the law.

Thomas Jefferson, the primary draftsman of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, America’s first Secretary of State (1789–94), its Second Vice President (1797–1801), and the third president (1801–09), extolled the importance of the press by stating: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

His reasons: “The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right.”

An Akan proverb says: “Nnfa mcmcne nnhy3 m’anum na wonnka s3 m’anum bcn,” to wit, “Do not sneak stinking fish into my mouth and charge me with having foul breath,” Do not misbehave and charge the government with high-handedness. Let the press grow up as Mrs. Roosevelt advises, otherwise we are not worthy of Jefferson’s encomium; otherwise, we justify the stance of those who opposed the repeal of the criminal and seditious law. Before freedom, gatekeeping was the watchword. Where are the gatekeepers now?

By Tony Prempeh

Contact: teepeejubilee@yahoo.co.uk

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