In the past weeks, the arrest of Accra FM’s Bobie Ansah, Power FM’s Oheneba Boamah Bennie, and the Executive Director of the Alliance for Social Equity and Public Accountability (ASEPA), Mensah Thompson has generated debates in both the traditional and social media. Many have taken a critical view of how the arrests. Others express worry about a seemingly growing unprofessional and unethical journalism. A situation that makes people publish stories without first verifying the authenticity of the same thus tarnishing the hard-earned reputation and causing damage to the integrity of mostly public officeholders. The arrest of lawyer and social activist, Oliver Barker Mawuse Vormawor, convener of the social group, Fix the country, for an alleged post on Facebook which authorities deem to be a declaration of a coup d’état has added to the debate with almost everyone speaking either for or against the arrests. Whilst many think that the government’s crackdown on dissenting views is red-handed, others think that there is the need for responsible speech and people must be held accountable for what they write or say.

President John Agyekum Kuffuor in August 2001 gave his assent to the criminal code, a repeal of the Criminal Libel and Seditious Laws, Amendment Act, 2001, Act 602. This follows calls from within and without for the abolishment of laws that could be abused by politicians to target political opponents and people of dissenting views. This gave freedom to journalists to practice their profession without arrests and incarceration. The media has expanded since then with social media becoming one of the major means of disseminating information to a wide group of people. The challenge with social media, however, is that anyone can post anything at any time. Contents posted on social media spread like a wide fire in the harmattan. It is practically impossible to pull down false publications on social media and in most cases; damages may have been caused before victims of false publications become aware of it. Authorities the world over, are having a hectic time regulating social media without being accused of preventing freedom of speech. The challenge has been how to juxtapose the three-headed dragon of criminal libel, false news publication, and freedom of speech. This becomes even more difficult when it comes to social media. On social media, the use of fake accounts, pseudonyms and the anonymity provided encourages people to spread blatant falsehoods and concoct stories that have no basis. This is wrong and must not be encouraged. Social media however also provides a good avenue for the citizens of a country to speak against the government and its policies. An example is the controversial e-levy in Ghana, which has been rejected by the majority of the citizens on social media. Government can use views expressed on social media to measure public opinion on issues of national importance instead of scanning the walls of citizens to find faults with opinions and device means and strategies of incarcerating people who oppose the government and express opinions contrary to those of the government. 

Rights go with responsibilities and where our rights begin is often the end of the rights of others. The right to free speech comes with the responsibility of responsible speech. Speech can inflame passions; make individuals rise against one another, cause tribal wars and turn countries against each other. It is thus very important that, before we speak, we exercise circumspection, considering the effects of what we want to say on others. Freedom of speech does not mean we are free to say everything and anything and go score free. We are accountable for what we say. It is also important that citizens be allowed to participate in the governance of a country through constructive criticisms, debates, and arguments without incurring the wrath of the government.

Criminal libel, which is the publication of a false story against an individual or a group, is no doubt on the rise in Ghana. The publication of false news against people to defame them especially on social media is commonplace. However, public officers must be aware that they occupy public office and are thus open to public scrutiny and criticism.

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