The Supreme Court Wednesday sent a strong warning to people who make irresponsible comments on media platforms by sentencing two radio panellists and a programme host to four months’ imprisonment each for scandalising the court.
The two panellists, Alistair Tairo Nelson and Godwin Ako Gunn, and the host, Salifu Maase, alias Mugabe, were also to pay GHC10,000 each or in default serve an additional one month in prison.
The two panellists, spurred on by Maase, threatened the lives of judges of the superior court, especially those who heard the case on the credibility of the country’s electoral roll filed by Abu Ramadan and Evans Nimako against the Electoral Commission (EC).
The trio, together with the directors of Network Broadcasting Company Limited (NBCL), operators of Montie FM, the radio station where the comments were made, and ZeZe Media, owners of the station frequency, were on July 18, 2016 convicted for contempt of the apex court.
They were found guilty of scandalising the court, defying and lowering the authority of the court and bringing the name of the court into disrepute.
The court, however, did not sentence the trio for the threat of harm and death that they made against the judges, explaining that that constituted another matter for another branch of government to take action.
The sentence was read by the presiding judge, Ms Justice Sophia Akuffo.
Other members of the panel were Mr Justice Gabriel Pwamang, Mr Justice A.A. Benin, Mr Justice Anin Yeboah and Mr Justice Julius Ansah.
Operators of Montie FM
At yesterday’s sentencing, the gavel of the apex court also fell on NBCL and ZeZe Media, as the two companies were fined GHC30,000 each.
They were also ordered to present to the court how they intended to prevent the contemptuous act from being repeated.
The NBCL was ordered to produce the policies and measures that it had developed with regard to its operations which would prevent a similar contemptuous act on its platform.
ZeZe Media was also ordered to produce its policies and measures which would attest to the fact that its frequency (100.1 FM) “shall not give rise to any act of contempt’’.
The two companies were ordered to pay the fine and submit the policies and measures by the close of work today.
“Directors of the companies shall be held liable of imprisonment, if they fail to obey the orders,’’ the court ordered.
The court, in delivering the sentence, said it hoped and expected people to learn valuable lessons from it.
It explained in detail why it had decided to sentence each of the contemnors.
On the part of Nelson and Gunn, the court held that their comments were reckless and they failed to uphold any code of ethics and decorum.
“They were totally reckless and insensitive in their comments, as they were speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the murdered judges, a very painful day for most patriots in the country,’’ it said.
Maase, the court said, did not diligently discharge his duties as the host of the programme, as he failed to moderate the programme and “keep the panellists in line”.
“He rather joined them to further insult the judges of this court. That is not a proper role of a host, as he was expected to be professional,’’ it said.
Directors and owners
With regard to the directors of Montie FM, the court held that they provided the platform for the contemptuous comments to be made.
It held that the NBCL and ZeZe Media ought to have paid more attention to the activities of the radio station.
“We are not impressed with the statements of the directors that they had not taken close interest in the operations of the station,’’ it said.
The court also expressed its disappointment with what some of the directors revealed to it that they only heard the said comments for the first time when they were played in court.
Mitigations and appeal
The court, before passing the sentences, had explained that it had taken into consideration the apologies of the contemnors, their remorseful nature and the fact that they pleaded guilty.
The directors of the NBCL, it explained, had indicated that they had initiated policies to prevent any contemptuous act on its platform.
It, however, said the reckless attack on the court and the Judiciary had “become very rampant’’.
It expressed its disappointment at the fact that the sentencing of four individuals during the 2013 election petition had not served as a deterrent against unguarded and contemptuous comments on the media landscape.
“We need to make it universally unacceptable for anyone to engage in such a conduct. Within the freedom of expression, there is a line that ought not to be crossed,’’ the court said.
Media freedom was an integral aspect of the sentence, as the court held that the sentence was not against press freedom or freedom of expression.
According to the court, the public had the right to hold the Judiciary accountable and the court had always “made the effort not to stifle public criticisms against it’’.
“The court had restrained itself from acting in certain cases and proceedings in which it was scandalised,’’ it said.
It described the media as “a very valuable’’ institution in the country’s democracy but said the media ought to be responsible in order to contribute to national development.
“We are aware of the valuable nature of the media to the country’s democratic dispensation, but to whom much is given, much is expected,’’ it said.
Gross nature of comments
The panel asserted that they were forced to act because of the nature of the comments that were made by the two panellists.
“We were compelled to act in the instant matter because of its gross nature which seeks to undermine the independence of the Judiciary,’’ the court said.
It held that the contemnors “wilfully attacked the Chief Justice for favouring the plaintiffs (Abu Ramadan and Evans Nimako), while exhibiting bias against the defendant (the EC).
“They (panellists and presenter) defied, insulted and lowered the authority of the court by saying that they would not accept the decision of the court and also inciting the public against the court,’’ it said.
Another interesting aspect of yesterday’s sentencing was the appearance of a politician and statesman, Mr Ato Ahwoi.
He was presented as the owner of the NBCL and he too pleaded liable with explanation.
Mr Ahwoi explained that the company was set up to expand the frontiers of press freedom and “not for the purpose of maligning judges or anybody’’.
He, therefore, rendered an unqualified apology to the court and stated that the company had put in measures to ensure that it improved its operations.