“Police in the Ashanti Region have strongly defended their decision to arrest a man who referred to the President as a chimpanzee.”Radio commentator Adu Gyamfi, an activist of the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), in a panel discussion on local radio station Fox FM called President Mills a chimp. The missile hurled at the President triggered a quick mass-up of several supporters of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) at the precincts of the radio station apparently to beat him up but the police subsequently picked him up.” (Myjoyonlinenews, 24th May).
The above caption is timely because it raises the question of the freedom of speech and how some people abuse it. This essay will take a cursory look at whether freedom of speech or expression is absolute in Ghana or not. Let us begin with the definition of terms.
Freedom of speech is the liberty to freely say what one pleases, as well as, the related liberty to hear what others have stated. Recently, it has been commonly understood as encompassing all types of expression, including the freedom to create and distribute movies, pictures, songs, dances, and all other forms of express communication.
The right to freedom of expression is not considered unlimited. Still in no country is freedom of speech absolute. Limits include, for instance, the prohibition of libel and slander (defamation) that is publishing or saying things that are detrimental to one person in an unfair way. Ghana as a country is no exception to this. Freedom of speech calls for responsibility.
Freedom of speech is often regarded as an integral concept in modern liberal democracies, where it is understood to outlaw government censorship. Free speech is nowadays also protected by international human rights law, notably under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although implementation remains lacking in many countries.
The right to freedom of expression is not considered unlimited; States may still punish (but not prohibit) certain damaging types of expressions. Under international law, restrictions on free speech are required to comport with a strict three part test: they must be provided by law; pursue an aim recognised as legitimate; and they must be necessary (i.e., proportionate) for the accomplishment of that aim. Amongst the aims considered legitimate are protection of the rights and reputations of others (prevention of defamation), and the protection of national security and public order, health and morals. A case in point is the recent case of Mr. Darkwa who accused Former President Rawlings of putting his own house on fire. For the sake of national security and public order, the police had to intervene in order to prevent him from being lynched by the enraged crowd. The same is true for Mr. Adu Gyamfi. These are clears cases to prove that Freedom of speech is not absolute in Ghana.
According to Mr. Ace Ankomah, the only remedy to the situation is for Ghanaians and the leadership of the New Patriotic Party in particular to condemn the statement entirely and dissociate itself from it."And so in a situation like this, this is what I think the NPP and the good people of Ghana should do, we should insist that the NPP condemns this gentleman’s statement. Dissociate yourself from it and condemn it."This is the highest office of the land occupied by a man voted by Ghanaians, and we can’t have any Tom, Dick and Harry get up in a radio station and describe him in such unpalatable language’’ he said passionately."(myjoyonline,May25th).
The view of Lawyer Ankomah shows that even though the attitude of Mr. Adu Gyamfi is not criminal, it must be condemned by all and sundry especially if it has the tendency of disturbing public order. Indeed, I must emphasize that no one has the right to call another person an animal. Freedom of speech, therefore, calls for the respect for the dignity of the human person. Freedom of speech calls on us to be responsible and circumspect about what we say. Hence the saying that “Where your freedom ends, someone else’ begins”
We need the total involvement of the society in condemning acts that are not consistent with the values we cherish as Ghanaians. This presupposes that freedom of speech must conform to our moral standards as a nation. This is another reason why freedom of speech is not absolute. We cannot sit down and allow certain disgruntled elements in our society to disturb public order in the name of freedom of speech. Posterity will judge us harshly if we sit down unconcerned and allow this to happen.
The philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed that people may be hesitant to speak freely not because of fear of government retribution but because of social pressures. When an individual announces an unpopular opinion, he or she may face the disdain of their community or even be subjected to violent reactions. While this type of suppression of speech is even more difficult to prevent than government suppression, there are questions about whether it truly falls within the ambit of freedom of speech, which is typically regarded as a civil liberty, or freedom from government action.
I will at this point analyse freedom of speech in the context of the Theories of free speech namely: Self-governance, Discovering truth, Advancing autonomy.
Self-governance as a theory of speech emphasises that freedom of speech is crucial in any democracy because open discussions of candidates are essential for voters to make informed decisions during elections. It is through speech that people can influence their government's choice of policies. Also, public officials are held accountable through criticisms that can pave the way for their replacement. However, freedom of speech must ensure a constructive criticism that unravels the truth at all times and not to satisfy the whims and caprices of some political disgruntled elements in society. That is the more reason why we condemn the action of Mr. Adu Gyamfi who is alleged for calling the President a Chimpanzee. Even if it is to further his political ambition, it is cheap propaganda.
Some suggest that when citizens refrain from voicing their discontent because they fear retribution, the government can no longer be responsive to them, thus it is less accountable for its actions. Defenders of free speech often allege that this is the main reason why governments suppress free speech--to avoid accountability. But in our case even though the Criminal Libel Law has been repealed, freedom of speech is not absolute but at the same time the government is held accountable for his stewardship. Alternatively, it may be argued that some restrictions on freedom of speech may be compatible with democracy or necessary to protect it.
A classic argument for protecting freedom of speech as a fundamental right is that it is essential for the discovery of truth. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out." Abrams v. United States Justice Holmes also invoked the powerful metaphor of the "marketplace of ideas."
This marketplace of ideas rationale for freedom of speech has been criticized by scholars on the grounds that it is wrong to assume all ideas will enter the marketplace of ideas, and even if they do, some ideas may drown out others merely because they enjoy dissemination through superior resources.
The marketplace is also criticized for its assumption that truth will necessarily triumph over falsehood. We can see throughout history that people may be swayed by emotion rather than reason, and even if truth ultimately prevails, enormous harm can occur in the interim. However, even if these weaknesses of the marketplace of ideas are acknowledged, supporters argue that the alternative of government determination of truth and censorship of falsehoods is worse.
Secondly, freedom of speech is an essential aspect of personhood and autonomy. Professor Baker said that "to engage voluntarily in a speech act is to engage in self-definition or expression. A Vietnam war protester may explain that when she chants 'Stop This War Now' at a demonstration, she does so without any expectation that her speech will affect continuance of the war ... rather, she participates and chants in order to define herself publicly in opposition to the war. This war protester provides a dramatic illustration of the importance of this self-expressive use of speech, independent of any effective communication to others, for self-fulfillment or self-realization." This view suggests a rationale for the protection of acts of expression that are not obviously political or vital to self-government, such as abstract art, music, or dance. This means that what we say should bring about peace (public good) and self-fulfillment that it has brought out something positive for the growth of society.
Protecting speech because it aids the political process or furthers the search for truth emphasizes the instrumental values of expression.
Finally, freedom of speech is integral to tolerance, which should be a basic value in our society. Professor Lee Bollinger is an advocate of this view and argues that "the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters." The free speech principle is left with the concern of nothing less than helping to shape "the intellectual character of the society."
This claim is to say that tolerance is a desirable, if not essential, value, and that protecting unpopular speech is itself an act of tolerance. Such tolerance serves as a model that encourages more tolerance throughout society. Critics argue that society need not be tolerant of the intolerance of others, such as those who advocate great harm, even genocide. Preventing such harms is claimed to be much more important than being tolerant of those who argue for them. I agree with the proponents of this theory of speech, however, we must not tolerate anything in the name of freedom of speech. We are rational beings and we must use our mental faculties to say things that will not defame the dignity and hard won reputation of others.
In democratic countries, freedom of speech is taken for granted, though the exact degree of freedom varies between countries and jurisdictions. This freedom generally includes:
• The right to criticize the political system and political leaders, even those in power;
• The right to criticize public and corporate policies;
• The right to criticize religious and political ideas.
The right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any part of the world. Both international law and most national constitutions recognize that freedom of expression may be restricted. However any limitations must remain within strictly defined parameters or the confines of the law. Ghana is ranked “Free” by the freedom of the press, 2008 survey conducted by the Freedom House second in Africa as regards freedom of speech. Still, in no country is freedom of speech absolute. Limits include, for instance, the prohibition of libel and slander (or defamation) – that is, publishing or saying things that are detrimental to one person in an "unfair" way, though, again, the exact limits of what is prosecutable vary. Some democratic countries banish so-called "hate speech" – speech that is intended to stir up aggression against certain groups for religious, racial, etc. reasons.