THIS IRKSOME LAW OF CONTEMPT
By CAMERON DUODU
Someone once said that this “something else” was “more important than life and death!”
Yes, you’ve guessed it – it is football! The victory of the Black Satellites over Chile on Sunday 7/7/2013 was sublime. The Ghana Black Satellites beat Chile by 4 goals to 3, scoring the winning goal in the last minute of extra time!
It was a heart-stopper of a match. I am overjoyed, as I believe are all football fans in Ghana. We meet France on Wednesday. All I can say to coach Silas Tetteh, “The Coach with the magic touch”, is to instil into our boys, the need to work together once they get into the opposition’s “18”. Individual attempts to score spectacular goals are, of course, a necessary part of the game, but in such crucial matches, raising one’s head and taking a look round and registering whether there are players who have a better chance to score than oneself, and deftly passing the ball to them, is what brings victories. Heck, even Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior of Brazil passes to his fellow forwards sometimes, instead of trying to score unbelievable goals all the time. After all, everyone now knows that he can do so!!
And now to the weighty matter of contempt of court, which has come to the fore of our national consciousness because of what happened at the Supreme Court in Accra on 25 June 2013. I refer, of course, to the 10-day term of imprisonment imposed by the Supreme Court on Ken Kuranchie, editor of the Daily Searchlight newspaper and the three-day term handed to Stephen Atugibah of the NDC communications team.
Atugibah, who had the good sense to grovel before the Supreme Court and in fact “over-apologise” to the panel for his behaviour, has already served his sentence and is now a free man. But Ken Kuranchie is still inside, and the Editors’ Forum of Ghana has now petitioned the Supreme Court panel, on his behalf, to reduce his ten-day sentence, “on humanitarian grounds.” It wold be good for the Supreme Court to hear the editors’ plea, if only because it appears the executive is using the SC’s sentence as an opportunity to ferociously harass Kuranchie by moving him from prison to prison — five in as many day, so far, it is alleged.I also fully support the editors’ appeal not because Kuranchie was right and the Supreme Court wrong, but because in asking for the mitigation of Kuranchie’s sentence on “humanitarian grounds” the Editors’ Forum is asking the Supreme Court for mercy.
And even convicted murderers are entitled to ask for mercy from the judges who have found them guilty, and some murderers do receive mercy at the hands of judges. ..For with regard to mercy, we cannot describe it better than how Shakespeare’s sagacious creation, Portia, in the play, “The Merchant of Venice”, put it:
“Earthly power dost become like God’s/Where mercy seasons justice!” Say that again!What a lofty phrase! And what a writer Shakespeare was, to pen it. I recommend his philosophy whole-heartedly to the Supreme Court, for we are all human, and eternal verities (Shakespeare wrote his lines more than 400 years ago!) were laid down to guide all of us through the ages. As a Ga would say to the Supreme Court judges, “Kpo-oh o! Dash it to us!”Having said that, I must concede that on the issue of this particular contempt of court, not all the sympathy should be on the side of the Supreme Court, especially when we consider the way it has dealt with some of the more explosive statements emanating from outside the Court on its proceedings regarding the election petition before it.
For instance, the opinion alleged to have been expressed by the President of the Republic, Mr John Dramani Mahama, in a speech to party supporters on June 10, 2013, at the NDC’s headquarters in Accra, that he won the polls “cleanly and fairly” and therefore “the Supreme Court will re-affirm that victory, was, if true, far more contemptuous, in any reading, than what Ken Kuranchie wrote.
This intimidation could include, theoretically again, the illegal bugging of their telephones; (2) the President could alsolegally prevent funds from flowing smoothly to the judicial service – on contrived technical grounds of one sort or another; and (3) he could legally instruct his party’s parliamentarians to start the complex processes provided in the Ghana Constitution for the removal of Supreme Court judges from the bench and apply these processes to judges on the panel whom he considers potentially antagonistic to his case.
I cannot speak for him, but I imagine that it was his knowledge of these and other more subtle powers of intimidation, available to the President of the Republic, that made the venerable Mr Sam Okudzeto, former president of the Ghana Bar Association (and a doughty fighter for freedom in Ghana in the late 1970s, through his leadership, with others, of the Association of Registered Professional Bodies) to condemn Mr Mahama’s statement as “very very unfortunate”.
Now, did the Supreme Court judges read the President’s statement? If they did, did they regard it as “contempt of court” or not? Some people would regard the speech as more deserving of a contempt charge than the mere effusions of the editor of a newspaper like the DailySearchlight, which has a circulation hardly worth writing home about! Mahama’s statement, on the other hand, was given the wide dissemination that a presidential statement is automatically accorded by the media.Indeed, Mr Kuranchie would have been entirely within his rights, had he stopped, after opining that the attitude of the Supreme Curt panel with regard to “contempt” was “selective”, or even (assuming that he had the language) that it was “subjective” rather than “objective”. (No sensible judge would resent being told that objectivity was expected of him, would he?) But in going on to charge the panel with “hypocrisy, and asking rhetorically whether what they had done was “justice”, he went a shade too far, it can be argued. That all the counsel appearing before the Supreme Court panel pre-endorsed any punishment the panel might dish out to those accused of contempt, speaks volumes about this aspect of the matter.And I cannot understand why Kuranchie’s lawyer, Atta Akyea, didn’t take a cue from that fact and urge his client to drop his defiant attitude. Bat then, Kuranchie might be one of those ultra-clever people who never take a hint — for all we know!When I began life as a journalist, we were constantly put on our guard over how to cover the courts: “be accurate; don’t comment on what the judges said; don’t change what the counsel said before the court if they corner you outside the court to try and elaborate on the arguments they had made – or get you to report arguments they had failed to make in court! ! Above all, always remember: a judge can have you legally pulled up before him, and not only you, but your boss, the editor and even HIS boss, the proprietor, if need be. And he can have all of you detained in prison until you have “purged” your “contempt”. Yeah, it is that bad.
But alas, the Constituent Assembly of 1978-79 was filled with politicians waiting in the wings for power, who were largely afraid that such a constitutional guarantee of freedom of the media might be used to embarrass them if they went into government. So, they rejected my proposal.
Therefore, until the contempt of court law is fully reformed, my pragmatic advice to journalists is (1) always get a good lawyer to read through any controversial stuff you might write about the judiciary, before publication and (2) if you are unfortunate enough ever to be pulled up before a judge for contempt, be as abject in apologising as possible.