By Iain Marlow

ACCRA—Ghana’s Supreme Court has jailed a journalist for criminal contempt over comments related to an ongoing court case that has captivated the nation and will decide the final outcome of last year’s election of President John Dramani Mahama.

The decision on July 2 to send Ken Kuranchie, editor of the Daily Searchlight newspaper, to jail for 10 days was an unusual move for the stable West African democracy, which hasn’t jailed journalists since the late 1990s. Stephen Atubiga, a commentator and member of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), was also jailed, though only for three days.

kenReactions to the Supreme Court’s move varied widely. Mr. Kuranchie’s imprisonment was immediately condemned by the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which view the move as an act of censorship and intimidation. The development, however, also drew praise from some Ghanaian journalists, who think the decision could tone down some of the heated rhetoric that goes out over Accra’s highly partisan radio shows.

In a way, reactions to the imprisonment also highlighted just how important this particular case at the Supreme Court really is: Broadcasts of the court proceedings have proved enormously popular and are being carried live on TV and radio almost every day, the case will eventually decide whether President Mahama’s election victory in late 2012 will be allowed to stand, and everybody is anxious about whether the court’s decision – whichever way it goes – will be met with acceptance or rioting from partisan mobs.

Mr. Kuranchie’s comments, made in a front page editorial, criticized the Supreme Court’s decision to haul in a communications director for the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP); the court reprimanded the political activist for comments calling the court “hypocritical,” but Mr. Kuranchie asked in his newspaper why the court did not also bring in other social commentators who had called the court much worse in public. The court, angered by Mr. Kuranchie’s words, hauled him before the bench, but the journalist, whom some call “loud mouthed,” was unapologetic, arguing with the court before refusing to issue an unconditional apology.

GJA president Affail Monney said the court’s decision to silence Mr. Kuranchie with jail time was a “reputational injury” to Ghana’s vibrant media landscape, which has flowered during the stability of recent decades. CPJ, a media freedom advocacy group, called the move an attack on Ghana’s media.

“The decision of Ghana’s Supreme Court to sentence Ken Kuranchie to 10 days imprisonment for publishing comments deemed critical of the judiciary is of grave concern. This action can best be described as a direct attack on the press intended to instil a climate of media censorship,” said Peter Nkanga, CPJ’s West Africa Consultant. “Ghana’s apex court should rescind its decision immediately.”

Ghana’s press freedoms are prized in a region that often lacks them. In Africa recently, according to CPJ, Gabon has shut down three newspapers; four journalists were attacked in separate incidents in the Guinean capital of Conakry; Nigeria, which has 11 unsolved journalist murders, continues to legally harass journalists with the newspaper Leadership with “forgery” over a story about the president; a critical Zambian news website was shut down for four days; and a newspaper office was laid siege to in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, among many other incidents. Comparatively, Ghana is a haven for press freedom, which is perhaps why Mr. Kuranchie’s arrest has generated so many headlines (The Daily Searchlight: “Brave Ken Kuranchie Gets 10 Days”; The New Statesman: “Nobody Can Intimidate Us: Supreme Court Asserts Its Authority”) and filled so many minutes on talk radio.

“I’m pleading profusely on the sentence imposed on Ken Kuranchie”, GJA’s Mr. Monney told XYZ News, a local radio station in Accra.

At the same time, not all are reacting to Mr. Kuranchie’s jailing with a sense that it hints ominously at the violations of press freedoms elsewhere on the continent. Many questioned why the Supreme Court decided to tackle the issue itself without referring Mr. Kuranchie’s case to the Attorney General, which many think would have been a more proper procedure. But while some of the commentary defending the court’s move is clearly related to partisan bickering between supporters of the NDC and the NPP, the two main political parties, some were of the opinion that Ghana’s democracy still needed some protection from full and unbridled free speech.

Martin Asiedu-Dartey, a broadcast journalist in Accra with Citi FM and editor of the station’s Weekend Globe newspaper, said there is a difference between silencing legitimate critics and cracking down on irresponsible commentary which impugns the legitimacy of the court and could lead to violence when the verdict finally comes down.

“Before you know, people are on the streets with cutlasses…because some idiot somewhere spoke,” Mr. Asiedu-Dartey said. “It is nowhere near gagging media freedom… It’s going to draw the attention of all journalists and social commentators that they should be more responsible for their statements. Be sure that your criticism of their activities in the court, particularly with regard to the election petition, should be measured – and should not cause there to be any doubt about any judgement they give.”