Elizabeth Ohene: BBC did a poor job on Ghana’s “free speech claims”

According to the BBC report that prompted Ms Ohene’s observations, “a number of Ghanaian journalists and influencers have been arrested in recent years” to answer for comments they made

The respected Ghanaian stateswoman and international journalist Elizabeth Ohene, 77, says the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), where she once worked as an editor, did a very poor job in a recent report that painted Ghana as a country where free speech is under attack.

According to the disputed BBC documentary report, there was a crackdown on free speech in Ghana because, in recent times, the law had taken issue with public statements made on radio and social media by a number of people, notably a radio presenter and a social medial influencer. The BBC described the problem as relating to “several recent high-profile cases”.

The BBC said that “critics say freedom of speech is under serious threat” in Ghana as a result of the incidents.

The BBC’s report stated that, “since the start of 2022 a handful of prominent journalists and social media influencers have been detained”, a situation which the report suggested was not the case until recently.

The BBC also claimed that it has spoken “to those who say they are paying a price for the words they posted or broadcast, including radio presenter Bobie Ansah, who faces a charge of publication of false news and offensive conduct”.

The BBC report, by Jonathan Griffin, was produced by Favour Nunoo.

Excuse for a coup

Liz Ohene’s letter to Mike Wendling, the editor of the BBC Trending programme in which the report featured, described Griffin’s work in producing the report as “a shallow job”, and questioned whether standards had fallen at the BBC.

She reminded the BBC how it had been so shocked by an article that she herself (Ms Ohene) wrote in London in the 1980s, arguing that the persistent miners’ strike in UK was the kind of event that elsewhere would be cited as an excuse for a coup, that she was interviewed by the BBC about it.

“But when the BBC starts a programme that purports to be about Ghana’s free speech being under attack, with a man [Bobie Ansah] whose claim to fame seems to be how scurrilous he can be about his opponents, who makes no attempt to be factual and who uses the most obscene language to describe Ghana’s First Lady at every opportunity, I have to wonder about the BBC.”

And she asks in her letter: “Have the editors of the programme determined that this is a journalist, doing a professional job, who is being muzzled and attacked?”

“Third World” judgements

The other example cited at length in the report by Jonathan Griffin was that of Oliver Barker-Vormawor, the lawyer who allegedly used his Facebook page to praise coups in West Africa and chided the Ghana Armed Forces for not overthrowing the 1992 constitution.

Ms Ohene writes, “Then, there is the second person who is cited. I perfectly understand that, for the BBC, someone who is a PhD student in Cambridge is in a rarefied stratosphere and cannot and should not be challenged by the authorities of a Third World country.”

She adds, “Did the editors of the programme take into consideration in making a judgement about Mr Barker-Vormawor that he had worked in the office of the two preceding presidents who are in opposition to the current government?”

She reminded the BBC that in the Third Republic, when security officials followed up on intelligence that Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings and Captain Kojo Tsikata were planning a coup, the Corporation reported that Rawlings’s and Tsikata’s rights were being abused. Shortly after that, she recalled, the 31 December 1981 coup took place, followed by 11 years of uninterrupted military rule.

Click below to read her letter to the BBC.

Elizabeth Ohene’s letter to the BBC on its recent report focusing on free speech in Ghana

Wilberforce Asare

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