Abuja — Authorities in Ghana should immediately drop all charges against journalist Oheneba Boamah Bennie and allow him work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On December 14, Ghanaian police arrested Bennie, a host and commentator with the privately owned Power FM broadcaster, and detained him until he was released on bail on December 16, Bennie told CPJ over the phone.
Authorities allege that videos Bennie posted to his personal Facebook page on December 9 and 10, in which he described Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Ado as anti-democratic, constituted violations of the country's constitution, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ.
Bennie has over 26,000 followers on his Facebook page, where he frequently posts political commentary and links to his reporting. Bennie told CPJ that his programs on Power FM are mostly supportive of the opposition National Democratic Congress Party. That party's presidential candidate, John Dramani Mahama, has rejected claims that Akufo-Ado won the December 11 presidential elections, according to news reports.
On December 15, during his detention, authorities filed a court request to detain Bennie for an unspecified period of time pending an investigation into those videos; a court is scheduled to issue a decision on that request tomorrow, according to a copy of the request, which CPJ reviewed, and Eric Ahianyo, Bennie's colleague at Power FM, and Francis Xavier Kojo Sosu, the journalist's lawyer, both of whom spoke to CPJ in phone interviews.
"Authorities in Ghana should withdraw their request to further detain journalist Oheneba Boamah Bennie and halt all other legal proceedings against him," said Angela Quintal, CPJ's Africa program coordinator, in Durban, South Africa. "Journalists in Ghana should be free to comment on issues of public interest without fear that they will be summoned by the police and arrested."
The authorities' court request also alleged that Bennie distributed an audio recording that mentioned a possible coup d'etat in the country. A U.S.-based Ghanaian journalist, Kwaku Skirt, told CPJ by phone that he had made that recording as part of a broadcast on his radio station, Apple 68 FM, and did not understand why it had been linked to Bennie. CPJ reviewed Bennie's Facebook page and did not find a copy of that recording.
Following Bennie's arrest on December 14, the Ghana Police Service posted a statement on Facebook alleging that Bennie had "insulted and issued a series of threats to the President" and allegedly violated Sections 207 and 208(1) of the country's penal code, pertaining to breaches of the peace and the publication of "false news."
Ahianyo told CPJ that, on December 14, protesters gathered at the Ring Road police headquarters, where Bennie was detained, and called for his release. Due to those protests, the journalist was moved to the Police Force Striking Unit Central Business District, also in Accra, he said.
On December 16, Bennie was released after he posted a bond of 100,000 Ghana cedis (US$17,021) and two people agreed to vouch for him, according to Ahianyo and Sosu.
In addition to the allegations described in the December 14 police press release, authorities' court request also accused Bennie of "bringing the judiciary to disrepute... in video and audio recordings published to the entire world," and accused him of threatening that Ghanaians would resist the president and judiciary, and "the military had to stage a coup d'etat."
According to the court request, authorities allege that Bennie's comments contravened Article 125 Subsections (1) and (3) of Ghana's constitution, which provides for the independence of the country's judiciary.
Bennie told CPJ that he never mentioned a coup d'état, and said he believed he had a duty as a journalist to inform the public about his opinions on the country's politics.
Ghanaian police spokesperson Sheilla Kessie Abayie-Buckman told CPJ via messaging app that the police had the right to arrest and detain suspects, and then referred CPJ to the December 14 police press release.
Ghana Attorney General Gloria Akuffo did not respond to calls or messages from CPJ seeking comment on Bennie's case.