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02/14/2012

Questioning press freedom in Ghana

Gifty Lawson
Gifty Lawson, a photogrpaher working for one of Ghana's largest national newspapers, The Daily Guide. Photo by Jonathan Migneault

By Jonathan Migneault

“I will shoot! I will shoot!”

That is what Daily Guide photographer Gifty Lawson says she heard from a man waving a gun during an incident on Jan. 12 that made her a household name in Ghana.

Agents with Ghana’s Bureau of National Investigation (BNI), the country’s equivalent to the FBI, allegedly assaulted Lawson, along with two Daily Guide security guards. Lawson says she was attacked for taking photos of a suspect from a high-profile case outside of a courthouse in Ghana’s capital, Accra.

In Ghana there are no laws preventing journalists from taking photos outside a courthouse.

“They took my trousers from the back and I could feel their hands in between my buttocks,” says Lawson, who has now returned to work at the Daily Guide. “They jacked me up and dragged me, manhandled me. I was exposed. My dress was torn and then they took me to their car.”

Lawson and the two security guards, Michael Awampaga and Anthony Antwi, say the lead up to the alleged attack occurred the day before.

That day Lawson had accompanied ccourt reporter Mary Anane to take some photos of Gifty Mawuenyega Tehoda, Accra’s deputy superintendent of police, who was suspected of stealing cocaine that had come into possession of the police and replacing it with baking soda.

Lawson says some women who were related to the suspect started yelling at her for taking photos outside the courthouse. A man approached her and asked her to delete the photos. She complied but says he then grabbed her camera and damaged the lens in the process.

The next day she returned to cover the case with Awampaga and Antwi, who accompanied her for protection.

This time men who turned out to be BNI agents were blocking the Tehoda, the case’s main suspect, from the cameras as she exited the courthouse.

 Awampaga says a man approached them and attacked, trying to grab Lawson’s camera. He was knocked to the ground and handcuffed. Lawson was allegedly violated and also handcuffed while Antwi, who says he was beaten by the agents’ rifles, eventually managed to escape in the confusion and return to the newspaper's offices.  

“They beat me, they kicked me down and then they stomped on me,” says Awampaga. “My nose was bleeding, my ribs were paining me and my chest was also paining me.”

He and Lawson were brought to the BNI headquarters where they were questioned. After Lawson deleted her photos they were released and brought to a local hospital to tend to their injuries.

The event was immediately covered by the local radio stations and made the front page of most Accra newspapers the next day.

 “At a point in time I couldn’t even come out of my house because they were taking pictures everywhere,” says Lawson. “People were pointing figures at me saying, ‘That’s the girl that BNI assaulted!’ It was very depressing.”

Numerous groups including the National Media Commission, the Ghana Journalists Association and the Human Rights Advocacy Centre have spoken out about the incident and condemned BNI’s actions.

“The media are indispensable to the building of democracy. We therefore wish to appeal to all security agencies to educate their personnel on the need to preserve press freedom and freedom of expression and to restrain their men from carrying out such acts of unwarranted attack and intimidation which undermine democracy,” the Ghana Journalists Association said in a statement.  

The association asked Paul Quaye, Accra’s inspector general of police, to investigate the matter.

Daniel Asare Korang, the Human Rights Advocacy Centre’s programs manager, says there have been reports of similar actions from BNI in the past. He says that journalists in Ghana have a right to information, and that the alleged attack on Lawson infringed on that right.

But Larry Gbevlo-Lartey, Ghana’s national security coordinator, has denied the attack ever took place. In an interview with the radio station Joy FM he said that BNI agents were obstructed from doing their jobs and that "a person accompanying a journalist slapped one of the security personnel."

That person, according to Gbevlo-Lartey, was Awampaga.

“They are telling me I assaulted the BNI guards, but meanwhile I’m sitting in pain,” Awampaga says. “I haven’t done anything. We just took pictures.”

Lawson says she is still traumatized by the event.

“I’m still not comfortable working,” says Lawson, holding back tears. “I’m trying to gather the courage.”

Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada’s Youth International Internship Program in Ghana and Malawi, the Canadian International Development Agency in Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development in Liberia.

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  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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