Public Officers And Their Privacy - An Opinion
Public Officers And Their Privacy - An Opinion Website
The headline of this piece has been chosen deliberately because the Writer is very much aware of the passion that the issue being discussed could engender. So, before one starts one would like to quote the 1992 Fourth Republican Constitution which states in Article 162 (4): "Editors and publishers of newspapers shall not be subject to control or interference by Government, nor shall they be penalised or harassed for their editorial opinions and views or the content of their publication." Now with the path cleared let us discuss the issue of “privacy of public officers" that has been on the airwaves and in the pages of newspapers, recently. The first school of thought holds that public officers like all other persons have the right to privacy and the media must, therefore, close their eyes on their private life, while the second school holds that the word 'public' has a certain connotation that sets such people apart, hence the media have the right to puck nose into their private life. For the avoidance of doubt this Writer belongs to the second school that holds that public officers have no private life and the media must constantly put the searchlight on them. While not attempting to appear to be adroit in the Constitution, one is constrained under the circumstance to make references to the fundamental law of the land to press home his viewpoint. Article 162 (5) states: " All agencies of mass media shall, at all times, be free to uphold the principles, provisions and objectives of this Constitution, and shall uphold the responsibility of the Government to the people of Ghana." From the above it becomes clear that the Constitution has imposed a great responsibility on the media - indeed the watchdog role of the media is succinct here. How should the media go about playing this role? It stands to reason that the media should ensure that provisions of the Constitution are applied. For example the media and indeed every Ghanaian, are enjoined in Article 41 (f): to protect and preserve public property and expose and combat misuse and waste of public funds and property." Now let us consider this scenario, which a contributor on the Internet described recently. The contributor said: "Public Officers drive expensive fuel-guzzling cross-country vehicles that are meant to be used during their travels to the hinterland, where the roads are bad, on asphalted roads in Accra as status symbol in a country, whose budget is subsidised by other countries." Is this a private matter? Should the media take such public officers to task or look on unconcerned? Let us consider other scenarios. If the public officer is using the public vehicle to convey his children to school and his wife to the market it might be tolerable. But if he or she decides to use the vehicle to go round in the evening to pick up the young girls or young men in the neighbourhood for carousing, then it must raise concerns. The main concern is that he or she would be putting State property at risk. This is because the young men or the young girls, whose girlfriends or boyfriends are being snatched from them by this public officer, might decide to vandalise the vehicle as it happened recently. The story is told that a public officer went and parked his official vehicle in front of the house of his girlfriend and after he had finished whatever he went to do, he came back to discover that the battery of the vehicle had been removed. Those who removed the battery left a terse note for him: "Mr man do not worry at all. While some like sleeping with young girls others like removing batteries." Should the media or Ghanaians allow such behaviour because the public officer has the right to choose whomever he or she wanted to associate with? What example would this public officer be giving to the younger generation? "Best practice elsewhere" is vogue in this global world. In this respect what comes to mind readily is the case involving Eliot Spitzer, Former Governor of New York, and the 22-year-old prostitute, Ashley Alexandra Dupre from Manhattan. It may be pertinent to quote James Tedisco, a Republican Assemblyman from Schenectady. He is reported to have said: "The Governor, who was going to bring ethics back to New York State, if he is involved in something like this, he's got to leave. I don't think there's any question about that." Former Governor Spitzer did the right thing. He resigned. This shows clearly that public officers cannot associate with whomever they want. Let us consider another scenario where the Ghanaian taxpayer provides accommodation for the public officer and pays the telephone, water and electricity bills. If the children of this public officer are in the habit of leaving the tap running after having their bath is it a private matter? If the security lights in the house are left on after 0800 hours when the sun is up should the media look on unconcerned because it is a private matter? If a public officer is in the habit of drinking to the state of stupor is it a private matter? This Writer is of the view that if a Journalist saw that a public officer had urinated into his trousers, the first responsibility of the Journalist is to go and inquire from the public officer whether he has a urological problem. If that is the case, then the Journalist should exercise a lot of circumspection in reporting this. However, if it were discovered that the public officer urinated into his trousers because he drunk himself to the state of stupor, then the Journalist should go ahead and report without any inhibition at all. It must, however, be admitted that the media sometimes go beyond the limit. For instance the story is told of how a Journalist went to search the dustbin of a public officer to count the number of snail shells in order to write about the quantity of snails eaten in his household. Journalists must, as responsible citizens, always remember that they are operating within a socio-cultural context, which has the Constitution as the fundamental law. The Constitution states in Article 18 (c): "No person shall be subjected to interference with the privacy of his home, property, correspondence or communication except in accordance with the law and as may be necessary in a free and democratic society for public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the protection of health or morals, for the prevention of disorder or crime, or for the protection of the rights of others." This Writer would like to advise Journalists to be on the look out for the thin line between what can be described as a person's privacy and what is of public interest. To conclude this Writer is of the view that public office is not meant for everybody. A Magistrate; Circuit Court, High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court Judges must for example know that their profession is such that they cannot behave like ordinary Ghanaians. This is because the nature of their job puts them above ordinary human beings. They are gods in their own way so they have to behave as such. Public office bestows privileges, responsibilities and risks. To quote our American friends: "If you find the kitchen too hot, you've got to get out." Public officers have no private life. Everything they do or do not do is of public interest.