PUBLISHED:October 11, 2012

Spring seminar and trip focus on free speech and the media in Ghana

Students can now apply for enrollment in a spring semester seminar that will focus on comparative legal and cultural issues relating to free speech and the media in a developing democracy, and include spring-break field study in Ghana.

Developed by Professor Joseph Blocher, enrollment in the seminar, titled “Democratic Development and the Public Sphere:  Freedom of Speech and Press in Ghana,” will be capped at 12 students.  Weekly class sessions will engage students in discussion of relevant readings including a mix of primary sources, historical and cultural materials, and scholarly commentary. The intensive fact-finding trip to Ghana will allow students to assess the legal and cultural issues in context; meet with stakeholders such as government officials, print,broadcast, and online  journalists; lawyers and judges; NGOs; and tribal leaders.  Following their return, students will work collaboratively on written educational, advocacy, or strategic planning materials that could be used by Ghanaian partners and stakeholders in their work.

Blocher, a constitutional scholar who spent a year in Ghana as a Fulbright Scholar before attending law school, said the three-credit seminar will offer a timely examination of the role of the public sphere in the development of a young democracy.  Ghanaians will vote in December in the sixth presidential election held since the passage of the country’s 1992 constitution which offers guarantees of freedom of the press.  A Constitutional Review Commission recently recommended the passage of a Right to Information Bill, a Broadcast Bill to improve regulation of broadcast media, and the promulgation of professional press standards.

“Ghana has a really interesting record of wonderful successes and also some persistent challenges in relation to speech and the press,” said Blocher, who focuses much of his scholarship on the First Amendment.  “A lot of the press is state owned, and reporting is often shaped to put whatever the government is doing in the best light.  You can hold the front page of a state-owned paper beside the front page of an independent paper and get totally different reports of the same event, which is stunning.  It says a lot about what it means to have a free speech culture and its interfaces with politics.”

That’s why Blocher hopes the seminar will attract students interested in law and development, as well as those interested in international and comparative law. “Sometimes people focus on law and development as being about just economic concerns narrowly defined,” he said.  “But in a maturing democracy like Ghana, one of the most successful countries in all of sub-Saharan Africa, how do you nurture the link between government and civil society in a way that keeps them both strong?  If they are not, there’s no amount of economic tinkering you can do that will keep the country stable.”  He also hopes the seminar will students with strong interests in the First Amendment, an area in which relatively little comparative work has been done, particularly in young democracies like Ghana’s.

Professor Kwame Karikari, executive director of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) will serve as Blocher’s full-time partner in Ghana during the students’ weeklong trip.  Because of Karikari’s connections with more repressive parts of West Africa such as Gambia and Cote d’Ivoire, the students’ work has the potential to have broader regional resonance, Blocher said.

The spring-break trip to Ghana is being subsidized by Duke’s Center for International and Comparative Law (CICL), but each student will be expected to contribute to travel costs absent a demonstration of financial hardship.  The deadline for submitting completed applications for enrollment to Sharon Sebolt, Blocher’s assistant, is Oct. 22, 2012, at 5:00 p.m. Application requirements can be found here.

Blocher’s seminar continues a Duke Law tradition of spring-break seminars offering students hands-on learning experiences in international and comparative law and human rights.  Earlier seminars and trips supported by CICL have focused on Afro-Brazilian land rights, housing issues in East Jerusalem arising from the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and customary law, statutory law, and women’s property rights in Ghana.  Two other seminars have engaged students in law reform initiatives pertaining to women’s rights, housing, and rebuilding infrastructure in Haiti.