By Yusef Taylor, @FlexDan_YT and Barbara Eze
When Gambian President, Adama Barrow secured the services of exiled journalist Demba A. Jawo as Information Minister, he rekindled hopes that he had the political will and the right man in place to champion press freedom in The Gambia. Earlier in August 2018, The Gambia’s State House released a statement highlighting US research institute, Freedom House’s report that “freedom in the Gambia has seen remarkable improvement compared to what used to obtain a few years ago”. This indicates that progress on freedom of the press since President Barrow came into power following a political impasse in the aftermath the historic December 2016 elections. This article provides a comprehensive review of how much progress has been made?
Under a coalition ticket, President Barrow’s mandate was to usher in reforms and create a level playing field. This article focuses on the state of freedom of the press in The Gambia. Has President Barrow managed to repeal and reform laws that Yahya Jammeh used to suppress Gambian voices? Almost two years on, what reforms has President Barrow implemented to improve the democratic space for freedom of the press? This is our bone of contention in this two-part series. This article focuses on The Gambia’s Press Freedom during President Barrow’s 18 months reign.
2. Press Freedom Post Jammeh
The Gambian media was under sustained attack during Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year iron-fisted rule. After casting his ballot in Gambia’s 2011 Presidential elections, then President Jammeh assured of his imminent victory, retorted in true dictator style “They talk about rights, human rights, and freedom of the press, and [say that]this country is a hell for journalists. There are freedoms and responsibilities. The journalists are less than 1 percent of the population, and if anybody expects me to allow less than 1 percent of the population to destroy 99 percent of the population, you are in the wrong place.” The previous regime employed countless methods to suppress the media such as the brutal murder of Deyda Hydara, savage arson attacks on media outlets and more sophisticated tax fraud charges.
In contrast, the early months of President Barrow’s rule have seen multiple media houses establish themselves in the country, finally providing residents with an alternative to Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), previously the only Gambian TV station serving 2 million people. With this unfair monopoly giving the incumbent unrivaled favourable coverage, Jammeh reduced the state broadcaster to a propaganda tool. In today’s New Gambia, media houses such as QTV, EyeAfrica TV, Paradise TV and Fatu Network have now become household names using a mixture of live broadcasts, social media, and YouTube to engage their viewers. Numerous exiled journalists have returned and some have established media houses well known for opposing Yahya Jammeh. This is a positive sign that the incumbent is willing to entertain diverging opinions.
Putting their money where their mouths are, the Gambian government partially compensated the families of two murdered journalists, Chief Ebrima Manneh, and veteran Deyda Hydara. However, back in March 2017, Foroyaa journalist, Kebba Jeffang was attacked at a press conference convened by three political parties: NRP, UPD, and GMC. All three parties were headed by government ministers at the time and were present during the attack. Soon after the government apologised for the attack on the journalist who reports for Foroyaa newspaper, widely recognised as the mouthpiece of Gambian opposition party, PDOIS.
Three incidents worth highlighting are the separate arrests of journalists Baboucarr Nani Sey, Pa Modou Bojang and the seizing of GRTS camera equipment in Kanilai. These incidents highlight that the security apparatus are yet to fully adjust to the level of probity expected from a free press and, most importantly, the situation in Kanilai is still volatile. Baboucarr Nani Sey claimed the unenviable accolade as the first journalist to be arrested after Jammeh in June last year. Sey was accused of organising a protest intended to undermine national security. He was later released on bail. A year later, while covering a protest in Faraba, journalist Pa Modou Bojang was arrested by security officials and assaulted. He sustained head injuries as shown above.
Earlier in August 2018, a GRTS camera was seized by locals at Yahya Jammeh’s hometown, Kanilai. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) the TV crew were attacked by the grieving crowd mourning the death of Yahya Jammeh’s mother, Asombi Bojang. As the hometown of the previous President, this area continues to be an APRC stronghold. It was in Kanilai that one Haruna Jatta was shot and killed by ECOMIG Forces in June 2017.
2.1 Legislation – “One Step Forward, Two Step Backwards”
Weaponising the law, Jammeh used false information, libel and sedition legislation to prosecute journalists. In February 2018, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice ruled that The Gambia should immediately repeal such laws.
However, in May 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defamation was unconstitutional but still upheld sections of the criminal code ‘protecting’ the President. In this ‘NewGambia’ the law recognises one person above the republic, banning the publication of ‘seditious’ content on the President and prescribing jail terms of up to 15 years and or 3 Million Gambian Dalasis.
In reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) stated: “This decision is one step forward, two steps backwards for Gambia, and sends a message that journalists are still not free to work without the threat of criminal prosecution.” CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator, Angela Quintal, pleads with the administration, urging “..the government of President Adama Barrow, who pledged to champion media freedom, to uphold his word by urgently enacting legislative reform.”
2.2 Political Opponents
President Barrow has not shied away from confronting his political opponents. His very profile war of words with Dr. Ismaila Ceesay continues to rage on. It all began when an article published in the Voice Newspaper concerning an interview by the lecturer in which he advises the President to win the confidence of the Gambian army. This led to a police invitation for questioning after which Ceesay was detained on grounds of “national security”. He was later released after much public outcry in February 2018.
According to Dr. Ceesay’s narration the order for his arrest and charges came from ‘above’.
In August 2018, the war of words raged on when President Barrow publicly called out the lecturer at his bi-annual press conference. His outburst has revealed a less tolerant side to a man many Gambians viewed as humble fracturing the national perception of Barrow as a progressive and tolerant individual.
Even though The Gambia has had its fair share of challenges to address for a more safe and free press, the World Press Freedom Index 2018 ranks The Gambia 122 out of 180. This represents an increase in 21 places from 2017 and reflects the fact that no journalists have fled on exile compared to the previous regime (under which more than 110 journalists fled). However, RSF wrote a letter to the President highlighting that “Gambia still has some way to go for its press to be free and its journalist to be safe”.
Amnesty International’s “Dangerous to Dissent 2016 report” recommended that The Gambian Government should repeal laws on sedition (section 52), criminal libel (section 178), spreading false information (sections 59 and 181A) in the Criminal Code and the Information and Communication Act of 2013 which includes censorship of online expression (section 173).
According to the human rights watchdog, The Gambia is failing to conform to its international obligations. The small West African nation is a signatory to multiple international human rights treaties, including the African Charter for Human and Peoples Rights and the regional body ECOWAS’ Court of Justice before which human rights complaints can be presented. However, the country has never completed a review of its laws to repeal sections which do not conform with international human rights obligations.
Madi Jobarteh, Deputy Executive Director of TANGO, “While there has been improvements in the state of press freedom, the government’s promise of reforming media laws has taken 16 month and the laws to gag press freedom still exist.”
A wave of environmental concerns across the country has culminated in the death of 4 sand mining protesters at Faraba in June 2018. In late July 2018 during his “Meet the People” Tour, in an ominous statement, President Barrow warned protestors “the power and the laws that were here under the past regime, are still the same laws and power in the country. So I am warning all those people who will embark on protests, to follow the due process of the law. Otherwise, anything that happens to them, it is their fault.” – a stark reminder that the legal infrastructure of the former regime still remains in force. This anti-free speech rhetoric and the upholding of sedition legislation which silences dissenters shows a lack of political maturity to truly foster an environment where press freedom is respected and rights upheld begging the question – how can a New Gambia arise above Jammeh’s legal scepter in the hands of the current incumbent Barrow?