20 Years after coup, media freedom in the Gambia remains in crisis
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the bloodless coup, which instated Yahya Jammeh as President of the Gambia. Often referred to as Africa’s last dictatorship, the Gambia is one of the most repressive States on the continent.
On this significant anniversary, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) joins civil society organisations all over the world in urging President Yahya Jammeh to protect journalists, human rights and political activists by repealing legislative provisions that restrict freedom of expression, and immediately and unconditionally releasing all prisoners of conscience and those imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression. MISA also implores Gambian authorities to investigate and punish all unlawful harassment and assault of journalists and activists.
Despite an obligation to uphold freedom of expression by virtue of Article 34 of the Constitution and as a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Gambia has one of the most repressive environments for freedom of expression in the world.
The media in Gambia continue to suffer persecution and have been subjected to intimidation and imprisonment over the last decade, including the unlawful killing of journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004, the enforced disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh in 2006, and the torture of journalist Musa Saidykhan in 2012.
Earlier this year, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court ruled that the Gambian government failed to conduct a meaningful investigation into the murder of Hydara, and awarded US$50,000 to Hydara’s family as compensation. The Court also stated that this ruling, in addition to previous rulings concerning Manneh and Saidykhan, demonstrated that the Gambian government was fostering a climate of impunity, a serious violation of freedom of expression.
The criminal law provides harsh penalties for offenses such as the publication of false news, sedition and criminal defamation. In July 2013, the National Assembly passed the Information and Communication (Amendment) Act providing that internet users, journalists and bloggers found guilty of spreading false news face 15 years in prison and fines of up to US$74,690. There are also periodic reports of overt State censorship, with numerous radio stations and newspapers being temporarily shut down in recent years, and a number of foreign media sources being blocked in the country. There is a culture of self-censorship in private media, which are frequently subjected to State pressure.
In January 2014, two journalists, The Voice editor Musa Sheriff and freelance journalist Sainey Marena were arrested and charged with “conspiracy to commit a felony and publication of false news with intent to cause fear and alarm to the public”, and are still awaiting trial. Over the last month Sanna Camara, a journalist with The Standard, has been summoned to police headquarters several times over a recent story published about human trafficking in the Gambia.
MISA strongly condemns the violations of media freedom, free expression and general human rights violations in the Gambia. All journalists have the right to peacefully conduct their work without fear of violence or criminal sanctions.
In 2013 MISA and dozens of other influential African partners refused to attend the 53rd session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), held in the Gambia where the ACHPR headquarters are situated, after nine prisoners were executed in the country in 2012. The boycott was an expression of widespread discontent with the current Gambian regime, as well as with the ACHPR’s continuing presence in the country whilst blatant violations of the African Charter were taking place there.
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