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Thursday, December 2, 2021

An assessment of freedom of expression in The Gambia; post-Jammeh

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Context of freedom of expression in The Gambia under Jammeh

The Gambia’s democratization process came to a halt in 22nd July, 1994. On a Friday, a group of dissident young soldiers from the Gambia National Army led by lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, toppled the (PPP) government of Sir Dawda; an event that became vastly misconstrued as a bloodless coup. Using corruption as a pretext to justify this unconstitutional means of assuming prowess, the coupes at the outset of their military administration, disguised as saviours to the masses promising a new beginning through the establishment of a transitional military government that was to restructure the statuesque, cleanse the Gambia of corruption, economic mismanagement, and get back to the barracks. In an interview with an observer journalist dated 25th may 1994, the Junta members had this to share; “We will never introduce a dictatorship in this country…our objective is to establish a just system and hand over power to the civilians.” However, these promises never came to sight. Upon securing the office of the presidency, the military leadership-initiated reform processes to revamp the state of affairs. Amongst these were the “Algali commission” tasked to unearth the malpractices and dubious economic dealings of the (PPP) regime, and the amendment of the 1970 republic constitution which came into effect in 1997 through a referendum. Notwithstanding, contrary to public expectation, the (APRC) government reinvented the wheel and outran the (PPP) regime in the domain of economic mismanagement and most particularly, human rights violations. After Jammeh took over The Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland, he installed a network of oppression, driven by the police, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and a death squad called the Junglers. Appearing before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission established by President Barrow’s administration, Ebrima Chongan, formerly the Deputy Inspector General of Police under the (PPP) governorship, confessed how he was brutishly tortured by the loyal machineries of the military government at the advent of their leadership. “They beat me and pulled me out and showed me some blood and one of the soldiers asked me to say my final prayers,” he said. “I am not embarrassed to say I was screaming. I thought I would die.” Furthermore, within the realm of freedom of the press and speech which is the centerpiece of this assessment study, the (APRC) leadership sustained dimension. Governing the country for nearly two decades and a half, the Jammeh led administration censored the press. Several journalists, human rights defenders and citizens were arbitrary arrested and detained for expressing themselves. Journalist Abdoulie Ceesay of Teranga FM, a local media house was arbitrarily detained for more than nine months and tortured by Gambian security forces.

These syndromes of the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction government (APRC), were further reaffirmed base on the government’s repeated failure to comply with several rulings by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice, including refusing to compensate Musa Saidykhan, and the families of Ebrima Manneh and Deyda Hydara who are victims of the then brutish (APRC) rulership.

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Serving as the head of government, the Gambia under Jammeh witnessed institutional decay and an absolute denial from government to observe good practices and the rule of law. The justice system suffered acute setbacks undermined by the interference of the executive and increasing repressive legislations aimed at muzzling dissent. For example, in April 2013, the National Assembly passed amendments to the Criminal Code increasing sanctions for giving false information to public servants (Section 114) from six months imprisonment and/or a fine of 500 Dalasi (approximately US$13) to imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of 50,000 Dalasi (about US$1,293). (Media Foundation for West Africa 2020). The administration’s relentlessness to cripple the media and the ordinary citizens as a means of averting criticism and the maintenance of popularity persisted throughout her governorship. 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 can be punished by up to 15 years in prison and may be fined up to 3 million dalasi (approximately US$74,690). These drawbacks with dreadful ramifications that threatened democracy in the Gambia survived lengthily- unraveling in numerous fashions. Arbitrary arrest of senior civil servants, ministers and members of the security services were a predominant experience. Many of these people who were kept in detention, encountered torture and enforced disappearances. During 2015, as in the past years, numerous real or perceived opponents of the government were subjected to severe torture by the Gambian security forces and paramilitary groups. According to the 2016 World Report about the Human Rights condition in the Gambia published through Human Rights Watch, most of those nationals accused of flawed behaviors through the staging of protests, also derogated as “public disorder” by government and those accused of defaulting in the line of duty were all mostly designed to intimidate government opponents or to punish those who do not sympathize with the President, standing out as staunch critiques of the former government’s administration policy failures. The (APRC) government’s detest and unceasing attempts to suppress media independence which is an enshrinement of the Gambian laws and freedom of expression captured in paragraph 25 of the national constitution, culminated to the outrageous violations of the rights of media personals coordinated through ambush, and later killings that stand refuted by the former government until date. Mr Jammeh’s government was under intense pressure to solve the murder of the editor of The Point newspaper, Deyda Hydara gunned down in 2004; he has become a symbol of the campaign for press freedom in The Gambia. As reported by the international media group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Gambia during the reign of former President Jammeh, was subjected to absolute intolerance of any form of criticism” in The Gambia, with death threats, surveillance and arbitrary night-time arrests of journalists “who do not sing the government’s praises. A justification many held which informed the judgements of nationals in the country, the local and the international media, regional and international organizations for blaming the then government as a potential culprit in the killing of Journalist Hydara. As evidence presents base on the testimonies delivered before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission by witnesses, former president Jammeh ordered the killings and torture of political opponents and the murder of 56 West African migrants, and “witch hunts” in which hundreds of women were arbitrarily detained.

Moreover, the efforts of the government of Yaya Jammeh to deprive citizens the right to disagree with the decisions of government were visible in the form of crackdowns by security forces. In 2016, a group of protesters demanding for electoral reforms took to the streets of West field in other to manifest their grievances and have the government relook the statutes for elections and electioneering in the Gambia. In this process of citizens trying to execute their constitutionally protected privileges, many were raided, tortured, killed and some later prosecuted for this act communicated by government as “public disobedience.” Notable among those citizens, majorly from the United Democratic Party (UDP) who were brutalized at the protest was Solo Sandeng. One identified as part of the lead protesters. Muhammed Sandeng’s father, Solo, was beaten to death at the headquarters of Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency in April 2016. Sandeng’s death following a demonstration against the 22-year rule of then president Jammeh, helped galvanize resistance to Jammeh’s authoritarianism culminating in his defeat in December 2016 elections. Human Rights Watch reports. This defiance which was a renounced feature of Yaya Jammeh and his administration targeted towards the Press and critical citizens, propelled the desire in Gambians to inject a change through the ballot box which is acknowledged to be a unique experience for the country and the continent, as it proved that it is probable for dictatorships to be ousted without violence erupting.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION UNDER THE NEW LEADERSHIP

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Gambians ousting former president Jammeh by voting for the coalition government stewarded by the current head of state Adama Barrow, the new leadership promised the dawning of a new era in Gambia’s political history which was going to be characterized by democratic advancement in all facets of governance most significantly, the protection of the basic and fundamental human rights of the nationals of the country which includes freedom of expression by the citizenry, and the press. This promise of government was further renewed in her National Development Plan as a priority of government. The plan under its governance framework, emphasized the objective of building a Gambia in which all citizens will benefit from highest standards of good governance, equality before the law and freedom of expression, accountability and strict observance of the principles of separation of powers. However, despite the change of leadership and the ongoing reform processes which is meant to rebuild the Gambian institutions that have been paralyzed by the former (APRC) government, and deter the reoccurrence of the past authoritarian experience, there seem not to exist a clean break from the past or the previous arrangement within the context of freedom of expression and of the media. Instances of violations known to be the flaws of the past administration still appear troubling in the newly acclaimed democracy. Evidence abounds, that in January 2018, according to the Point News Paper, Dr Ceesay, a senior political Science lecturer at the University of the Gambia, had suggested in an interview, that it is important for the President of the Republic to win the trust of the local army, in a bid to ensure long-term security in the country as the presence of regional forces in the country does not necessarily guarantee such security. The response from government after Mr Ceesay’s expressed opinion as a concern citizen and a Security Analyst reflected a blatant attempt to subvert the constitutionally provided rights of the citizens vis-à-vis freedom of speech and the press. Ceesay was subsequently arrested, detained and charged with motives of inciting violence. This attracted a rousing condemnation from the public, the civil society and democratic institutions both locally and internationally. The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa had this to share in protest of Dr. Ismaila Ceesay’s unlawful arrest: “IHRDA condemns the unlawful arrest and detention of Political Scientist, Dr Ismaila Ceesay, by The Gambia Police on 31 January 2018 for expressing an opinion on national security” Moreover, this nature of events continued to surface following the threatening of a media personnel publicly, affiliated with Foraya newspaper by the former Minister of Interior, Ahmed Mai Fatty. Furthermore, the beating of journalist Pa Modou Bojang, the Manager of Home Digital Media by security forces at the Faraba Bantang Incident sparked by the protest of natives against the minding of sand in the area which according to the natives, was polluting rice peddles, was equally a manifestation of the looming state of media freedom in the Gambia. The new government’s constitutionally defying undertakings especially within the dimension of protest politics, going forward, continue to embrace a fiercely rising trend; persistent and unchanging.  The arrest of peaceful protesters in agreement with the 3 years coalition resolution which was later restaged in January 2020 ending up in a crackdown between the Paramilitaries and those calling for the President’s immediate resignation, represents to a great extent, the new leadership’s anti-speech policy expressed through protest. In the aspect of legislations, the government chose to be selective scraping in part the coverage of sedition law to only protect the president of the republic. In 2018, the State Intelligence Agency (SIS) gave out a warning, stating that social media may affect security, prompting some concern about the potential for online surveillance or user restrictions. Furthermore, the arrest of the group of soldiers who stood trial for treason in relation to messages in a WhatsApp group in 2017, also represents a symbolism of the new government’s tight surveillance on the Gambian media- most especially social media which had instilled phobia in many citizens placing a limitation of how much they say especially when it relates to government. The most recent counter response against the smooth prevalence of Freedom of speech by the government of the Gambia is the arrest of Madi Jobarteh, a prominent human rights activist in the Gambia for expressing his dismay towards police brutality in the Gambia. Mr. Jobarteh was charged by the police with false information and broadcasting in accordance with Section 181A (1) of the criminal code and he was later granted police bail with a Gambian surety, deposited the sum of D50,000 before the police finally dropped the charges against him last week. In an interview with the Point News Paper, Mr Jobateh shared his unreserved concern in respect to the deteriorating state of freedom of expression in the Gambia. Speaking of which, he had this to opine:

“The presence of draconian laws as the one with which I was charged and the attitude of public institutions such as the police to abuse their powers just like that indicate a clear and present threat to citizens’ rights and a move towards dictatorship and away from democracy.”

These events reminiscent of the old order, contradicts the National Development Plan (NDP) in its good governance gaols, undermines the plight of the Gambian people which informed their choices in the December 1st and 2nd presidential elections and most importantly, puts the entire transitional justice processes in jeopardy. This is because, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC), as well as the Constitutional Review Commission for instance are part of the transitional justice mechanisms established by government to aid the reform processes. The former seeks to unearth the truth with respect to human right abuses that were committed under the Jammeh administration with accompanying objectives of reuniting the Gambian society and giving out reparations to victims to achieve compromise, and the latter focuses on refashioning the Gambian constitution for an even representation and the protection of the fundamental rights and liberties of all and sundry so as to avert a reoccurrence. Thus, witnessing a revert by the new government to the same system they condemned during the days of the struggle through the breaching of the rights of the citizenry, notably, the entitlement of citizens to express their views and the media to operate freely, defeats the purpose of the Gambian transitional justice process.

CONCLUSION

In light of the dual fact-base contexts of freedom of expression in the Gambia under authoritarian rule, and the “New Gambia” which gained prominence in 2016, it is noteworthy that the legacies of the former APRC government understood in the terms of disregarding the rule of law, continual breach of the principle of separation of powers, intimidation of nationals that are critical to governmental policies and the censorship of the media, its personals and the general citizenry over the right to express themselves, persist as setbacks hindering the robust establishment of democracy in the country. It is without doubt, that the advent of the Barrow administration eased the pressure that was mounted on the Gambian media and the ordinary citizens and presented a better administrative outlook that embraced the cardinal principles of the rule of law, separation of powers and constitutionalism but not in its entirety. This is because despite the verbal accolades accorded to the new administration within the perspective of democratic advancement, governance flaws and abuses especially in the domain of freedom of expression as a right and media independence replicating the defeated APRC modus Operandi, remain a concern to many Gambians. Thus, it is crucial for civil society and other oversight institutions in the country such as the parliament, and the media, the National Assembly and interest groups to intensify their advocacy against repression from government which attempts to silence those who speak truth to power. For democracy, as described by Patrice Lumumba, most be guided by eternal vigilance.

RECOMMENDATIONS

With reference to the empirical evidences put forward detailing the situation of freedom of speech and the press in the Gambia under the second and the present leadership, it is imperative for government to relook her nature of response to critiques whose thoughts do not resonate with most initiations of government; as this represents democracy in practice which welcomes divergence in all manner of discourse. It is no hard news that part of the objectives after the dawning of the new beginning in 2016  as envisioned by the citizenry and promised by government, was to introduce a modern statuesque in which security institutions will be repurposed to doing their constitutional mandates of protecting lives and properties of the nationals and non-nationals residing in the Gambia, maintaining law and order as well as the protection of the country’s territorial jurisdiction and not being used by the executive as did former president Jammeh in other to crush all forms of oppositions from the media and amongst the citizenry. Therefore, is of great importance for the present government to ensure that the good administrative practice of institutional independence is reinforced. This will facilitate growth amongst the various security institutions in the country, place a check on the prowess of the executive arm of government and also guarantee a deterrence of human rights violations especially those that infringe on the freedom and rights of Gambians to express themselves.

Moreover, civil society should also improve on her advocacy for the renewal and adoption of a new republican constitution which is principal as far as the Gambian Transitional Justice is concern. This will pave way for the accommodation of sound media laws contrary to the “Sedition and libel” laws of the 1997 constitution and will make possible the making of statutes that identifies with the wishes of the sovereign citizens of the Gambia that safeguard the rights of individuals, permitting a smooth media operation and independent performance. The efforts by civil society on political education campaigns through the media and the varying platforms available should also be massified to help strengthen freedom of expression in the Gambia. For participation, is more common with people that are informed-so does it nourish freedom of expression.

Unarguably, the National Assembly of the Gambia is one of the most towering democratic institutions in the country which is constitutionally obligated to engender laws through an independent and popular process. Contrary to this principle, the Gambian assembly, as experienced during the reign of former president Jammeh was reduced to a mare stooge and her roles compromised- dancing to the tunes of the Head of government. This explains to a great degree, how the Gambian constitution became subjected to series of illegitimate alterations with the executive and representatives in parliament alike. The end result of this unpopular and mal-administrative understanding which defied the ideal doctrine of separation of Powers, invited draconian laws that intensified suppression on media freedom and freedom of speech in the country fuelling sentimentalism and grieve in people which introduced the change in December 2016. Thus, the representatives in the National Assembly should accord utmost respect and priority to the principle of Separation of Powers in the course of duty discharge through the making of independent laws and the scrutinization of governmental operations. This is momentous as it will help to tame the power of the executive, prevent meddling, ensure popular representation in the making of statutes that advances democratic credentials like freedom of expression and equally promote accountability.

Kara Jallow,

Social Researcher,

Centre for Research and Policy Development,

The Gambia.

Twitter: @jallow_kara

Email: [email protected]

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