By Madi Jobarteh
On July 14 a public statement appeared on Pres. Barrow’s Facebook page entitled ‘Democracy cannot celebrate Autocracy’, part of which says,
“While my government promotes media freedom, we would urge the media to take responsibility in publishing and disseminating information by any individual, group or party that is clearly seditious. The media has an important role in promoting freedom of expression, peace and stability. There is a crystal clear difference between freedom of speech and the abuse of free speech when it turns to sedition.”
This is a very concerning statement because it is a direct threat to the media that can only be described as an attempt to suppress the freedom of the press to report freely on issues, events, people and organizations in the Gambia. The media does not ask people to make news. People and organizations act on their own or organize their own events so that the media merely reports what happens in society. Hence to send such a message is therefore asking the media to censor themselves by not reporting on some people, events or organizations. The president has no such authority to tell the media.
What is even more concerning is when the statement mentions the word “Sedition” and the phrase “abuse of free speech”. What does the president wish to tell the media community by the use of this word and phrase? What does he mean? What have the press done in the Gambia since the advent of the new government to warrant such a warning?
The president must be informed that on 30 May 2017 his Minister of Justice was at the Supreme Court in the case of the GPU concerning sedition where he said,
“The new government has made a public commitment to respect and uphold the fundamental human rights of every person, particularly as enshrined in sections 18 to 33 including Section 25, which guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, associate, concise and movement.”
In 2015 the Gambia Press Union filed a petition at the Supreme Court to declare sedition and false news as unconstitutional. Barrow’s government conceded that indeed sedition is unconstitutional before the highest court of the land. The Minister of Justice further added that the government is committed to repeal all laws unjustifiably limiting rights and have taken steps to that effect already.
Why therefore should the president come up with a statement where he makes mention of sedition?! It is important to also remind Pres. Barrow that in his Manifesto, he has pledged to repeal sedition laws out of our books. Therefore why would Barrow use sedition in speaking to the media? This is extremely disturbing and it needs to be addressed!
I wish to therefore urge the president to withdraw this statement because it is unbecoming of a democratically elected president especially one that is immediately following such a brutal dictator like Yaya Jammeh. He must withdraw this statement because it is unwarranted and sends a very bad message to not just the media but to all Gambians. The moment the head of state speaks about such words then all citizens must be worried because such words directly threaten fundamental rights and freedoms.
Sedition is the biggest weapon that stifles freedom of expression. Free of expression is the foundation of democracy and good governance. Sedition criminalizes opinion and limits citizens’ freedom to scrutinize their leaders and government. Sedition therefore limits the ability of citizens to demand transparency and accountability of the State hence sedition is a tool that promotes abuse of power, corruption and bad governance. We do not expect that a Gambian president will ever again mention such a word in his or her mouth.
I wish to therefore call on the Gambia Press Union to write a letter of concern to the Minister of Information and the Director of Press, both of who are journalists to demand that the president retracts this statement. GPU must demand that the president renew his commitment to freedom of the media as he had done in his first press conference that the media is now free in the Gambia forever.
All citizens must be concerned about the use of such words by the president and demand that this statement be withdrawn and a proper statement be re-issued with the right words. We must stand up to protect our democracy and freedom. The State has all the tools of power and coercion hence every word, decision and action of the government must be severely checked in order to restrain the government from abuse of power.
In future Pres. Barrow must consult his legal adviser, The Minister of Justice who the citizens are paying for him, to vet the legality and appropriateness of his public statements. The press must be left alone to do their job according to law and must not be threatened or controlled with such undemocratic words and phrases. It is such illegal words that turn into illegal decisions and then into illegal actions hence the suppression of our rights.
God bless The Gambia