By Alagie Manneh
Gambian journalists are still working and operating under threat amid the existence of an authoritarian legal and technological framework installed by the Jammeh administration, said Muhammed S Bah, the GPU president.
He said the system continues to allow for “unchecked government surveillance” of information communication technologies, undermining freedom of the press.
“For example, Article 138 of the Information Communications Act gives sweeping powers to national security agencies and investigative authorities to monitor, intercept, and store communications in unspecified circumstances while also giving the national utilities regulator, PURA, the authority to ‘intrude communication for surveillance purposes,’ all without judicial oversight,” Mr Bah stated.
He was addressing a gathering of journalists, UN systems and CSOs at a day-long symposium Saturday commemorating World Press Freedom Day.
“The Attorney General and Minister of Justice, had in 2019, introduced amendments to these provisions of the ICA, in order to provide judicial oversight for the exercise of these surveillance powers, but the National Assembly rejected these proposed amendments, to the dismay of many press freedom and free speech campaigners including the Gambia Press Union, which had fervently advocated for these amendments,” he bemoaned.
Condemning the system, he said it led to the continued unregulated surveillance of citizens, activists, and independent journalists in the country.
“[The system] reached peak notoriety in 2020, when human rights activist Madi Jobarteh alleged that he and others were being targeted by security agencies with surveillance, including of their communications devices, after he was charged with false information and broadcasting in accordance with Section 181A (1) of the Gambian criminal code, for statements made in an interview to a media outlet during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in June 2020,” Mr Bah noted.
While the scope of the government’s current technical surveillance capabilities remains unknown, he said, “it still remains that the government can, when it deems necessary, to arbitrarily exercise its surveillance powers to stifle freedom of expression and press freedom.
“It is thus incumbent that proposed amendments to the ICA, especially provisions that deal with judicial oversight for the exercise of surveillance powers, be reintroduced to the newly elected parliament, for deliberations on its necessity and importance to hopefully facilitate its amendment,” Mr Bah said.
Ms Maimuna Sidibeh, acting secretary general of Unesco/Natcom, said World Press Freedom Day – customarily marked every May 3rd – is reminder to government of the need to respect commitments to freedom, and defend the media from attacks.
“As UN agency with a specific mandate to promote the free flow of ideas by word and image, Unesco works to foster free independent pluralistic media in print, broadcast and online,” she said.
Highlighting the significance of a free media, she said it enhances freedom of expression and contributes to peace, sustainability, poverty eradication and the upholding of human rights.
The vice chairperson of Unesco /Natcom, Nana Grey-Johnson, a former journalist, gave a synopsis of the Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press, which birthed May 3, and the role played by Gambian journalists.
“Windhoek was important for the Gambian press… who went to Windhoek and who was part of this collaborative body that said yes, let’s have a day to celebrate the press. Because you haven’t read history, because you haven’t informed yourself, because you haven’t updated yourself, you do not realise that you are standing on the shoulders of Sanna Manneh, editor of The Torch Newspaper.
Mr Johnson said it was there that the international community recognised that Sanna Manneh was under pressure from his own government.
“The reason it is a fight, because if you go down in history, it was the 26th anniversary of the independence of the Gambia and in his speech at McCarthy Square, President Jawara was lauding the fact that The Gambia was doing better than many African countries as far as the democratic space is concerned. A line from his statement of the day reads ‘of the nonsensical efforts of statehood, if the press is muzzled, disrespected and journalists and editors seen as scum and easy targets of litigation and jailing, editors and publishers must now move newspapers from cyrtostyle sheets to big industry if any sense is to be made of them.’”
This year’s World Press Freedom Day was marked under the theme ‘journalism under digital siege’.
According to Mr Bah, this “spotlights the multiple ways in which journalism is endangered”.