The Press Release issued by the Government Spokesman Ebrima Sankareh on 26 January 2020 should be considered as the official declaration of Dictatorship in the Gambia in total violation of the Constitution and democratic norms. The Gambia Constitution guarantees the fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, expression, free media and political participation. These are entrenched rights in Chapter 4 of the Constitution that the Gambia Government cannot deny citizens. Yet in the Government Press Release, Mr. Sankareh announced the banning of Three Years Jotna movement and the closure of two media houses while several Gambians including journalists remain under police custody without access to family and lawyers as guaranteed by the Constitution under Section 19. These are the incontrovertible hallmarks of an authoritarian regime.
Citizens have a constitutional right to come together to form an association which they may wish to register or not as their choice. Failure to register an association does not render it illegal in anyway. It may only deny the organization or its members certain benefits or protection but it does not make that organization criminal. With the right to association, citizens also have a right to assembly to seek any objective or agenda through peaceful means and without the use of arms. In a democracy, it is normal for citizens to seek the resignation of a democratically elected president or public officials without going through elections. Therefore, the desire of a citizen or a group to ask or protest for a president to resign cannot be considered to be subversion, coup d’état or threat to national security.
Therefore, to ban Three Years Jotna movement is unconstitutional just because they are not registered or called for the resignation of the President or exercised their right to protest which turned violent. On that basis to describe the group as subversive, terrorists and threats to national security is unfounded and only intended to threaten all citizens who wish to form an association that is opposed to the Government. The Government cannot arrogate to itself the power to criminalize groups just because those groups are against the Government.
That is DictatorshipIn the exercise of their right to freedom of assembly when violence erupts what is expected of the Government is to investigate so that those responsible are held accountable. Therefore, those Three Years Jotna protesters who acted with violence must be apprehended and brought to justice in line with the rule of law. In their arrest and detention of suspects, the Police must ensure that no one is subjected to torture or denied access to family and lawyers and must not be detained any longer than necessary. While the Constitution allows the police to detain a suspect for up to 72 hours and no more, it must be noted that this maximum limit is the exception. The norm or the rule is to release or take a suspected person before the court without undue delay. Since January 26 the Gambia Police have held detainees for unnecessarily long and in incommunicado. That is unconstitutional.
Similarly, the Government must also investigate reports of police brutality to ensure accountability. It is common to have police and protesters get into running battles during protests in any democracy. What democratic governments do is to employ restraint by using reasonable force to contain the situation and then follow up with a thorough investigation to bring law breakers to book. This is what is expected of the Gambia Government.
Furthermore, it is utterly unconstitutional for the Government to suspend any media house or arrest any journalist for their reporting. The Gambia Government is at liberty to refute any media reports it does not agree with. This is why it has a Minister of Information, Government Spokesperson and Presidential Press Secretary among others. But to hide behind ‘incitement to violence and incendiary comments’ is nothing other than an excuse used by tyrants to clampdown on the media and freedom of expression. The process to de-register a media house is specified in the Information and Communications Act which has not been followed by the Gambia Government to close down these media houses hence their suspension or closure is illegal.
Therefore, the decision to close down Home Digital FM and King FM radio stations and detain their journalists is arbitrary hence illegal and unconstitutional. This action is nothing other than an attempt to deny citizens access to information and to shield the Government from accountability. It is a major malpractice of dictatorships to clampdown on the media as a means to control the narrative aimed at misinforming the people, perpetrating abuse and covering up corruption.
Therefore, the time has come for all Gambians to stand up to condemn the Gambia Government for issuing such a dictatorial press release intended to directly and severely curtail the fundamental rights of citizens. It is these kinds of actions that the APRC Regime under the Despot Yahya Jammeh employed to plunge this country into a very brutal tyranny. Several radio stations were closed down then on flimsy excuses of not paying their taxes or inciting violence or making incendiary comments. Several journalists including the Information Minister Ebrima Sillah and the Government Spokesperson Ebrima Sankareh were violated for their reporting just because that Regime did not like such reporting. Today Sillah and Sankareh are the very ones in the forefront to violate journalists for the same reasons as Yaya Jammeh! What a betrayal!
I hereby call on the Three Years Jotna movement as well as the concerned radio stations and the Gambia Press Union and indeed all Gambians to totally ignore this unconstitutional press release in defense of the Constitution. The Gambia Government does not own the Gambia nor the Gambian people. Hence the Gambia Government cannot decide what Gambians should or should not think, say, do or join.
I call on the National Assembly, the National Human Rights Commission, PURA, all trade unions and CSOs including TANGO, The Gambia Bar Association and Gambia Press Union and indeed all citizens to undertake all efforts to make the Gambia Government reverse this unconstitutional decision.
The action taken by this Government is not merely about the Jotna movement or the concerned radio stations and journalists. Rather this is a terrible move targeting the very sovereignty of all citizens. It is a move intended to silence citizens and prevent citizens from holding their political leaders to account. This press release is nothing other than formally introducing Dictatorship in the Gambia once again which we must resist by any means necessary. Never again!