One of the fundamental principles of a democracy is the right to express dissent. Every citizen in a democracy should have the right to express his/her opinion no matter how isolated that opinion is.
The expression of that opinion may come in different forms. It could be through speech – thus the need for freedom of expression in which one can say or write what s/he thinks regardless of whether the said opinion is popular.
The expression may also be in the form of assembly where a person joins likeminded people and protest by marching in the streets to express grievances on a particular thing or occurrence. This is what is referred to as demonstration or protest. It is – or should be – guaranteed in the laws in a democracy.
In order to protect that right and at the same time protect and maintain public safety and peace, many countries have a law which seeks to protect public order. Most countries have what is referred to as a Public Order Act to regulate the right to protest as the right to freedom of expression is not – cannot be – absolute.
But if care is not taken, such a law can be abused and used to curtail citizens’ right to protest and hold their governments to account. It is sometimes tricky to maneuver between protecting the rights of citizens to protest and maintaining the peace.
In the Gambia, the Public Order Act has repeatedly come under scrutiny in recent times as some of its provisions have been seen to curtail the citizens’ ability to hold their government accountable. For example, one of the provisions requires would-be protesters to obtain a police permit if they intend to use a public address system.
Recently, the police have come under fire for stopping the Three Years Jotna movement from holding a fundraising event. It was not even known under which law they disrupted the event and many citizens see it as an effort to shrink the democratic space in the country. It has been seen from some quarters as politically motivated.