The recent remarks by the Director General of PURA Yusupha Jobe and the Solicitor General Hussein Thomasi that they are concerned about the content of broadcast media calls for serious concern. It is reported in the media that they intend to tighten controls on broadcast and social media as a means to address the use of profanities and incitement of hatred. They claim that their intention is not to muzzle the media but to ensure responsible and ethical journalism and prevent violence given the forthcoming elections. These may sound noble intentions however they are a cause for concern since the involvement of the Government in controlling the media in any way never goes right and never ends well anywhere in the world.
Indeed, the use of profanities is rampant on social media, which is not peculiar to the Gambia alone. On radio and television shows and on social media, one can hear how hosts, guests and callers have used hate speech and unpleasant language against others. Many people deliberately continue to ridicule others just because they have divergent and dissenting opinions. In fact, I, myself is a constant target of nasty ridicule and character assassination by folks who disagree with me. Most of these perpetrators are political party supporters.
That notwithstanding, I vehemently stand against what PURA and the Ministry of Justice are contemplating. The broadcast media including social media content must not be censored or controlled, especially by the State just because of the use of toxic language. Freedom of expression must be allowed to flourish. Yes, freedom of expression is not absolute and this is why there are laws against defamation. If it is to be limited, it has to be for very specific issues such as protecting children.
PURA and the Ministry of Justice must realise that the use of profanities and toxic language in general is perpetrated mainly by political party supporters. Hence, as a Government, the relevant entities must be engaged to make them uphold their obligation to curtail the use of indecent language within their ranks. These entities are the political parties themselves, the Inter-Party Committee and the IEC which has a Code of Campaign Ethics which prohibits the use of uncouth language in politics. Let IEC enforce the Code. Since we are heading towards elections, these are the places PURA and the Ministry need to go, rather than attempting to control the whole of social media and broadcast content.
The reference to Rwanda Genocide must be understood in its proper context. That is, the media, especially ‘Radio Mille Collines’ in Kigali was used by Hutu genocidaires in 1994 only to amplify their own voices as they were the ones in power. So, it is not merely that the media was the one which caused the genocide by itself. Rather it was politicians and public officials in power who were spreading genocidal language by using media houses under their control. Radio Milles Collines was founded and set up by supporters of the Rwanda President in 1993 to use it for their diabolical agenda. The other station used was Radio Rwanda, which was a state radio but also controlled and used by the genocidaires. Therefore, we cannot use the Rwanda scenario in any loose way just to clampdown on the media in the Gambia.
International law in regards to freedom of expression, which the Gambia has ratified stipulates that freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Article 19 has been interpreted by the UN Human Rights Council to mean that States have a duty to promote and guarantee media pluralism and to refrain from interfering with the content of broadcast media. We cannot hide behind public morality and public order just to interfere with the media.
Yes, we need to train our media operators to understand the need to prevent profanities and toxic language in the media. But this should come only as part of capacity building of the media but not through the use of law and power to control the media. Radio and television and social media platform operators should be trained and encouraged to limit, if not stop indecent language and indecent material to be published to protect children and as well as protect the right to privacy and dignity of people. These are among measures that could be used to tackle use of toxic language and indecent materials in the media.
Furthermore, as stated earlier, people reserve the right to go to court if they feel they have been wrongly portrayed in the media by the media house itself or by others. Instead of going to court, people can also use the Media Council of the Gambia Press Union to report indecent coverage. People also have a right to boycott media houses or journalists and websites they feel have engaged in indecent broadcasting. Still, people can condemn media houses to shame them for allowing their platforms to be used for spreading toxic language or images. The Government itself, as well as other entities also reserve the right to respond to media broadcasts by issuing press releases to clarify, condemn and criticize the media hence shame them. These and many other measures can help to tackle irresponsible media.
In the interest of child protection in particular, indecent materials can be restricted on broadcast media so that such materials are confined to a certain time when children are not expected to be watching television. This can be between midnight to 6am, for example. Other than that, broadcast media content should not be controlled or censored by the Government. To do that would tantamount to controlling opinion. Anywhere opinion is subject to review and control by the Government, even if well-intentioned will lead to silencing voices hence killing or criminalising opinion. That is as good as killing democracy and all that it comes with – transparency, accountability and popular participation.
I hereby call on the Gambia Press Union and all CSOs and indeed all citizens to stand up against the attempts by PURA and the Ministry of Justice to interfere with freedom of expression, freedom of the media and freedom of opinion. Doing so will be undermining democracy and good governance. By this piece I wish to put the National Human Rights Commission on notice to pay close attention to the actions of PURA and the Ministry of Justice in regard to freedom of expression in the Gambia.