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Monday, January 25, 2021

Taking the shackles off the press

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What next for the local media as a new sense of freedom beckons?

Of all the major players in national development that are relishing the post-Jammeh era, the media unsurprisingly stands tall. There is no gainsaying that journalists and their trade are indispensable to the advancement of any society. That is all the more reason why the media is increasingly branding   the role as Fourth Estate of the realm. In simple terms, the importance of the press in today’s world is such that it qualifies it to be mentioned in the same breath as the three organs of the government namely the Executive, Judiciary and the Legislature.

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Curtis D. MacDougall, Professor Emeritus of journalism at North Western University, Illinois, sums it up when he says “People cannot govern themselves without information. No matter what changes, social, economic, political or otherwise occur in the future, it is inconceivable at a time when there will be not those whose full time job function it is to find out what is going on  and to transmit  that information to others  together with a proper explanation of its  significance”.

Needless to say, the past 22 years have been no easy ride for Gambian journalists, particularly those in private media. Many have paid the ultimate price with their lives, many more have been incarcerated while countless others have been forced to flee the land they love dearly.

Our media practitioners, some of the very best this country has ever produced, have been exiled, forcing them to practise their craft in distant lands.  I wish to see voices such as Alhagie Yoro Jallow, Baba Galleh Jallow, Abdoulie Sey and the very promising new breed in the mould of such stars like Kemo Cham, Sheriff Bojang Junior and Fatu Camara return home and take under their wings the many young people that have passionately taken journalism as a career in these shores.

It is not as if there weren’t laws guaranteeing press freedom in The Gambia. Section 207 (1) of the 1997 Constitution  states that “the freedom and independence of the press and other media are hereby guaranteed”.  (3) “The press and other information media shall at all times, be free to uphold the principles, provision and objectives of the constitution, and the responsibility and accountably of the government to the people of The Gambia.

However, section 209 of this constitution raises some eyebrows in its statement  that,  “the provision of sections 207 and 208 are subject to laws which are reasonably required in a democratic society in the interest of national security, public order, public morality and for the purpose of protecting their reputation, rights and freedom of others”. Doesn’t this point to a contradiction of section 4 of the same  constitution   that states, “this constitution is the supreme law of the Gambia and any  other law found to be inconsistent with any provision of the constitution, shall to the extent of the consistency be void”?  This in my humble opinion appears to be some sort of a smokescreen used by a particular government to muzzle or gag the local press in the name of almighty national security. I call them amendments of convenience not of conscience.

Take for instance the Newspaper Act 1944 (as subsequently amended). This   particular law does not only provide for the compulsory registration of media practitioners in The Gambia but practitioners have to register an affidavit and a bond with the Registrar General. This, coupled with the Newspaper (Amendment) Act 2004 which included broadcasting stations (electronic media) significantly increased the amount of the surety from 100,000 Dalasi (One Hundred Thousand Dalasi) under the original Act to 500,000 Dalasi (Five Hundred Thousand Dalasi). That only serves to make it tough for the establishment of new media houses. By doing so, press freedom is being hampered, for only very few people would be in a position to part ways with such astronomical figures being asked. With few media houses, room for divergent views would naturally be curtailed, thereby denying the masses access to alternative news and their sources.

The coming into being of several unfriendly media laws in recent times also serves as a non-starter for press freedom in the country. A case in point are those sections of the Gambian criminal code notably Articles 52,178,179,180 181A, and 184). Given how these provide for a number of speech-related offences such as sedition, criminal defamation, and publication of false news, the much needed ideal space for both journalists and those from whom they get information, has been absent. As a result of such sections like 52 which criminalizes publication and distribution of seditious material as well as the uttering of seditious words, media practitioners were at best left to sway away from some key issues of national importance.

Under the Criminal Code Amendment Act 2005, the offence of seditious publication is punishable with a fine between D50, 000 to (Fifty Thousand Dalasi) and D250, 000 (Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dalasi) and/or a minimum term of one year imprisonment. Under such repressive media laws, many journalists were sent to prison, many abandoned the trade as others  operated in perpetual fear including personnel of state media.

Despite the constitutional provisions that are in the name of freedom of expression, section 178 alone  provides for the offence of libel and slander to be punishable by a minimum term of one year imprisonment and/or fine between D50, 000 (Fifty Thousand Dalasi) and D250,000 (Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dalasi) . These measures all border very negatively on the freedom of the press and free speech in the Gambia.

It is quite promising that the new dispensation of freedom will revisit  Section 181A. The harshness of this legislation manifests itself in “negligent dissemination of false news or information” which is punishable by a minimum of one-year jail term and/or a fine between 50,000 (Fifty Thousand Dalasi) and D250, 000 (Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dalasi).

The last major legislation that points to a lack of press freedom in The Gambia came in the form of The Information and Communications Act. This contains a number of provisions in relation to intercept (Section 138) and the publication of information which is obscene in electronic form (section 170). As if that is not enough, Section 138 gives powers to the national security agencies and investigating authorities to monitor, intercept and store communications in unspecified circumstances. The section also provides that the Minister may require information and communication service providers to “implement the capability to allow authorised interception of communications”. These are scary legislations that only bode well for self-censorship and perpetual fear both on the part of media practitioners themselves and the public. The resultant consequence under such circumstances has been nothing but the absence of a vibrant debating culture thereby stifling  intellectual growth and giving rise to an unhealthy rumour mongering.

For now though, the honeymoon between the government and the local media appears to be over. We hope that Mr Adama Barrow will live up to  his words that there will be a conducive environment for journalists to practice their trade and that the infamous era of  harassment will never be repeated.  Over to you, D.A Jawo.

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