High Court of The Gambia has on Thursday passed a judgment overturning the 2014
conviction of UDP activist Lasana Jobarteh, who was convicted, fined to pay
D50, 000 for broadcasting without license using Skype.
He was accused of giving information abroad using Skype while attending the then opposition political rallies at Buffer Zone in the Kanifing Municipality and Brikama among other places, without a broadcasting license. He denied any wrongdoing.
An elated Mr. Jobarteh over the weekend said he was always innocent and that the charges and subsequent conviction were politically motivated. “In fact, I was a first time offender – going by the initial verdict of Magistrate Janneh in 2014. I am a good citizen and I believe in the rule of law. That is why I would not be comfortable I became a convict,” he said.
Then a fresh graduate from the University of The Gambia, Magistrate Isatou Janneh found Mr. Lasaana Jobarteh guilty and fined him D50, 000 in default to serve one year in prison. Ebrima Kijera, the magistrate who was set to deliver a judgment after months of hearing both the prosecution and witness arguments“was abruptly transferred” to Farefenni, North Bank Region of The Gambia the week he was scheduled to deliver judgement.
In Magistrate Janneh’s ruling in 2014, she said the accused was not eligible to broadcast without license using Skype. In her argument, being ineligible does not warrant a person to broadcast without the required license. Since Mr. Jobarteh admitted in his statements (both voluntary and cautionary) talking to Freedom and Kibaroonline newspapers which were able to link with the then opposition UDP’s supporters.
She finds the action of the accused person “within the meaning of the public and the program he transmitted was aimed for reception by the public.”
Jobarteh, now 62, maintained any wrong doing throughout his trial. When he was announced guilty by the said Magistrate in 2014, his lawyer Mr. Ousainou Darboe said the ‘offence’ was not criminal that attracts the punishment provided by the Communication Act.
“The alleged offence committed is lined with a political rally. Certainly the opportunities that avail to the main opponent (APRC) is not availed to the accused to access information to supporters. This is not an offence of violence and has not impacted negatively on the society,” Mr Darboe maintained.
Jobarteh’s counsel further argued that the charge was not appropriately applied as Jobarteh holds no broadcasting station to face such a charge. He applied for the Magistrate to dismiss the charges as his client has “no case to answer”. This was dismissed by the magistrate, who thought that the prosecution has made efforts to prove their case by calling two witnesses and tendering evidence printed out from Freedom Newspaper Online.
He went ahead and appealed against the judgment of the Magistrate court at a higher court since 2014. The case was never heard, a situation Jobarteh blamed was calculated to have it dragged on for three years – at some points, there were no judges to even hear the appeal – until the change in government and subsequent reforms in the judiciary that ensured it got fair hearing.
Punishment from the regime
Even though his lawyers argued he had no case to answer, Jobarteh said he was merely convicted due to the political climate existing in the country. “I saw it as a punishment from the regime,” he added.
In 1996, Mr. Jobarteh worked as principal producer/director of the state broadcaster GRTS when his services, after two decades of successful career at the then film production unit that later became Gam TV and amalgamated into GRTS, were terminated.
He went to the court to challenge the dismissal and that case dragged for two years and six months. In 1999, the court found the action of the state against him unlawful and ordered for compensation to him. “Since then, I became a target of the Jammeh regime and I dedicated myself to the fight for democracy and freedom for the Gambia,” he said.
He fled The Gambia to seek asylum in the US with his family but will return every few years especially prior to presidential elections campaign, to lend support to the UDP.
In 2014, Jobarteh’s arrest followed a major opposition rally held in Brikama under the Gambian United for Change (GUC)-backed alliance of opposition parties. Radio stations on the ground in Banjul do not cover opposition events; neither does the national broadcaster, GRTS, where Mr. Jobarteh was a founding staff and member of the management team.
Gambian online radios covered the event using Skype, and Jobarteh was using an iPad belonging to Mr. Ousainou Darboe to take videos of the event. Agents of the then National Intelligence Agency picked him up from his house hours after the rally and he was detained for eight days before being granted bail by the Bundung Magistrate’s court.