Court of Justice of the ECOWAS has directed the Republic of The Gambia to
immediately repeal or amend criminal laws on criminal libel, sedition, and
false news in compliance with international obligations.
At a landmark judgment delivered around 11 a.m. yesterday, the court found that the rights of four Gambian journalist plaintiffs had been violated by the actions of the Gambian authorities, and through the enforcement of laws criminalising speech.
The judgment also recognised that the criminal laws on libel, sedition and false news disproportionately interfere with the rights of Gambian journalists, and not necessary in a democratic society. That they were not narrowly enough drawn.
Jonathan McCully, senior legal officer, Media Legal Defense Initiative, London based NGO that supported the lawsuit against The Gambia since 2015, present at the hearing, said the ECOWAS Court expressed in the strongest terms the crucial role that the media play in society, and unequivocally condemned the enforcement of criminal laws against journalists for carrying out this role.
“This is a significant judgment, not only for the Gambia but also for the West African region as a whole,” said McCully.
The arrest and detention of the four applicant journalists (Fatou Jaw Manneh, Fatou Camara, Alhagie Jobe and Lamin Fatty) was found to be an unnecessary restriction and amounted to a violation of their rights to freedom of expression, liberty and freedom of movement.
The court also found that the treatment of two of the journalists while in detention, violated the prohibition against torture;
The Gambia was represented in court during the handing down of the judgment.
“This is a truly important judgment that vindicates the rights of four journalists who were arrested, detained and, in two cases, tortured for carrying out their journalistic activities under the regime of Yahya Jammeh,” MLDI’s McCully said.
The four journalists “bravely brought the case before the ECOWAS Court while living in exile, and “the judgment is a crucial step to redressing the serious human rights violations that were committed against them under the former regime.”
Nani Jansen Reventlow, an international human rights lawyer and expert in human rights litigation responsible for groundbreaking freedom of expression cases across several national and international jurisdictions, said:
“This judgment is of tremendous importance not only for The Gambia, but for all ECOWAS countries because it sets an important standard on press freedom. Now, The Gambia must heed the Court’s findings and reform its press laws with urgency.”
Mrs. Reventlow said she admires the plaintiffs in this case, who bravely pursued their human rights claims in court against what was an oppressive regime in The Gambia when the case was filed. “To see their rights vindicated with such a strong victory not only for themselves, but all journalists in the region is incredibly encouraging,” she said.
According to MLDI’s Mr. McCully, the judgment is also significant for journalists more generally, as it makes a strong statement that laws criminalising libel, sedition and false news are inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression under international law.
“We hope that The Gambia will, without delay, ensure that this judgment is enforced and that they will immediately remove these laws from their statute books.”