Opinion: Freedom of the Press Under President Adama Barrow – August 2018

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Three incidents worth highlighting are the separate arrests of journalists Baboucarr Nani Sey, Pa Modou Bojang and the seizing of GRTS camera equipment in Kanilai. These incidents highlight that the security apparatus are yet to fully adjust to the level of probity expected from a free press and, most importantly, the situation in Kanilai is still volatile. Baboucarr Nani Sey claimed the unenviable accolade as the first journalist to be arrested after Jammeh in June last year. Sey was accused of organising a protest intended to undermine national security. He was later released on bail. A year later, while covering a protest in Faraba, journalist Pa Modou Bojang was arrested by security officials and assaulted. He sustained head injuries as shown above.

Earlier in August 2018, a GRTS camera was seized by locals at Yahya Jammeh’s hometown, Kanilai. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) the TV crew were attacked by the grieving crowd mourning the death of Yahya Jammeh’s mother, Asombi Bojang. As the hometown of theprevious President,this area continues to be an APRC stronghold. It was in Kanilai that one Haruna Jatta was shot and killed by ECOMIG Forces in June 2017.

 

2.1        Legislation – “One Step Forward, Two Step Backwards”

Weaponising the law, Jammeh used false information, libel and sedition legislation to prosecute journalists. In February 2018, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice ruled that The Gambia should immediately repeal such laws.

Howeverin May 2018,the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defamation was unconstitutionalbut still upheld sections of the criminal code ‘protecting’ the President. In this ‘NewGambia’ the law recognises one person above the republic, banning the publication of ‘seditious’ content on the President and prescribing jail terms of up to 15 years and or 3 Million Gambian Dalasis.

In reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) stated “This decision is one step forward, two steps backwards for Gambia, and sends a message that journalists are still not free to work without the threat of criminal prosecution.” CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator, Angela Quintal, pleads with the administration, urging “..the government of President Adama Barrow, who pledged to champion media freedom, to uphold his word by urgently enacting legislative reform.”

2.2        Political Opponents

President Barrow has not shied away from confronting his political opponents. His very profile war of words with Dr. Ismaila Ceesay continues to rage on. It all began when an article published in the Voice Newspaper concerningan interview by the lecturer in which he advises the President to win the confidence of the Gambian army. This led to a police invitation for questioning after which Ceesaywas detained on grounds of “national security”. He was later released after much public outcry in February 2018.

In August 2018, the war of words raged on when President Barrow publicly called out the lecturer at his bi-annual press conference. His outburst has revealed a less tolerant side to a man many Gambians viewed as humble fracturing the national perception of Barrow as a progressive and tolerant individual.

3.         Recommendations

Even though The Gambia has had its fair share of challenges to address for a more safe and free press, the World Press Freedom Index 2018 ranks The Gambia 122 out of 180. This represents an increase in 21 places from 2017 and reflects the fact that no journalists have fled on exile compared to the previous regime (under which more than 110 journalists fled). However RSF wrote a letter to the President highlighting that “Gambia still has some way to go for its press to be free and its journalist to be safe”.

Amnesty International’s “Dangerous to Dissent 2016 report”recommended that The Gambian Government should repeal laws onsedition (section 52), criminal libel (section 178), spreading false information (sections 59 and 181A) in the Criminal Code and the Information and Communication Act of 2013 which includes censorship of online expression (section 173).

According to the human rights watch dog, The Gambia is failing to conform to its international obligations. The small West African nation is a signatory to multiple international human rights treaties, including the African Charter for Human and Peoples Rights and the regional body ECOWAS’ Court of Justice before which human rights complaints can be presented. However, the country has never completed a review of its laws to repeal sections which do not conform with international human rights obligations.

4.         Conclusion

A wave of environmental concerns across the country has culminated in the death of 4 sand mining protesters at Faraba in June 2018. In late July 2018during his “Meet the People” Tour, in an ominous statementPresident Barrow warned protestors “the power and the laws that were here under the past regime, are still the same laws and power in the country. So I am warning all those people who will embark on protests, to follow the due process of the law. Otherwise anything that happens to them, it is their fault.” - a stark reminder that the legal infrastructure of the former regime still remains in force This anti-free speech rhetoric and the upholding of sedition legislation which silences dissenters shows a lack of political maturity to truly foster an environment where press freedom is respected and rights upheld begging the question - how can a New Gambia arise above Jammeh’s legal sceptre in the hands of the current incumbent Barrow?

Quotes from World Press Freedom Day

The Gambia Press Union on the 3rd of May will commemorate World Press Freedom Day. The event will be celebrated in partnership with UNESCO under the 2018 WPFD theme of “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and the Rule of Law”.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day focuses on the importance of media in keeping the government accountable to the governed, promotion of justice and the rule of law.

Panelist:Dr. Baba Galleh Jallow, ASP. David Kujabi, Mr. Madi Jobarteh, Mr. Muhammed B. Sowe

Date: 3rd May 2018, Venue: University of The Gambia Auditorium, Kanifing

 

The Gambia government is aware of the fact that diversity and freedom of the media is a catalyst to growth and development.

The government begins implementation of Ecowas Court decisions [on press freedom] against

Gambia.

Demba Ali Jawo, Minister of Information.

 We at the GPU J-School want a state that has a well-informed citizenry.

A state where political decisions are known to all, where there is public debates on topics of common interest. We are looking up to a state where divergent viewpoints are allowed and promoted in public and private media. This is what the citizens of this country expect from the media. These demands are demands, we as a school are aware rest on the shoulders the press and the media in general.

We want a media that is free to hold government accountable, Sang Mendy, Managing Director, Gambia Press Union School of Journalism.

Statement by the Gambia Press Union School of Journalism, Managing Director, Sang Wisdom Mendy on the commemoration of the 2018 World Press Freedom Day.

Good afternoon members of the high table, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues in the media, students and all other protocols duly observed.

Let me begin by thanking the Gambia Press Union and their partners particularly UNESCO for organizing such an event. The press union deserve commendation because they have been a very vibrant stakeholder even when the playing field was muddy. They challenged the laws when no one dared to. They built and continued to build the capacity of journalists thus creating the Gambia Press Union School of Journalism. The GPU J-School was created to produce important players in the democratization process of The Gambia. Hence the notion that the press is the fourth estate in any democratic society.

We at the GPU J-School want a state that respects the rule of law. A state that that respects individual freedoms; particularly the freedoms of opinion, conscience and expression. A state that relies on a free, independent press and a state that is safe from censorship or coercion. This I believe is why Gambians voted for change (and continue to vote for change and will continue to vote for change till we get the Gambia we desire).

We want a state that has a well-informed citizenry. A state where political decisions are known to all, where there is public debates on topics of common interest. We are looking up to a state where divergent viewpoints are allowed and promoted in public and private media. This is what the citizens of this country expect from the media. These demands are demands, we as a school are aware rest on the shoulders the press and the media in general.This is why as a school we are working hard to produce well-informed journalists to take up such challenges. We know that these challenges are enormous but our curriculum is modelled to produce the kind of journalists the society is craving for.

The theme chosen this year, “Keeping Power in Check,” is apt, especially for The Gambia. It reminds members of the media that they have a role to play in ensuring there is justice and to making sure that the rule of law is observed. It is also an opportunity to examine how far we as pressmen and women have come in informing our public and holding government accountable for the things they do (ought to do).

Having said this, I want to call on all development partners to continue to support the Gambia Press Union in its endeavour to better the state of the media in the country and by extension the Gambian people. Let me also call on the same development partners to emulate UNESCO in supporting the GPU J-School and the School of Journalism and Digital Media of the University of The Gambia. These two schools I know are working hard to produce well-trained people to go into journalism as professionals. These two institutions need and will continue to need financial and material support. And we all have a stake in their full development. Once again thank you to UNESCO.

Finally, I want to reiterate that on a day like this, we as professionals should also take stock of how far we have come over the past one year. And moving on, what should be done. I hope and pray that we all contribute our quotas both individually and collectively.

Thank you all for your kind attention.

Madi Jobarteh, Deputy Executive Director of TANGO, says while there has been improvements in the state of press freedom, the government’s promise of reforming media laws has taken 16 month and the laws to gag press freedom still exist.

 Gambian lawyer Muhammed B. Sowe “the laws that curtail freedom of expression [and press freedom] are still in our law books, and there is no guarantee that the government will not use them.”

 Police PRO Superintendent David Kujabi“Doors open for media to report more on police activities.”

Baba Galleh Jallow, Secretary General of Gambia TRRC says there is no reason for journalists to be afraid. Journalists should not wait to be given their rights by the gov, they have to take it.

Author: Yusef Taylor, @FlexDan_YT, reviewed by Babara Eze