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Gambia Media Crackdown Continues

In this column David Kode, a Policy and Advocacy Officer at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, writes that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh must be held to account for his dismal human rights record.

JOHANNESBURG, Sep 23 2013 - Last July marked 19 years of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s inordinately long rule. His legacy during this time is to mark his country as one of the most unapologetically repressive states in Africa.

In June, he told a public gathering he would never compromise on homosexuality. “Those talking about human rights, and saying that preventing homosexuality is a violation of human rights, I have one message for them: let them go and burn their tails in hell.”

Gambia also scores dismally on the well-respected Ibrahim Index of African Governance, just below Swaziland, one of the last remaining totalitarian monarchies in the world. Journalists and human rights defenders are under particular pressure. Many are afraid of being locked up on trumped-up charges for criticising the government’s wanton ways.

On Jul. 3, Gambia’s Information and Communications Act was amended to create new offences including “inciting dissatisfaction” and “making derogatory statements against government officials”, to deter the media and activists from publicly criticising the president and his cronies.

The penalties are severe. Circulating “false information” carries a stiff sentence of 15 years in jail and hefty fines of the equivalent of 87,000 dollars

The above amendment comes on the heels of a recent revision of the country’s Criminal Code which further reinforces the authority of government over citizens. Those found guilty of providing “false information” to a public servant or state authority can be penalised with a fine of 1,500 dollars or sentenced to five years in prison.

The implications are that any government official can make a judgement call on information they consider ‘false’ and take individuals to court on the basis of such information.

These recent actions are a reflection of a broader trend in which the government consistently threatens, intimidates and harasses journalists, dissenters and human rights defenders. Attacks on journalists and media outlets increased drastically in August 2012 in the wake of the execution of nine prisoners following public pronouncements by President Jammeh, who came to power through a coup in July 1994.

In a televised address, he informed Gambians in August 2012 that “all the death sentences would have been carried out to the letter – there is no way my government will allow 99 percent of the population to be held ransom by criminals.”

The executions were the first of their kind in over three decades and they were preceded by public announcements made by the president that all inmates on death row would be summarily executed.

Following pressure from the international community after the executions, the president issued a moratorium, halting further action on condition that the crime rate in the country did not increase.

There are serious concerns that some of those on death row and those executed were convicted on fictitious and politically-motivated charges.

Several national and international news agencies operating in the country that reported on and criticised the executions were targeted during this period. On Sept. 15, 2012, The Standard and Daily News newspapers were arbitrarily banned for apparently publishing stories critical of the executions. In August 2012 Teranga FM, an independent radio station, was shut down after it was warned to desist from broadcasting newspaper publications in local languages.

Journalists are increasingly being forced to resort to self-censorship as critical reporting – more often than not – elicits a backlash from government. In most cases, groups working on human rights issues have had to close down completely or ‘self-censor’ public reports on the state of human rights to avoid government reprisals.

Members and partners have told CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, that they are scared to speak out lest they face the wrath of a state that might trump up ways and means of persecuting them. Some journalists critical of the government have fled the country to avoid persecution and those that have remained are regularly targeted by the authorities.

Ironically, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) is on Gambian soil, but the government seems to be oblivious to its commitments to regional and international human rights frameworks as it clamps down on critical voices in the media.

It is quite obvious that human rights concerns are only discussed in the Gambia when the ACHPR is in session. The authorities continue to use a variety of strategies, including judicial harassment, intimidation, threats, and repressive laws, to crack down on the media and silence those who question human rights violations.

The international community and African leaders in particular need to take action to halt the downward spiral of abuses of human rights and freedom of expression while Gambia continues to host the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

Jammeh needs to be held to account – or face serious consequences if he is not. The next session of the Commission is scheduled for October-November 2013. It is increasingly becoming a joke.


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