It has been almost a year and a half since West Africa’s press freedom predator icon, Yahya Jammeh, has been toppled, but his successor Adama Barrow is yet to find the need to discard his toolbox.
The repressive laws the autocratic ruler used to oppressed, killed and exile about 120 journalists remain in the country’s statute books though justice minister Abubacarr Tambadou said they would not be used.
Gambia has made significant progress in the 2018 press freedom index of Reporters Without Border, moving 22 places from its previous position, but advocates said without the change in laws, safety of journalists can’t be guaranteed.
Despite that significant leap, the country remains 72 places behind Senegal.
“More than one year after the new government assumed office, the Gambia remains a legal minefield for the media. There has so far been no repeal or amendment of any piece of the huge haul of laws that restrict freedom of expression. Laws on sedition, criminal defamation, false news and broadcasting, false publication on the internet and giving false information to a public officer are still alive,” Gambia Press Union said in a statement.
“Even though the government declared some of them redundant, their mere existence in the law books strengthens the already residual fear over their application. Besides, the government continues to apply the unreasonable regime inherited from the previous government.”
Gambian journalists have initiated a legal action against Gambia government in 2015 challenging sedition, criminal defamation and false news and false publication.
However, Gambia government conceded before the Supreme Court that sedition, criminal defamation and false news are unconstitutional but they are fighting to keep false publication.
“If press freedom and freedom of expression are a priority as the Barrow-government claims, then it shouldn’t take forever to reform – it didn’t take them this long to change the presidential age limit,” Modou Joof, a press freedom advocate and a trainer at the Gambia Press Union School of Journalism, has said.
“A journalist was assaulted by supporters of the regime; more than once, journalists have been barred from having access to the courts especially at the Court Martial; they have been barred from livestreaming National Assembly sessions; and the leading newspaper (Daily Observer) closedown by the regime.”
On July 14 2017, the new leader has made what most press freedom advocates in the country considered a threatening remarks at a media company for publishing a story on former president’s party planning to celebrate their military takeover.
“While my government promotes media freedom, we would urge the media to take responsibility in publishing and disseminating information by any individual, group or party that is clearly seditious. The media has an important role in promoting freedom of expression, peace and stability. There is a crystal clear difference between freedom of speech and the abuse of free speech when it turns to sedition.” Barrow said in a statement that cause huge backlash.
“…It would be inconceivable, given the obvious historical perspective, to expect that the 22nd of July Military Coup d’état will continue to be celebrated as a national holiday in The New Gambia. It was shocking to see in a front page of a local newspaper featuring an assertion that an opposition Member of Parliament from the APRC party who has been democratically elected would call for a celebration of a military coup, undermining the very principles of the peoples’ choice of governance.”
However, the government spokesperson, Demba Jawo, said the media reforms agenda of the Government hasn’t changed.
“We have set up a committee involving GPU and other media stakeholders and ministry of justice to identify all the laws that need to be reformed… They will submit a report to Government after which the desired steps will be taken,” Jawo said.
“As soon as we get the report from the committee, we will go ahead with the reforms… We are very confident that before the end of the year (2018), we would have done the reforms.”
Meanwhile, the past few months have a proliferation in the newspaper industry. Three new newspapers have been registered and have since hit the newsstands. Two TV licences have been issued for private TV broadcasting, ending the monopoly of the state-owned TV.
However, these establishments – old and new – continue to grapple with limited and dwindling financial and operational capacity so that their coverage is concentrated in urban Gambia.
This limit their capacity to attract investment, hire more qualified personnel, increase production, expand to peri-urban and rural areas or even adopt modern management approaches to news business.
Having just started news and current affairs, the radio stations lack professional journalist staff and financial resources.
“There have been improvements on access to public information. Every six months, the president of the republic grants a two-day press conference. A few ministries also do hold regular press conferences, including the Ministry of Information. However, there remain significant challenges. Only three out of seven government ministries have appointed public information officers. Access to critical government information necessary for accountability is often denied,” GPU said.
“No journalist has been arrested, detained and prosecuted since the new government came into office. There was an incident of physical attack on a journalist, but it was quickly addressed as the minister whose party supporters were involved publicly apologised.”
The theme for the 2018 world press freedom day is “Keeping power in check: Media, Justice and rule of Law”.
The Managing director of the Gambia Press Union School of Journalism, Sang Mendy, said that theme is more relevant for Gambia, a country transitioning to democracy from old-school dictatorship.
“The theme chosen this year is apt for The Gambia because it is reminding members of the media that they have a role to play in ensuring there is justice and the rule of law 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,” Mendy said.
On Thursday, Gambian journalists will gather at the University of the Gambia law faculty for a public lecture to be done by Prof Baba Galleh Jallow, Madi Jobarteh and police spokesperson David Kujabi.
By Mustapha K Darboe