Statement

The Gambia: New internet law furthers government crackdown on free expression

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ARTICLE 19

10 Jul 2013

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ARTICLE 19 condemns Gambia’s adoption of a law which severely restricts the right to freedom of expression on the internet, criminalising online speech. The newly adopted law is the latest attempt by the Gambian authorities to stifle dissent in a country that already has some of the harshest laws on the right to freedom of expression in Africa.

On 5 July 2013, Gambia’s National Assembly passed the Information and Communication (Amendment) Act which creates several new offences for online speech that are punishable by a fifteen-year jail term and/or a fine of three million Dalasis (around 63,250 Euros). 

The Act criminalises whoever:

  • spreads “false news” about the government or public officials
  • caricatures or makes derogatory statements against public officials
  • incites dissatisfaction or instigates violence against the government.

ARTICLE 19 condemns the Act as a flagrant breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), both of which Gambia is a party to.

International standards

As the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Human Rights Committee have made clear, Article 19 of the ICCPR protects freedom of expression both offline and online.

While the right to freedom of expression may be restricted under international law, any such restriction can only be justified if it is provided by law, pursues a legitimate aim and is necessary for the protection of that aim. This position has been reiterated in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa which urges states to “review all criminal restrictions on content to ensure that they serve a legitimate interest in a democratic society”.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, has expressly stated that imprisoning individuals for seeking, receiving and imparting information and ideas could rarely be justified as a proportionate measure to achieve one of the legitimate aims under Article 19, paragraph 3, of the ICCPR. 

The Rapportuer has also said that states are contravening international human rights obligations when they create new laws specifically designed to criminalise expression on the internet. The Rapporteur noted that such laws were often justified on the basis of protecting an individual’s reputation, national security or countering terrorism, but in practice were used to censor content that the government and other powerful entities did not like or agree with.

The ACHPR, in its Resolution on Repealing Criminal Defamation Laws in Africa, has expressed concerns about:

  • restrictive laws that censor the public’s right to access information
  • direct attacks on journalists, including their arrest and detention, and physical assault and killings, due to statements or materials published against government officials.

ARTICLE 19 regards the new law as a blatant attempt to clamp down on the only remaining space for Gambians to freely express themselves in a country where traditional media have been reduced to silence via legal means and physical attacks. The law forms part of a pattern of intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and government critics. 

The justification given by the government for the amendment – protecting the country from chaos and instability – is purely a diversion to conceal yet more violations of freedom of expression in the Gambia. 

ARTICLE 19 has previously analysed several provisions of the Gambian Criminal Code and found that they are in violation of international standards on freedom of expression. The Information and Communication (Amendment) Act 2013, which amends the Information and Communication 2009 Act, creates similar offences but applied to the internet.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the UN and ACHPR Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression to urge the Gambian government to repeal this law and all other laws that unduly restrict expression in the country.

NOTES TO EDITORS

  • For more information contact: Aliou Niane, ARTICLE 19 Programme Officer safety and security West Africa, at aliou@article.19.org or call +221338690322/ or  Bruno Menzan, ARTICLE 19 West Africa Programme Assistant, at bruno@article19.org.
  • For more information on ARTICLE 19’s work on The Gambia, visit our website. www.article19.org