The Gambia: Freedom of expression continued casualty
16 Dec 2011
On the occasion of the seven-year anniversary of the killing of renowned Gambian editor, Deyda Hydara, ARTICLE 19 remains increasingly concerned at the continuous critical situation of freedom of expression in the Gambia. The situation has been particularly critical following the November 2011 general election, confirming the President, Yahya Jammeh remains in power for the fourth term under circumstances that many observers have described as intimidating and falling short of international standards. The electoral process has confirmed the lack of progress in promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights and basic freedoms in the Gambia, including freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
On 25 November 2011, the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh extended his 17-year government by an additional five years. Jammeh has won the last three consecutive presidential elections of 1996, 2001 and 2007 as leader of the APRC. President Jammeh initially assumed power in a military coup in 1994.
The 2011 election was an opportunity for Gambians to choose their President for the next five years. It was contested by three candidates including: the incumbent, President Yahya Jammeh from APRC; lawyer, Ousainou Darboe from the United Democratic Party (UDP); and Hamat Bah who resigned from his original party the National Reconciliation Party (NPP) to stand as an independent candidate backed by four political parties under the recently created united front.
Amid the controversies over the results announced by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Jammeh has already declared that he will stand for the 2016 presidential elections.
The Gambia has been repeatedly criticised for its human rights record by international and regional bodies. Over the past years, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) has made series of recommendations and resolutions calling for the Gambian government to respect freedom of expression. These have not had a significant impact. Similarly, during the Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in 2010, The Gambia government rejected recommendations to address with more determination the critical situation of freedom of expression and the security of journalists and human rights defenders. For similar reasons, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) officially declined to observe the presidential elections in the country.
Freedom of expression and election in the Gambia
As a party to a number of international and regional human rights instruments, The Gambia is obliged to uphold the right to freedom of expression and principles of free and fair elections should guide its political life.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned about numerous reports indicating that the electoral process in the Gambia was not conducted with due respect to the stated principles and there is fear that the upcoming popular consultations to be held in The Gambia will suffer the same undemocratic environment if no proper action is taken.
According to international standards on freedom of expression and elections candidates or political parties should be given equal airtime on public and private media in the campaign period. They should not use their incumbency or other privileged status such as their financial position to influence the campaign period and the overall electoral process. The media should be impartial in the treatment of political parties and candidates during the electoral campaign and should participate in the voters’ education and exercise their duty without fear of reprisal from anybody be it public or private.
ARTICLE 19 believes that the electoral process in The Gambia fell short of these benchmarks and was not conducted with due respect to international or regional standards for the following reasons.
- According to the IEC electoral calendar, the Gambia’s electoral process consists of three separate elections (24 November - Presidential elections; first quarter of 2012 - Parliamentary elections and first quarter of 2013 - local government elections). For the November election, the IEC has only allowed candidates for the concluded presidential elections to campaign for 11 days. The extremely short duration of the campaign for an important election like this was criticised by many observers and the opposition. It is a particular issue in The Gambian context where the opposition candidates have very little opportunity to share their perspective and explain their manifestos to the public outside of the official campaigning period;
- Observers and the opposition have consistently denounced for several years the inequality of the coverage of the activities of political parties in the public media. The ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) of President Jammeh exercises complete control over the state media so that almost no diverse or opposition views are broadcasted. This problem was particularly acute during the pre-election campaign. The predominantly pro-government nature of public media coverage negatively affected the public’s access to diverse views. Incumbent or ruling party candidates had much greater visibility by the public media and, therefore, held a considerable electoral advantage over their political opponents
- Many violations of international principles on freedom of expression and election have been noted by independent observers, including the Commonwealth Election Observer Mission. They have noted various problems through which the opposition candidates ability to campaign were hampered. For example, security officers and civil servants openly demonstrated support to the incumbent President. Uniformed military personnel participated in the APRC rally held in Banjul on Saturday 19 November 2011. Three military trucks were also seen transporting youths wearing the party colour and emblem of the APRC in Churchill’s Town on 23 November 2011, Public officials openly campaigned for the APRC ruling party, including governors and their officers. There were attempts to prevent some candidates from holding rallies in some parts of the country. The IEC itself was obliged to denounce the practice in a statement of 17 November 2011 condemning openly these undemocratic behaviours. Many local organisations were blocked from independent, observatory roles. There have been numerous instances of unequal treatment of candidates and political parties in the media. For instance, the private newspaper, the Observer, reported that public institutions, such as the Ministry of Petroleum, were donating campaign T-shirts to the APRC.
Crackdown on media prior and after the election
As already noted, The Gambia is notorious for being a repressive country that limits freedom of expression and its intolerance of journalists and human rights advocates.
Journalists who do not follow the ruling party’s line have faced harassments and intimidation, arbitrary arrest from security agencies, as well as physical violence. Outside of the campaign period, whoever openly challenges or criticises the government is likely to be charged with sedition or treason and jailed. Due to this repressive environment, self-censorship of journalists and media owners is a regular practice. Such threats have escalated since the killing of journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004 and the disappearance of Chief Manneh in 2006. These two major cases have had a significant chilling effect on professional journalism in the Gambia. Despite several years passed since these incidents, there have been no independent investigations and no convictions for these crimes and there has been no political will to bring perpetrators to justice. In November 2011 interview to BBC, the President Jammeh publicly stated that the killing was not a matter of specific concern in the Gambia.
Journalists, opposition leaders, media professionals and common citizens are subjected to harsh laws (such as sedition, defamation and offences of giving false information to public officials) that aim at suppressing freedom of speech. For example,
- In 2009, President Jammeh released a statement that threatened to kill human rights workers. In 2009, several members of the Gambia Press Union were arrested and charged with sedition.
- Since June 2011, Dr. Scattred Janneh, a former minister of information has been detained and facing prosecution on treason charges for printing and distributing T-shirts reading “Coalition For Change: End Dictatorship now”. Among his co-accused are the free expression advocate and former president of the Gambia Press Union, N’dey Tapha Sosseh.
- On 5 July 2011, journalist Nanama Keita, a former sports editor of the Daily Observer newspaper, was arrested and charged with giving false information to a public officer on the back of a petition he had made to the Office of the President claiming wrongful dismissal as Deputy Editor-in-Chief and head of the Sports Desk. In the petition, he had also alleged that he Managing Director of The Observer Company had engaged in financial malpractice. Nanama Keita fled the country in September 2011 while the proceedings were still pending. Subsequently in November 2011, Saikou Ceesay, a journalist with the Daily News and an Executive Member of the Gambia Press Union, who paid a surety for Nanama, was arrested and summoned to pay a fine of a hundred thousand dalasi (around 3,500 USD). He was ultimately freed on bail paid by the Gambia Press Union.
- From July 2011 to October 2011, the key executive members of the Gambia Press Union were arrested, detained and questioned three times by the police without warrant
- On 16 September 2011, a magistrates’ court in Banjul, convicted and sentenced Dodou Sanneh, a former reporter with The Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), to a fine of five hundred dalasi in default to serve six months in jail after he was found guilty on accusation of giving false information to a public officer. The case originated when Sanneh file a petition with the office of the President of The Gambia against his dismissal from the GRTS.
- In August 2011, the National Intelligence Agency put in place an injunction on Teranga FM – an independent community radio station – prohibiting local language broadcasting. This inhibited many listeners’ access to public information and is a good example of the lack of tolerance of diverse viewpoints and the desire of the authorities to keep citizens uninformed.
Following election victory, President Jammeh has continued to threaten journalists and human rights defenders. On 28 November 2011, Gambian Election Day, he declared that he would not reconsider his position on the treatment of the Gambian media because, “journalists are less than 1% of the population … if anybody expects me to allow less than 1% of the population to destroy 99% of the population, you are in the wrong place."
Based on the foregoing concerns, ARTICLE 19 urges the Gambian Government:
- Conduct a comprehensive review its legislation, including the Criminal Code, the Newspaper Act, and election related legislation with a view to bring it in line with the international freedom of expression standards and to enable media professionals to freely exercise their rights without fear of undue prosecution;
- Immediately cease arbitrary arrest, detention and intimidation of journalists and other media professionals;
- Ensure that all human rights violations committed by the police, the army and the National Intelligence Agency, including those against journalists, human rights defenders and opposition members, are investigated and those responsible are brought to justice;
- Conduct independent and effective investigation into all cases of ill-treatment, torture and extrajudicial execution against journalists, media professionals and human rights defenders, In particular, independent investigations should be carried out into the death of Deyda Hydara and the disappearance of Chief Ebrima Manneh;
- Refrain from comments that media practitioners act to the detriment of the well-being and economic development of the country, and prioritise the creation of an environment whereby the media can freely and professionally report;
- To cooperate with international and regional human rights bodies to improve the situation of freedom of expression and human rights generally in the Gambia.
In ARTICLE 19’s view, the situation of freedom of expression in the Gambia is likely to become more critical in the coming years. ARTICLE 19 will therefore continue to monitor the situation in the Gambia and provide support to journalists, human rights advocates and civil society and whose rights are violated and call for the mobilisation of stakeholders to work toward a reform of the repressive environment under which journalists and civil society advocates operate.