By Yankuba Jallow & Ndey Sowe
The Gambia Press Union (GPU) in its State of Press Freedom Report 2017 and 2018 has faulted the Government of the Gambia in many ways including their failure to repeal or amend laws criminalizing speech.
The Government of The Gambia has on Friday conceded to the State of Press Freedom report by the Gambia Press Union (GPU).
The GPU stated in the report that the Ministry of Justice has not fulfilled the many promises to repeal, through the National Assembly, laws that infringe on media and freedom of expression rights. The Press Union also highlighted that the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure (MoICI) has not so far come up with or communicated any clear-cut plans or policies aimed at guaranteeing the independence, diversity and vibrancy of the media industry. In 2018, supported by Article 19, the MoICI set up a multi-stakeholder media law reforms committee that has submitted a report of its findings and recommendations for action by the Minister, but the amendments are yet to be effected.
The GPU is not also pleased with the commitment the police have shown in ensuring the safety and security of journalists. The report states: “while the police are ready and willing to receive complaints and are open to dialogue with the media over the attacks, they have not brought a single perpetrator before the law.”
The Union held that without proper reforms, including sensitization and orientation of police personnel, more abuses and violations may occur as political tensions simmer
On legal and policy environment, the report indicates a lack of clear-cut legal and policy framework to address current and pertinent issues over media pluralism, diversity and ownership in the face of the emerging threat of the concentration of media ownership.
On laws criminalizing speech, the report pointed out that the government has not changed any or part of the many laws – mostly inherited from colonial-era subjugation and suppression – that criminalize speech. The Gambia still have laws criminalizing speech such as false news and false publication and broadcasting. Also, the report indicated that the government continues to require newspapers to register under Newspaper and Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2004 with a bond of half a million dalasi among other requirements. The GPU decried that a bond of half a million dalasis is restrictive in a poor country where more than sixty percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Additionally, the report held that licensing for radio and television broadcast is received and reviewed by PURA adding that the Minister of Information and Communications Infrastructure is the approving authority which is at variance with international law and standards of best practice. Moreover, the report highlighted that the process of registration and licensing is not independent.
The GPU said the Attorney General’s Office and Ministry of Justice is responsible for registration under the Newspaper Act while the Minister for Information and Communication Infrastructure approves licenses for television and radio broadcasting under the Information and Communication Act 2009. The GPU stated in the report that the process of registration of newspapers or approval of licenses of television and radio is done without any acceptable public oversight. The report indicated that PURA is not properly constituted because the board has no civil society or media representative and all of them are appointees of the President.
On access to information, the report stated that there is no access to information legislation. The report highlighted that despite the increase in press conferences, the government has consistently refused to disclose certain information that is vital to accountable and transparent government.
The GPU, through its media monitoring unit, monitors and documents press freedom violations and key developments that affect or are likely to affect the exercise and enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression in general and press freedom in particular in The Gambia.
The report pointed out that an estimated five journalists have been violently attacked in 2017 and 2018. Two of the attacks resulted in injuries and two others resulted in loss of equipment. Three of the victims were assaulted by political activists while two were assaulted by police.
The report highlighted some of the violations on press freedom by the Government of The Gambia in 2017 and in 2018. It has been indicated that Kebba Jeffang of Foroyaa Newspaper was assaulted by members of the United Democratic Party (UDP), National Reconciliation Party (NRP) and Gambia Moral Congress (GMC) during a press conference held sometime on the 5th March 2017 at UDP’s Manjai Bureau. According to the GPU, the leader of the GMC, Mai Fatty did publicly condemn the misconduct of his supporters and apologized to journalist Jeffang while other party leaders neither condemned nor apologized to the victim journalist and the police did not take any action even though a complaint was lodged by the journalist. The report has it that the two other party leaders have not apologized or condemned the actions of their party supporters.
Pa Modou Bojang, the CEO of Home Digital FM was assaulted by personnel of the Gambia Police Intervention Unit (PIU) at Faraba Banta Village during the clash between police and villagers over mining activity. The report also indicated Bojang was arbitrary arrested and taken under six hours of detention at Brikama Police Station. The GPU was told by the police that the Faraba Commission instituted by the President to look into the events in Faraba will look into the assault on Mr. Bojang. The Commission, however, did not make any specific recommendation towards addressing the matter following a meeting with the GPU and GRTS leaderships.
Also, it has been indicated that APRC security and supporters damaged equipment of the GRTS crew as well as assaulted them verbally in the hometown of the mother of ex-President Yahya Jammeh.
One Babucarr Manga of Eye Africa was assaulted on the 23rd September 2018 by personnel of the PIU for filming a public protest by some aggrieved teachers. The report indicated that the police launched an investigation into the matter after being prompted by the GPU, however, for nearly a year on, no justice yet.
The Press Union recommended that the Government should fulfil its election promise to legislate freedom of information law. GPU recommended that the Gambia Government should fully implement the decision of the ECOWAS Court of Justice by repealing sedition, false news, false publication and broadcasting and false publication on the internet. The GPU is calling on the Government to either put in place a new media regulatory framework or strengthen the existing regulations for licensing for broadcast media outfits by ensuring that the system complies with standards of best practice in terms of independence with respect to governance, funding and appointments. The GPU also wants the police to investigate and bring to justice perpetrators of press freedom violations in 2017 and 2018. The GPU in its recommendation has called on the Government to implement a comprehensive review of the tax regime and consider giving a tax credit to the media.
In his statement, the Minister of Information and Communications Infrastructure, Ebrima Sillah conceded to the report adding that their Government is reviewing the criminal laws of the country. He said the Government of the Gambia is aware of the fundamental role of the media in the country and therefore, would repeal or amend laws that are detrimental to press freedom. He commended the GPU for coming out with this report adding that the report will help the Government in ensuring press freedom and freedom of expression is respected.
Meanwhile, the GPU has given awards to journalists in various categories for the year 2018.
The award honours and celebrates courage and excellence in Gambian journalism across all types of news and information media; print online, radio, television and photography. It is one of the many activities undertaken by GPU to contribute to improving professionalism in the country’s media landscape. In order to assure the independence of the award process, the task of critically scrutinizing all the submission was given to a jury panel of seven independent media experts.
Minister Sillah said The Gambia will enact the Freedom of Information Act before the end of 2019.
“We are doing our very best to ensure that the media law reforms are in tandem with the criminal law reform process”, he said, adding that this has just started.
“We are a struggling economy and we will do what we can to ensure that these judgments are honoured,” he said.
He assured the GPU that they will look into the recommendations adding that they are very good.