New Justice Minister seeks to reform Gambia’s repressive media laws

Gambia’s Justice Minister Aboubacarr Baa Tambadou has promised to make reforming media laws a priority after being sworn-in to the top law enforcement job.

Gambia’s media is listed as not free by Freedom House and accuses local authorities of stifling media freedom through a combination of criminal prosecutions, physical intimidation, censorship, and the promotion of government views in state-run or friendly private outlets.

The Gambia Press Union has filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking to reform laws that censor the press. Gambian journalists are frequently arrested and detained on flimsy charges.

Many are held without charge for longer than the 72 hours prescribed by the constitution. The courts provide little remedy to government abuses, as they lack independence from the executive branch; the administration dismissed or forced out three Supreme Court judges during 2015, including the chief justice.

Gambia’s President Adama Barrow told Attorney General Tambadou that he wants an independent judiciary, which topped the agenda at a meeting between Tambadou and his staff at his office.

Although Article 25 of the constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, the government, under former autocratic ruler Yahya Jammeh, does not respect these rights in practice.

Defamation is a criminal offense, as is sedition and the dissemination of false information.

Jammeh-backed parliamentarians amended the Information and Communications Act in 2013 to introduce a 15-year jail term and a fine of 3 million Dalasis ($77,000) for anyone using the internet to spread false news or make derogatory statements, incite dissatisfaction, or instigate violence against the government or public officials.

Licenses for at least three newspapers, including the Daily News have been revoked by the Jammeh government and the 2004 Newspaper Amendment Act made the media registration process more onerous and allowed Gambian authorities to impose significant monetary penalties on outlets that fail to meet registration requirements.

Despite a 2005 press law that prohibits censorship and guarantees the right of citizens to obtain information, reporters from news outlets that are perceived to be critical of the government are routinely denied access to government sources and excluded from official events.

Gambian authorities also regularly block news and opposition websites, most of which are operated from abroad by exiled journalists and activists. VPNs have been used to access them.

According to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MWFA), the Gambia is the region’s worst performer with respect to impunity for past crimes, such as the 2004 murder of journalist Deyda Hydara by suspected NIA agents.

(Reporting and Writing by Sam Phatey; Additional Reporting from Freedom House, Media Foundation for Africa, U.S. State Department; Editing by Sainey MK Marenah)

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