The regional court of the Economic Community of West African States has issued a ruling on Wednesday that Gambia’s draconian media laws on sedition, false news and criminal defamation which were used to persecute journalists in the past violate the right to freedom of expression in the country.
The case was brought before the court by the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) in December 2015 along with four Gambian journalists in exile during the regime of former President Yahya Jammeh.
The journalists argued that their rights, including their rights to freedom of expression, had been violated by The Gambia through the enforcement of laws criminalizing libel, sedition and false news in the country.
Two of the journalists were also subject to torture whilst in the custody of the National Intelligence Agency following their arrests under these laws.
Arguments were heard on 11 October 2016, at the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice sitting in Abuja, Nigeria.
The case is supported by the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI).
Amnesty International filed an amicus brief in the case along with other freedom of expression organizations.
The international rights group, Amnesty International, described the ruling as historic.
“Today is a historic day for Gambia’s journalists and human rights defenders who, for decades, have suffered torture, imprisonment or exile just for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International West Africa researcher, said following the ruling.
“These laws have done nothing but created a pervasive culture of persecution, violence, and injustice against those working in the media in The Gambia under the regime of former President Jammeh. Today’s ruling should spur the new government to waste no time in repealing these laws, to ensure it meets its responsibilities under international and regional law, and to lay a foundation for a strong human rights culture.”
Although press freedom has dramatically improved under the new government of President Barrow, who was inaugurated in January 2017, these restrictive laws are still in place.
Right groups say the ruling will set an important precedent as many countries within West Africa to continue to use similar repressive laws to silence freedom of expression and hinder the vital work of journalists, in violation of international and regional human rights law.