CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

Gambia

Live rating: Obstructed

Last updated on 26.11.2018 at 17:19

Gambia Overview

Repression directed from the highest levels of the state has created a perilous situation for civil society and human rights defenders in Gambia.

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Improvement of civic space ratings but violations still occur

Improvement of civic space ratings but violations still occur

The Gambia's civic space ratings have improved from 'repressed' to 'obstructed' with the political transition in 2017, following 22 years of repressive rule under president Yahya Jammeh. This has opened space for civil society and substantially improved the human rights context in the country.

The Gambia's civic space ratings have improved from 'repressed' to 'obstructed' with the political transition in 2017, following 22 years of repressive rule under president Yahya Jammeh. This has opened space for civil society and substantially improved the human rights context in the country. 

On 15th October 2018, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission was launched, with the swearing in of 11 of its members. The Commission will probe the human rights violations committed under the Jammeh regime, which includes extrajudicial and summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and other violations. Reedy Body of Human Rights Watch said

"Gambians who were tortured or raped in prison, who were shot for peacefully demonstrating, who were forced into Jammeh’s phony HIV ‘treatment’ programmes, whose family members were killed or who were targeted in literal witch hunts will all be able to come forward."

During the 63rd session of the African Commission om Human and People's Rights in October 2018, the Gambia announced that the country will accede to the declaration allowing individuals and NGOs to file cases directly to the African Court on Human and People's Rights. The Gambia is the ninth African country to do so, following Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Tunisia and Tanzania. 

On 18th February 2018, President Barrow announced a moratorium on the use of the death penalty as a first step towards the abolishment the death penalty in the Gambia, after he signed the Second Optional Protocol on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among other international UN Treaties, in September 2017. 

Expression

Legal challenges to draconian laws stifling freedom of expression

In its ruling on 14th February 2018, the ECOWAS Court of Justice ruled that the Gambia violated the rights of four journalists -  Fatou Camara, Fatou Jaw Manneh, Alhagie Jobe, and Lamin Fatty - through laws criminalising freedom of expression and directed the Gambia to repeal laws on criminal defamation, sedition and 'false news'. The case was brought forward in December 2015 by the Federation of African Journalists and supported by the Media Legal Defense Initiative (MLDI). Jonathan McCully of MLDI said

"At the time this case was filed, the Gambian media were operating in a climate of fear with journalists being arrested, detained, tortured, and even murdered for simply carrying out their work. This judgment is an important means to achieving redress for journalists whose rights had been violated under the previous regime of Yahya Jammeh, and for securing a favourable environment for journalists in the Gambia. We hope that the Gambia will implement this decision without delay.”     

On 9th May 2018, the Supreme Court of the Gambia ruled that some of Gambia's laws and provisions criminalising freedom of expression as unconstitutional, and ordered the government to repeal them. These include the Law on False Publication on the Internet, a 2013 amendment of the Information and Communication Act which criminalises online defamation and spreading false news online, provisions on criminal defamation and libel in the Penal Code and aspects of the sedition law. However, key elements of the law on sedition, namely sedition in relation to the president, were upheld as well as the laws on False News and False Publication and Broadcasting.

The legal challenge before the Supreme Court was put forward by the Gambia Press Union. President of the GPU Emil Touray commented on the ruling: 

"We received the Supreme Court judgments on our cases with mixed feelings. We are happy that the laws on criminal defamation and false publication on the internet are declared unconstitutional. We are however sad that sedition and false publication and broadcasting are declared constitutional. We are convinced that the battle for freedom of expression is a continuous one and we will therefore never relent in our efforts to make Gambia a model for media freedom.”

Freedom of Information Coalition

In February 2018, civil society organisations and the Gambia Press Union joined forces in a coalition to advocate for a Freedom of Information Law. In his address on the occasion of the 53th independence anniversary on 18th February 2018, President Adama Barrow said that his government is drafting an Information Bill, and that a Media Reform Committee was set up to review existing media laws. He also stated that the first private television channel was given a license and that all radio stations that had been shut down illegally has re-opened.  

String of attacks against journalists

On 19th June 2018, police officers assaulted radio station manager Pa Modou Bojang of Home Digital FM while he was covering a protest against the mining of sand, in which several people died (see under Peaceful Assembly), in Faraba Banta, a village 50 km outside of Banjul. He said in a statement by the Gambia Press Union: 

 “One of the police personnel came from behind and asked what I was doing there. He slapped me in the face the moment I told him I am a journalist. He directed ‘your mother’ insults towards me and told me ‘you journalists have destroyed this country and if Yaya Jammeh were here, we would have killed all of you."

He was released later that day but did not receive his audio recorder back from the police. Bojang returned to the Gambia in February 2018 after spending nine year in exile. He was arrested twice and tortured during three weeks in 2008 under Yahya Jammeh's regime.  

Security guards and supporters of the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), the political party of former president Yahya Jammeh, attacked and verbally assaulted two journalists working for the state broadcaster, the Gambia Radio-Television Service (GRTS), on 5th August 2018. The incident occurred in Bujinga when Louis Mendy and Modou Ceesay were covering the funeral of the mother of ex-president Jammeh. 

On 22nd September 2018, an officer of the Police Intervention Unit allegedly slapped a journalist of the online television channel  Eye Africa while attending a meeting organised by teachers in Abuko, according to a statement of the Gambia Press Union. 

University lecturer detained, released the following day

University of the Gambia lecturer Dr. Ismaila Ceesay was detained on 31st January 2018 on charges of 'incitement to violence'. He was questioned before his arrest over comments he made during an interview with the local newspaper Voice, saying that the presence of the ECOMIG (Economic Community of West African States Mission in The Gambia) forces will not prevent long term security risks and that "long-term security will not be restored “if the president [Adama Barrow] does not win the trust of the [Gambian] army.” Ceesay was released the following day, with all charges dropped. 

Peaceful Assembly 

On 11th November 2017, police revoked a permit for a peaceful protest, to take place the following day, on 12th November 2017, citing security concerns. The planned demonstration, organised by the group #OccupyWestfield, was aimed at protesting against the electricity and water crisis in the country. The permit was initially denied, and later granted after the group threatened to sue the government over the refusal to grant a permit to protest, before being revoked. On 12th November, police officers dispersed #OccupyWestfield protesters who decided to proceed with the protest despite the revocation of the permit. 

On 18th June 2018, two protesters died when officers of the Police Intervention Unit used live ammunition during a demonstration of residents against the mining of sands by the company Julakay in Faraba Banta, 50 km outside of the country's capital, Banjul. According to news reports, a third protester died of his injuries on 20th June 2018. Several protesters and police officers sustained injuries, while six protesters were arrested. According to witnesses, security forces arrived when protesters blocked mining-related traffic, and clashes broke out. The residents say that the sand mining is polluting their rice fields. A previous protest on 26th May 2018 also resulted in clashes, with security forces using tear gas and rubber bullets. 

President Adama Barrow announced, in a statement on 18th June 2018, a full investigation into the incident, the suspension of all mining activities until further notice and the detention of several police officers. 

Association in Gambia

Freedom of association is legally protected in Gambia but in practice associations face routine intimidation and surveillance from the state.

Freedom of association is legally protected in Gambia but under the Jammeh regime,  associations faced routine intimidation and surveillance from the state. In 2010, the NGO Affairs Agency was transferred to the president’s office in order to keep CSOs under closer scrutiny. Human rights defenders, nongovernmental organisations and journalists operated under the constant threat of judicial harassment and detention. People and organisations attempting to defend human rights – including women’s rights and the freedom of expression – were especially victimised and subjected to judicial harassment, arrest, detention, enforced disappearances and other forms of intimidation. Civil society meetings were infiltrated by members of the intelligence services who recorded proceedings, while civil society’s email correspondence was hacked. An amendment to the Criminal Code in October 2014 introduced more severe penalties for the LGBTI community, who now face life in jail for the crime of ‘aggravated homosexuality.’ President Barrow’s promises of constitutional reforms signals hope for the future of civil society organisations in Gambia, including the potential repeal of repressive provisions within the law.

Peaceful Assembly in Gambia

In practice, freedom of assembly is heavily restricted. The police systematically refuse requests for permission to hold demonstrations.

Freedom of assembly under the Jammeh regime was heavily restricted. The police systematically refused requests for permission to hold demonstrations. Protest organisers are also regularly arrested and jailed. In September 2012, two journalists - Baboucar Ceesay and Abubacar Saidykhan - submitted a request to hold a peaceful demonstration denouncing the execution of 9 prisoners. When they returned to find out if their request had been approved, both of them were arrested, detained and prosecuted for incitement to violence. Protests in April and May 2016 were brutally repressed by the regime – dozens of peaceful protesters were beaten, tear gassed, arrested and detained and one protester died following interrogation in detention. Prior to elections in November 2016, former President Jammeh warned that there would be no tolerance for even peaceful protests following the election. The inauguration of President Barrow in May 2017 has not resulted in significant improvements for freedom of peaceful assembly as shown by an incident in June 2017 when Gambian forces opened fire on opposition activists protesting in southwestern Gambia.

Expression in Gambia

There is only one nationwide TV station in Gambia, aside from a handful of newspapers and radio stations. Most media are either state-controlled or private operations which do little more than channel official government information to the public.

Under the Jammeh regime there was only one nationwide TV station in Gambia, and only a handful of newspapers and radio stations. Most media were either state-controlled or private operations that did little more than channel official government information to the public. Freedom of expression was further constrained by criminal defamation laws used to target critics of the government. Human rights defenders and print and electronic media practitioners were increasingly subjected to continued harassment, beatings and imprisonment, and many have been forced to leave the country in fear for their lives. The Information and Communication Act was amended in 2013, making it a crime to use the Internet to ‘spread false news’ against the Gambian government or public officials. It also made it a crime to caricature or make derogatory statements against the person of the president or public servants. Offenders could be punished with up to 15 years in prison. The inauguration of a new president in 2017 has brought some improvements for freedom of expression and the press; namely, arbitrary arrests of journalists have ceased since Barrow assumed his position. Additionally, a comprehensive media sector reform was recently initiated.