“There is still no new Constitution. Punitive and restrictive legal provisions on human rights, particularly the rights to freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly among other issues are still on the statute books. What’s more, the current parliamentary session, which represents one of the rare opportunities to make significant legal reforms and changes consistent with the country’s international human rights obligations before the presidential election in December, is expected to end by next week.”
On 14 February 2018, the Court of Justice of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued a judgment that found most Gambian media laws violated freedom of expression. The court asked the government to repeal or amend all criminal laws on libel, sedition, and false news in line with Gambia’s obligations under international human rights law.
However, most of the laws which were used to oppress human rights defenders, activists and journalists during Jammeh’s rule are still in force.
Among the most notorious are: Section 138 of the Information and Communications Act, which gives national security agencies, investigating authorities and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority the powers to monitor, intercept and store communications for surveillance purposes without effective judicial oversight.
As it stands, the current Criminal Code still contains several clauses restricting the right to freedom of expression, criminalizing sedition as related to the President and providing for stiff penalties, including imprisonment, for those who dare to criticize the authorities – a concern for journalists and human rights defenders. It also allows for the confiscation of publications and printing machines.
Legal provisions muzzle dissenting voices
The Gambian Press Union (GPU) told Amnesty International that the laws continue to create a hostile environment for journalists. While attacks on journalists have fallen under President Barrow, several high-profile arrests have shown the risk of these repressive laws being used to muzzle dissenting voices more widely.
On 30 June 2020, human rights defender Madi Jobarteh was charged with spreading false information under Section 181A of the Criminal Code after he stated during a Black Lives Matter protest on 27 June that the government had failed to investigate the killings of three Gambian citizens by police officers. The charges were dropped the following month.
On 26 January 2020, the police closed local radio stations King FM and Home Digital FM after they covered a protest that was violently suppressed by the police. Police also arrested and charged the stations’ owners and managers with broadcasting incendiary messages and inciting violence. Although the charges were eventually dropped, their broadcasting licenses were suspended for one month.