President of Gambia Yahya JammehGambian lawmakers recently approved and enacted an amendment to the Information and Communications Act of 2009, which according to critics and human rights groups will stifle free expression in the country. The law, which attempts to prevent the use of the Internet to “spread false news” about government or public officials, only contributes to the perception of Gambia as a country which has some of the worst restrictions on the freedom of expression in the continent.

In July 2013 legislators passed an amendment to the Information and Communication Act 2009, which allows for the government to curb free expression on the Internet. According to the law it is illicit to “caricature, abuse or make derogatory statements against the person or character of public officials”, which subsequently bans political caricatures or cartoons about a member of government. The law also states that anyone who “incites dissatisfaction or instigates violence against the government” is liable for a 15 year prison sentence or a fine of D3 million. According to Information Minister Nana Grey-Johnston the new law “seeks to provide for the deterrent punishment of such persons who are engaged in such treacherous campaigns against The Gambia both internally and outside The Gambia”, and prevents “unpatriotic behaviour”. These latest amendments to restrict freedom of expression, press freedom and internet freedom prove the government’s open hostility towards the media and its criticism.

President Yahya Jammeh’s government has consistently taken steps to limit fundamental freedom of expression and opinion, and has passed laws to prevent journalists, human rights defenders and government critics from speaking out. Other questionable legislative amendments include the Criminal Code, Article 19, which broadened the definition of a ‘public servant’ so that it includes the president, vice-president, ministers and members of the national assembly. Under this amendment the punishment for providing ‘false information’ to a public servant was drastically increased from six months imprisonment to a 15 year sentence, while the fine was increased exponentially. The criminal code also includes offences such as sedition, treason and criminal defamation, which targets journalists, government critics and human rights defenders.

Under Jammeh’s rule newspaper requirements are not compatible with international standards and continue to inhibit freedom of expression, while some newspapers have been shut down and journalists repeatedly threatened and harassed. Even though public and government officials are subject to public scrutiny by most international laws, the government has clamped down on the media, and now Internet users as well, to prevent criticism of its behaviour and policies. The laws and policies give authorities great discretion in silencing dissent, often through the use of threats, harassment, arrests and violence.

In light of these restrictions of freedom, and the lack of respect for freedom of the press, it is not surprising that the Gambia is rated as ‘not free’ in Freedom in the World 2013 and Freedom of the Press 2013. Instiutions such as Freedom House condemned the amendments to Gambia’s Information and Communications Act, along with the government’s general behaviour towards freedom of expression and freedom of the press. As a member of the Commonwealth the country has not fulfilled its obligations towards freedom of expression, which is a core value of the Commonwealth. The country has also not adhered to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Since the government signed both charters, it has a legal obligation to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

However, it seems unlikely that a government with an aversion to criticism will easily change its laws and policies to allow for greater freedom of expression. Considering the government’s gradual limitation of freedom which started with the press and has progressed to the internet, it will likely soon expand policies to limit other forms of criticism or dissent.

Annette Theron

a.theron@politicalanalysis.co.za