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Democracy in The Gambia: An in-depth evaluation

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In this explainer, DUBAWA analyses The Gambia’s democratization from dictatorship to post-democracy.

The Yahya Jammeh era in The Gambia lasted from 1994 to 2017 and was marked by the suppression of democracy, human rights abuses, and the consolidation of power by President Yahya Jammeh.

Mr Jammeh came to power through a military coup in 1994, overthrowing the democratically elected government of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. He initially ruled the country by decree, suspending the constitution.

However, in 1997, a new constitution was introduced, and Jammeh was elected President, giving the appearance of a return to democratic rule.

Despite this, Jammeh ruled with an iron fist, suppressing freedom of expression and dissent.

Under his regime, journalists, activists, lawyers, and political opponents were brutalised. There was the use of brute force, torture, and arbitrary detention to silence anyone who criticised his government.

The media, judiciary, security forces, and other state institutions were all controlled by him, allowing him to exercise absolute power.

Mr Jammeh also manipulated the constitution to consolidate his power, amending it over 52 times.

Under his regime, draconian laws were enacted, violating the rights of citizens and further suppressing dissent.

The Gambia became isolated from the international community during Jammeh’s rule, as he declared thecountry an Islamic state and controlled the narrative through a parallel state machinery.

The true extent of the human rights abuses committed during his regime only became known after a democratic change of government led to the establishment of a Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC).

Democratic Dispensation under President Barrow

The New Democratic Dispensation, led by President Adama Barrow, has expressed its commitment to restoring good governance and respecting the rule of law.

This led to the establishment of the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) in The Gambia, which is a significant step towards addressing the human rights abuses and injustices committed during the Yahya Jammeh era.

This pursuit of justice is crucial for meaningful truth-seeking, reconciliation, and healing in The Gambia.

The TRRC investigation and report provided a platform for victims to share their stories and seek reparations.

The report and recommendations, including constitutional and legislative changes, institutional reforms, and prosecutions, aim to ensure accountability and prevent such abuses from happening again.

After securing re-election, President Barrow promised The Gambians a new constitution once again, even after rejecting the 2020 draft constitution, which seeks to replace the 1997 Constitution of  The Gambia and establish a new one.

The 2020 rejected Draft Constitution would have introduced significant changes such as Presidential term limits, quotas for women’s participation, parliamentary vetting of the appointment of senior public officers and limitations on the power of the executive.

The 2020 draft also introduced socio-economic rights and had a more progressive bill of rights provisions.

The 2020 draft would have marked a significant departure from the 1997 constitution, which former President Yahya Jammeh amended over 52 times.

Political Landscape

In 2017, The Gambia witnessed a significant increase in the number of political parties compared to how it was during the era of exiled President Yahya Jammeh.

The country has also witnessed increased media outlets, which has seen considerable progress in press freedom since the end of Mr Jammeh’s 22-year dictatorship in 2017.

The criminalisation of defamation was declared unconstitutional in 2018, attacks on journalists have decreased, and new media outlets have been launched.

Media landscape

Since Adama Barrow’s inauguration as president in January 2017, the state-owned broadcaster has lost its monopoly, and many radio and TV outlets, both privately owned and community-based, have been created. The Gambia has 45 radio stations, one of which is state-owned; five TV channels, four privately owned; and four dailies.

Cherno Jallow, a veteran The Gambian journalist who is also named after the Gambia Press Union (GPU) Code of Ethics for Journalists, gave an overview of press freedom and highlighted several factors that affect press freedom and freedom of expression.

“The press and the government have a role to play, representing the public’s interest. The press should not think they can do things alone, and the government, too, should know they cannot do things alone.

Even in developed countries, journalists face challenges where they have been regarded as enemies of the state.  In The Gambia, it happened during the era of President Jawara and Yahya Jammeh, too, and this continues.

Now we see journalists interfering with people’s privacy all in the name of journalism. This is not right,” he said. Mr Jallow said press freedom depends on how one interprets it and what factors they consider to be press freedom.

“The press should not allow it to be used, and they should jealously protect their integrity. Journalists should not think they are above the law, and the government should also know that they are not above the law.”

The veteran journalist expressed disappointment over the conduct of some journalists, especially those working online and radio.

“What we see in the media, especially online, is terrible. If you listen to radios, you will hear people saying certain words that are not good,” he noted.

He advised journalists to rise above the moment’s emotions and focus on the issues

.

Political context

Since the coming of President Adama Barrow into power, most Gambians regard the country’s media as free and not subject to governmental interference. They operate without censorship and accurately reflect the country’s diverse opinions.

However, in early 2020, two privately owned radio stations, King FM and Home Digital FM, were closed for one month. Their directors were detained for four days for “inciting hatred” by covering political demonstrations organised by a pressure group called ‘3-Years-Jotna’ (Meaning the three years are over), opposition parties which turned violent.

The pressure group was calling on President Adama Barrow to honour the verbal agreement of the coalition 2016 for him to serve only three years.

The government does not particularly target the media, but there is no political will to protect journalists by passing laws that safeguard their interests.

Legal framework

A law on access to information was adopted in 2021. This was a historic moment in a country that, for the first time, recognised access to information as a human right.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that criminalising defamation and criminalising the use of the Internet to criticise or disseminate false information about government officials were both unconstitutional.

In 2016, The Gambians democratically changed the dictatorial regime of the now-exiled President Yahya Jammeh through the ballot box using marble.

From 2017 to date, there has been an increase in the number of registered and non-registered media houses in the country.

The government allows journalists to freely carry out their work until recently when the President mentioned targeting journalists by looking into some community radio stations, which he believes give airtime to people who attack his government’s agenda.

Over the years, The Gambia has made significant progress in the World Media Index, ranking 50 out of 180 member countries.

However, the media and citizens have increasingly faced intimidation by the government and their allies.

A few weeks ago, the intimidation of the media reached another level as President Barrow made a series of remarks that directly threatened the state of press freedom, freedom of expression and the country’s fledgling democracy.

On Sept. 29, while opening his National People’s Party (NPP) bureau in Bansang, The Gambia’s Central River Region, President Barrow said: “If there was no democracy, Kerr Fatou wouldn’t have existed. If there was no democracy, Mengbe Kering ‘Radio’ would not exist in The Gambia, and all Radio stations that criticise the government would not exist either.”

Mengbe Kering is not a radio station; it is an online TV platform which hosts a special current Affairs talk show by the same name and other programs in Brikama, a town located in the West Coast Region of The Gambia.

These remarks by the president have been condemned by the Media and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) who regard them as “a dangerous speech” and reminded the president of the importance of democracy.  President Barrow said the country has reached an excessive point, with people freely expressing their opinions without accountability.

He made these remarks at the Inauguration of another NPP Political Bureau in Wassu, Central River Region.

“The nonsense is getting too much in the country. I will talk to the Inspector General of Police; those who want to destabilise the country will be arrested and detained,” he said at the inauguration of another NPP Bureau in Jarra Soma on Oct. 3.

People’s Reactions after the president’s comments

Muhammed S Bah, President of The Gambia Press Union, said President Barrow’s actions and statements are disconcerting and demand immediate attention.

“Journalists, media establishments, and public members have faced intimidation and harassment online and offline.

This assault on the independent press and freedom of expression undermines the core values of democracy and the progress that The Gambia has made in recent years,” Bah said.

“Barrow’s comments threaten national cohesion,” said Demba Ali Jawo, former Information and Communication Technology Minister.”

John Charles Njie, the chairman of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), has said that President Barrow’s remarks about the media fraternity in giving Madi Jobarteh a platform to incite violence are considered an “insult to our collective intelligence as a nation.”

Since the president made the comments, which many branded as a threat to press freedom and democracy, the President’s office has also come out with what they described as clarification of the president’s statement. They claimed President Barrow is determined to consolidate Democracy and the Rule of Law.

Madi MK Ceesay, former President of The Gambia Press Union (GPU) and now National Assembly Member for Serrekunda West, who is the chair of the Select Committee on Human Rights at The Gambia’s National Assembly, said, “The press freedom that the GPU, CSOs, and all the stakeholders done to have press freedom is taken away gradually from Gambians.”

He added that since the change of government in 2017, people have seen what is being referred to as press freedom, and the measures many cited are the “mere content of radios and newspapers” in the country.

“This is far from press freedom, and what we experienced during the era of Yahya Jammeh was hostility against the media, where journalists were arrested, tortured, and killed.

After the end of Jammeh’s era, we have not seen such, but press freedom is where the media and its personnel operate without any interference from the government. In recent times, there have been physical attacks in the media.

I have never seen such in my journalism career where a president will call out names of journalists and refer to them as his enemies,” he added.

Conclusion

From the experts’ comments and references to the assessments conducted, it is clear that there is nomonal democracy in The Gambia. However, there are several instances where journalists, activists, and political opponents face intimidation from the government in the regimes of Jammeh a self-avowed dictator and Barrow, someone who came to power through a democratic election. This lack of noticeable change in freedom of the media from the era of Jammeh to that of Barrow suggests lack of meaningful democratization in The Gambia.

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