In a recent article by The Standard Newspaper, Lamin Queen Jammeh, The Gambia’s Information Minister, stated that the media is freer under the Barrow government. He said: “The Barrow administration has committed itself to democratise the state and public life in The Gambia since 2017. Evidence to this assertion is the enactment of the Access to Information Act, which abundantly manifests a requisite political will.”
Although this statement may be true, compared to the previous autocratic regime under Yahya Jammeh, DUBAWA has made it a point to highlight the challenges facing Gambian media that pose a threat to its freedom.
The Media under a Dictatorship
During the dictatorial regime of Yahya Jammeh, the media was the most persecuted institution. In its sixth session, the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), the commission that investigated the human rights violations and abuses that had occurred under the former regime heard testimonies from journalists and media personnel, which revealed that about 140 media personnel were subjected to gross human rights violations under Jammeh’s government.
A major finding was the 2004 killing of veteran Gambian journalist Deyda Hydara, who stood up to the dictatorial regime of Jammeh. It was revealed at the TRRC that Deyda was killed in a drive-by shooting by Junglers, Jammeh’s hit squad, on orders of Yahya Jammeh.
To stifle the media, Yahya Jammeh shut down media houses; journalists were jailed, killed, and many disappeared.
The media under a democratic government
When Jammeh’s government was ousted, the current government ushered in a democracy. One of the President’s main promises was to carry out reforms. However, the repressive laws the previous regime left behind are still being maintained.
According to an Amnesty International publication dated September 23 2021, despite Barrow’s promise to reform the country, oppressive laws that were used to curtail human rights, including freedom of expression and peaceful assembly under former President Yahya Jammeh remain operative.
When this report was published, Gambia Press Union recorded more than 15 assaults on media professionals in the past four years.
“More attacks on journalists are feared as we come close to the elections. The country is increasingly polarised, especially because attacks are not investigated. In the last four years, we recorded more than 15 cases of assaults from police and supporters of political parties. ” No one of those cases were prosecuted,” a GPU member told Amnesty International.
Though he is more tolerant than his predecessor, Barrow’s relationship with journalists is not completely friendly. During his Meet the People Tour in 2020, the President accused the media of bias.
“We know that some of these people are activists but masquerading as newspapers to disseminate their news. But I want to tell them that this government does not need any favours from them, but the least we expect is that they should also inform Gambians with accurate information about the ongoing works we are doing. A good citizen must love his or her country and do everything to defend it, and that is the direction expected from all of us,” he remarked.
As a result, according to the President, Barrow Media Empowerment, NPP TV and NPP Bantaba Kachaa was established to “accurately inform Gambians about the government’s policies and ongoing programmes.”
On January 26, 2020, two media houses, King FM and Home Digital FM, were closed down to cover the three-year Jotna protest. This movement demanded Barrow honour his campaign promise to step down after serving three years in office.
Pa Modou Bojang, the owner of Home Digital FM, and Gibbi Jallow, the manager of King FM, were arrested. In a press release by the government, the spokesperson stated, “Government notes with concern that the two FM stations have demonstrated notoriety pending the incendiary messages and allowed the media to be used as platforms for inciting violence, fear-mongering and live broadcasts urging Gambians to join Jotna demonstrators all calculated to threaten the security and safety of The Gambia.”
Although the charges were eventually dropped, their licences were suspended for a month.
The Criminal Code still contains clauses that infringe on the rights of journalists. Yahya Jammeh used this tool to subjugate the right to freedom of expression, limiting the media in its watchdog role.
The TRRC recommended that the government should, “with immediate effect, repeal all repressive legislation, including legislation that does not comply with international and regional human rights law, particularly the Information and Communication (Amendment) Act 2013 and Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2013; being criminal libel and defamation, and also the Newspaper Act.” The Gambia Press Union continues several years after the exit of Jammeh to call for the government to repeal repressive laws.
Despite efforts to usher in a new constitutional order, the National Assembly rejected the draft constitution. The repressive laws that allowed Yahya Jammeh to self-perpetuate in power are still in force. The dictator may be gone, but his laws remain in force.
The researcher produced this explainer per the DUBAWA 2023 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with Malagen to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.