The Gambia: Ten-year fight for freedom bore results for journalists
By Sanna Camara
In February 2017, Lamin Fatty was among a dozen other journalists who crossed the border to return back home, with high hopes for freedom and reforms in the new Gambia, after a 10-year exile in Senegal. On the 9th May 2018, Fatty displayed uncertainty in his eyes and voice for the first time in a year when the Supreme Court made the decision that the law on false publication, used to convict him ten years ago, was constitutional.
The five-member panel of judges, chaired by the former prosecutor of Arusha based War crimes court, and currently serving as Chief Justice of The Gambia, ruled that criminal defamation, libel and the spread of fake news online in the Information Communications Act – once considered one of the toughest internet laws in Africa – were unconstitutional. However, Section 181 (A) of the criminal code, that criminalizes false publication, remains constitutional according to the same judgment.
Hawa Sisay-Sabally, lead counsel for the Gambia Press Union said it was a victory for Gambian journalists: “Speech will no longer be criminalized in The Gambia,” she said, in reaction to the ruling. “Although sedition still exists in the law books in a limited form, I think we can safely say that journalists can enjoy their work now,” she added.
However, lawyer Sabally’s optimism is not shared by everyone.
“The Supreme Court’s decision is bad news, outrageous & unacceptable. The Gambia Press Union will consider measures seeking to overturn the decision by the court on laws used to suppress free speech and restrict the freedom and independence of the media,” Saikou Jammeh, Secretary general of the Gambia Press Union, tweeted.
Lamin Fatty, who was among the plaintiffs in the ECOWAS lawsuit against The Gambia expressed worry that the Supreme court’s ruling would badly influence his appeal against his false news conviction: he hired services of lawyers to appeal against his conviction in Banjul while he lived in exile in Dakar. The conviction would not progress because the court demanded he appears in person. In 2014, he joined three other exiled Gambian journalists and the Federation of African Journalists to challenge Gambia’s media laws deemed “draconian” to press freedom and free expression.
Lamin Fatty was arrested in 2006 by authorities in the Gambia and detained, tortured at the fearsome intelligence agency for 62 days before being granted bail by the court on “false publication” charges. A protracted trial took six months and Fatty was convicted.
The Gambia underwent 20-year dictatorship under Yahya Jammeh. Over 200 journalists fled the country during this period, according to the Gambia Press Union.
The latest Supreme Court’s decision does not fully follow the current judicial trends in a post-Yahya Jammeh society.
In February 2018, a ruling by the sub-regional community Court of Justicedirected the Gambia to“immediately repeal or amend criminal laws on criminal libel, sedition, and false news in compliance with international obligations”.The judgment recognized that the criminal laws on libel, sedition and false news disproportionately interfere with the rights of Gambian journalists, and not necessarily in a democratic society.
Gambia’s Minister of Information Demba A. Jaow maintains that the Court decision has not in any way affected the government’s current policy to reform media laws in the country. “I can assure you that we will never have the cause to use such laws against journalists,” Jawo told a local talk show platform on the 11th May 2018.
About Sanna Camara:
Sanna Camara is a Banjul-based web journalist and blogger who lived in exile under Jammeh for three years in Senegal. He is Correspondent for Internet Sans Frontieres and member of the Africtivistes.