Report by Sanna Camara, Dakar, Senegal
Amid unprecedented wave of protests in Gambia, the web and social media are giving a voice to citizens and journalists, in a country known for its repressive environment against free press, freedom of expression, and right to information.
— MamaLinguere Sarr (@mamasarr) May 4, 2016
A political and social crisis has erupted in Banjul, capital of The Gambia, a country located in West-Africa. On April 14, 2016 protests by democracy activists for electoral reforms were organized. The country’s 22-year dictator, Yahya Jammeh, seeks a fifth term in office in December 2016, amidst national and international outcry over the unleveled field for a free and fair election.
Harsh repression on pro-democracy protests
On Thursday, 14th April 2016, over a dozen political activists from diverse political backgrounds came out on the streets in Serre Kunda, Gambia’s commercial capital. They chanted slogans written on white banners, used public address system to demand electoral reforms. Within an hour, they were rounded up and taken to prison.
Reports claimed 19 protesters who were arrested in the first round of protests, including women and elderly have been severely beaten, tortured resulting in alleged deaths. Ebrahima Solo Sandeng, head of the Youth movement of the main opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), is said to be among the dead victims.
The leader of the main political opposition party Ousainou Darboe, took to the streets three days after the arrest of protesters, joined by almost 150 supporters and his party executive members, demanding the release, “dead or alive” of Solo Sandeng. As a result, Darboe, a human rights lawyer, along with several others were hauled away by police.
Freedoms of assembly and association are guaranteed by Gambia’s constitution. However, it has been constrained by state intimidation in practice.
Protests are not the only instrument of democracy outlawed in Gambia.
The crucial role of Internet in the Gambian repressive environment
The country’s media has over the two decades suffered the worst form of repression against any single sector. Media outlets have been arbitrarily closed down. Journalists were assassinated, disappeared, physically attacked and over a hundred fled the country to live in exile.
The Internet, the web and social media have become essential tools in the quest for democracy and freedoms in the Gambia.
With an Internet penetration rate reaching now 19% of the population, the web and social media are increasingly used as platforms of expression for Gambian citizens, in and outside the country. Gambia’s regime does not hesitated to curb this trend towards openness, without success.
In 2014, a senior opposition official was arrested, charged and eventually convicted for “broadcasting using Skype”. A radio journalist Alhagie Ceesay was arrested for allegedly passing an image of a gun pointed at the president’s head through WhatsApp. He was slapped with several charges including sedition and denied bail, sent to remand since 2015.
In July 2015, rapper Killa Ace was forced to flee and his show taken off air from Telecommunication company Africell’s radio station, after he posted on his soundcloud a rap song critical of the regime. The song became a hit, recording 30,000 plays online within 48 hours.
The country is also known for its Internet shutdowns, or website blocking that prevent Gambians from accessing websites considered subversive by the regime (see full report on Gambia’s net freedom by Freedom House).
Despite all these attempts, the April 2016 protests were publicized in the world precisely thanks to connectivity, and social networks. On Facebook for instance, more than 95,000 persons have already used the hashtag #GambiaRising, according to the social network’s stats.
In addition to social networks, online radios and news website give a critical voice to the civil society and opposition groups, as state media are banned from covering their activities. Most of them are established by journalists and political activists in the diaspora. About half of them have been blocked from being accessed within the country.
With opposition activists facing trials for protesting for electoral and political reforms, and backed by the social media and the internet, many are asking whether or not President Yahya Jammeh will survive a wave of pressure from users of social media and android phones, and the force of a population tired of two decades of dictatorship.
Tags: Africa, Afrique, civil rights, Democracy, free press, freedom of expression, Gambia, Internet for change