Whilst The Gambia remains a member of the Commonwealth that affirms freedom of expression as one of its core values, the government of President Yahya Jammeh has been clamping down on newspapers and journalists with zeal.
Legislators in The Gambia recently passed a bill that clamps down on free expression on the internet. On 3 July 2013, The Gambia's National Assembly passed an amendment to the Information and Communication Act 2009 making it an offence to use the internet to 'spread false news' against government or public officials.
The amended Act also makes it a crime to 'caricature, abuse or make derogatory statements against the person or character of public officials.' Political caricatures and cartoons about government or public officials are therefore banned under this law.
It further criminalises anyone that 'incites dissatisfaction or instigates violence against the government.' If convicted under this law, a person faces 15 years in prison and/or has to pay a fine of 3 million dalasi (approx $82,200).
It was reported that the Information and Communication Minister, Nana Grey-Johnson, proposed these new provisions to deter 'treacherous campaigns' and prevent 'unpatriotic behaviour.'
However such provisions have been recognised by experts at both the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the United Nations as problematic.
INFRINGING ON CRITICAL REPORTING
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information have both expressly stated that laws that criminalise 'false news' are a threat to freedom of expression, particularly as 'false news' offences inhibit critical reporting on matters relating to the government.
Public and government officials are legitimately subject to public scrutiny. Restricting the ability of the public to report and criticise their actions or policies is incompatible with the right to free expression.
Yet these amendments are not surprising for President Jammeh's regime that has consistently eroded fundamental freedoms. In particular, the regime has targeted free expression and opinion, passing draconian laws that are used to stifle journalists, human rights defenders and government critics.
These draconian laws include the Criminal Code that was amended in April 2013 to extend the punishment for providing 'false information' to a public servant from 6 months to an incredible 15 years imprisonment, and/or a fine of 50,000 dalasi (approx $1,300) up from 500 dalasi (approx $13).
The amendment also broadened the definition of a 'public servant', to include the president, vice-president, ministers and members of the national assembly.
SILENCING THE PRESS IN JAMMEH'S GAMBIA
The Gambia's Criminal Code also contains broadly worded offences such as sedition, treason and criminal defamation that have been used to target government critics and human rights defenders.
Other laws like the Newspapers Registration (Amendment) Act 2004 impose the compulsory registration of print and broadcast media that includes providing a surety of 500,000 dalasi (approx $13,700). The registration requirement and excessive bond are incompatible with international standards and continue to inhibit media pluralism and diversity in the country.
Furthermore, there was a significant decline in press freedom following the execution of prisoners on death row in August 2012. Two independent newspapers 'The Standard' and 'Daily News' were shut down; a foreign journalist was expelled from the country; and journalists reported threats of violence, harassment, illegal detention and abuse.
IS THE GAMBIA COMMITTED TO COMMONWEALTH VALUES?
It is worth reminding the government of its membership to the Commonwealth, an Association that affirms freedom of expression as one of its core values.
The Commonwealth Charter, subscribed to by all Commonwealth governments, including The Gambia, commits to upholding the right to freedom of expression, and ensuring a free media, 'open dialogue', and the 'free flow of information'.
The Gambia has also signed the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It therefore has legal obligations under both these treaties to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.
Under international law, it can only restrict this right, under specific conditions, for example, to protect national security or public health, but restrictions must be both necessary and proportionate.
To comply with its obligations, the government needs to review its worrying track record, and repeal laws that inhibit freedom of expression, and ensure both law and practice are in line with the standards enshrined in the human rights treaties to which it is a party to.
Sanyu Awori works for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.