By Waceke Njoroge
Yahya Jammeh and the Junglers bear full responsibility for the crimes and human rights violations committed against journalists, media practitioners, the media, and freedom of expression, and should be prosecuted for their actions, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission has recommended.
These crimes include arbitrary arrest and detention; prosecution; imprisonment; harassment, intimidation, threats, arson attacks, disappearances, extra-judicial killings; physical attacks; and closure or destruction of media houses that were critical of the government or even reported actual events. They were all intended to limit freedom of expression and instil fear in everyone, including print, electronic, and broadcast media, as Jammeh consolidated his dictatorship.
“It appears to the commission that from the outset, Yahya Jammeh viewed freedom of expression and of the press as a real and credible threat to his tyrannical rule. He therefore devised means to muzzle and silence the media,” says the final report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).
The commission also recommends that the murder of respected journalist and founder of The Point newspaper Deyda Hydara; the arson attack on Radio 1 FM; attacks on The Independent newspaper; and torture of journalists and other persons mentioned in relation to the online Freedom Newspaper be investigated for the purpose of prosecuting the Junglers, who participated in the violations.
Several laws should be reviewed with the aim of removing, reforming, repealing, or amending provisions that encourage or legitimise repression or restriction of human rights, and freedom of expression, assembly, and media with the aim of aligning The Gambia’s legal regime with regional and international standards, and international best practice, the TRRC says.
It lists the laws that should be targeted as including the Criminal Code and the Criminal Offences Bill 2020; the Criminal Procedure Bill 2019; the National Media and Communication Act 2002; the Newspaper Registration and Broadcasting Act; the Information and Communication Act 2009, and the Public Order Act. Some of the laws criminalise civil offences such as libel and defamation. The commission suggested that these offences should be decriminalised.
Other laws that need to be reviewed to ensure freedom of expression and the media, as well as adhere to international human rights requirements, include the Information and Communication (Amendment) Act 2013; the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2013 (on criminal libel and defamation); the Newspaper Act; the Newspaper and Broadcasting Stations Act 1994 (as amended in 2004); the Official Secrets Act 1922; Decree 81 (1996) on NGOs; and the Seditions Act.
The government is asked to make these reforms and changes as part of its duty to ensure that journalists are able to freely exercise their right to freedom of expression without fear of arrest, detention, intimidation, or harassment.
The government is also urged to provide comprehensive training and reform of the security sector so that it understands journalism and the importance of freedom of expression in a democratic government.
The TRRC recommends that the Access to Information Act (2021) be fully implemented and that the submissions and recommendations on the way forward of legal position papers from Article 19 and the Gambia Press Union (GPU) on media law reforms in the country be accepted “in totality”.
The commissioners have asked the government to implement ECOWAS Court of Justice decisions on ending impunity for crimes against journalists, “in particular by ensuring persons responsible for the 2004 murder of Deyda Hydara, the 2006 enforced disappearance of Ebrima Manneh, and the 2006 torture in custody of Musa Saidykhan are brought to justice”. They also ask for the implementation of the 2018 decision of the ECOWAS court calling for the repeal of harsh media laws, including sedition, insult, false news, and criminal defamation.
One of the ways Jammeh devised to silence the media was to demonise journalists as not patriotic and demean them through insults and derogatory tags, calling them “illegitimate sons of Africa” or “dead and rotten horses”. His campaign aimed to turn the public against journalists and media practitioners by characterising their relationship with fear and paranoia.
The dictator’s onslaught against the media started as soon as the junta took power in July 1994. That year the junta introduced the “Political Activities Suspension Decree, 1994”, which was passed on August 4, 1994. The decree banned political expression and publishing of the propaganda of political parties. Under the new decree Kenneth Best, the proprietor of the Daily Observer, was arrested. Halifa Sallah and Sidia Jatta from Foroyaa newspaper, who disregarded the decree, were arrested, charged, and convicted.
Ebrima Sankareh was arrested in connection with a letter he wrote to the BBC criticising the government. In the same month, November 1994, Abdullah Savage, a reporter for The Daily Observer, was arrested and severely beaten up. Abubacarr Sankanu was also arrested and held incommunicado in November 1994 for reporting on Voice of America the failure of the junta to return the country to civilian rule.
Another method was imposing heavy taxes that eventually saw media houses collapse. These include a tax levied on every newspaper sold and every advertisement published in the paper, as well as a monthly 15 per cent tax return. The government also imposed draconian laws that attracted heavy fines and/or harsh punishment.
Jammeh ensured that journalists were not professionally trained, with no formal training institutions for journalism in The Gambia until 2013.
The commission said it had heard the testimony of 17 witnesses, mainly journalists and other media practitioners who had suffered human rights violations at the hand of the state and state agents in the course of their work.
Saikou Jammeh, the Secretary General of the GPU, told the TRRC that the most difficult and challenging period for journalists and the media fraternity in the country was the 22 years under Jammeh. “Journalists suffered many human rights violations,” he said. The country was consistently ranked as one of the worst places for journalists from 2011 up to 2017.
In her testimony before the commission, jurist, human rights advocate, and women’s rights and free expression activist Fatou Jagne Senghore agreed. “The Gambia, that was once considered the capital of African human rights, has since been turned into an extremely oppressive context for journalists and vocal human rights defenders. Until the recent change, Gambia was ranked as the worst violator of press freedom and fundamental rights in the West Africa region,” she said.
Freedom of expression is protected under Section 25 of the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia. Further, The Gambia is a party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression in Article 9. The Gambia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on March 22,1979. The covenant protects freedom of expression under its Article 19.