• Fri. May 3rd, 2024

For A Free & Vibrant Media

State of Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression in The Gambia

May 3, 2024

A statement by Modou S. Joof, Secretary General of the Gambia Press Union on the Occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2024 Commemoration organised by Freedom House – The Gambia at Sunset Beach Hotel, Kotu

  • Comrades
  • Madam Chair
  • Deputy Chief of Party Freedom House – The Gambia
  • The President of the Gambia Press Union
  • USAID Country Programme Manager
  • The Honorable Minister of Information
  • Ladies and Gentlemen

Good morning,

Every year, 3rd May is observed as a day to remind governments and other stakeholders of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and freedom of expression.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day theme “A Press for the Planet: Journalism in the Face of the Environmental Crisis”, is meant to highlight the significant role journalism plays in informing and educating the people on how the current climate and biodiversity crisis are affecting the environment and ecosystems and the impact it has on the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world.

World Press Freedom Day is set aside to reflect on issues of press freedom and the recognition of the important role of a free and independent press in providing a platform for marginalised voices and communities, people affected by the actions and inaction of governments and big corporations, and holding the powerful to account.

It allows for manifestations of support and solidarity with the media that are oftentimes targets of violation and abuse – especially from governments.

The celebration also serves as a reminder of the need for the protection of the fundamental human rights including the public’s right to know, freedom of speech, opinion and expression as embedded in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which recognizes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers).

In order to enforce this expression of will to respect fundamental values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a legally-binding treaty, to expand the meaning and scope of the right to freedom of expression.

The ICCPR states that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of choice.”

Based on these foundations, a UNESCO Conference on “Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press” held in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991 adopted the Declaration of Windhoek.

Two years later, the United Nations proclaimed May 3, the day of the Declaration was adopted, as World Press Freedom Day. Since then, special events are held annually to mark the day, and that is why we are here today.

State of Press Freedom & Freedom of Expression in The Gambia

Thanks to these monumental events and commitments at the global stage, several nations have gone further to commit to the ideals of press freedom and freedom of expression, and apportioned a responsibility on the media to hold governments accountable to their people in their Constitutions.

In The Gambia, Section 25 (1) (a) of the 1997 Constitution provides that every person shall have the right to “freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media”.

Section 207 (1) and (3) on freedom and responsibility of media, states that “(1) The freedom and independence of the press and other information media are hereby guaranteed.” And that “(2). The press and other information media shall at all times, be free to uphold the principles, provisions and objectives of this Constitution, and the responsibility and accountability of [the] Government to the people of The Gambia”.

Section 208 also places a responsibility on state-owned media, stating that “All state-owned newspapers, journals, radio and television shall afford fair opportunities and facilities for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions”.

With regards to the media landscape, we have seen an increase in the number of private radio stations by almost 75%, with 39 FM stations in operations as of 2021, according to data from the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), which is responsible for registration of broadcast media.

Gambians now enjoy the luxury of watching multiple local television channels, with five private television stations in operations, in addition to the national television which was the only TV station until 2017 when television broadcasting services was liberalised.

There are nine community radio stations, and a growing number of online platforms, at least twenty, however, there has been a drop in newspaper publications, with only five regularly publishing a print version.

Nonetheless, the increase in radio and TV stations means that more people now have access to the media to express their opinions on issues concerning their lives and livelihoods, and on issues of government and governance.

In 2023, we saw considerable progress in terms of press freedom as per the RSF Global Press Freedom Index with The Gambia ranked 5th in Africa and 46th in the world among 180 countries.

This year, the country dropped to 58th position globally (-12) and 10th in Africa (-5) in the global press freedom index. While this is still better that what obtains in a number of countries, the reason for the drop hinges on attacks on journalists, bad media laws, economic challenges, a lack of political will to ensure safety of journalists, and a lack of implementation of the Access to Information law.

Attacks on Press Freedom & Freedom of Expression

Despite this progress recorded as a country, we are still grappling with challenges of press freedom – from physical attacks on journalists to impunity and a lack of justice for dictatorship-era crimes against journalists.

We have witnessed in recent months direct threats to journalists and media houses from the current administration, which ignited calls on social media for attacks on individual journalists and media houses by political party militants affiliated with the ruling party.

Journalists and media workers and human rights defenders have also faced arbitrary arrests by the police, detained incommunicado without access to family or lawyers with whereabouts unknown and in one instance physically assaulted while in custody, and released with or without charges.

Incidences of physical assault on journalists and media professionals perpetrated either by the police or political party militants which occurred since 2017 have never been investigated, and no one is held accountable.

Media Law Reforms

On media law reform, notably, criminal defamation is no longer applicable after it was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2018, and Sedition laws will no longer be applicable once the Criminal Offences Bill, 2020 which seeks to repeal the Criminal Code, is enacted. On the contrary, the Bill, which has been at the Committee Stage in Parliament since 2022, replicated the “False publication and broadcasting” law, another draconian provision in our law books.

Contrary to commitments made on media law reforms, press freedom and freedom of expression, the Government is promulgating new laws like the Cybercrime Bill, 2023 with provisions aimed at restricting press freedom and freedom of expression targeted mainly at the media, human rights activists, opposition activists, and social media users.

Access to Information

The Gambia also has an access to information law which is crucial to the media’s role in promoting accountability, people’s right to information, freedom of expression and political participation.

The government has initiated processes to operationalise the law, although very slow, with the development of policies and capacity building.

However, a lack of a clear direction in the form of a good framework is hindering much needed progress to set up all the structures and mechanisms needed to operationalise the Access to Information Act, 2021.

While commissioners have been identified, an Information Commission has not been established, the digital infrastructure to facilitate in part, obligations on proactive disclosure aren’t available, and government institutions have no Access to information implementation plans.

As a result, the culture of hoarding public information which was entrenched during the dictatorship still continues.

Journalists, civil society, the private sector, students and members of the public still face challenges accessing public information.

THANK YOU.

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