Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression in the Gambia – the First and Second Republics
Fifty years after Africa gained independence, development indicators show that the continent especially south of the Sahara remains the least developed part of the world, even though Africa is potentially the most endowed region of the universe. As a result of the failures of the previous development paradigms, development thinkers began to realize that indeed development is a human right. It became clear that the missing link in our development process has been the recognition of the right of citizens to the wealth and resources of their country which is being managed on their behalf by their government. It also became clear that no one can develop another individual, rather only people can develop themselves based
on their own ideas, actions and circumstances. Certainly others (government) can create an environment that supports the empowerment of people, but the ultimate responsibility of development of people lies on the people themselves.
It is in this context that the rights-based Approach to development was conceived. This approach is founded on human rights standards and principles as the guide and foundation for development in all aspects. The principles of human rights entail equality, non-discrimination, universality and interdependence among others. The standards of human rights are minimum requirements that must be met in ensuring human beings enjoy their rights and freedoms. Human rights are about human dignity, therefore human rights standards are thresholds or baseline without which a human being cannot attain his or her full human potentials.
Relating all of these to the role of the media in the Gambia, one will find that standards have been set for the media which places obligations in Section 207 and 208 of the Constitution of the Republic of the Gambia 1997. On freedom and responsibility of the media, Section 207 states that:
- The freedom and independence of the press and other information media are hereby guaranteed.
- 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 goes further to specifically set a specific standard and obligation for the public media;
- All state owned newspapers, journals, radio and television shall afford fair opportunities and facilities for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinion.
The beauty of human rights principles, standards and obligations is that it breeds a culture of transparency, accountability and performance; hence engender development. It must be noted that in 1986 the UN General Assembly issued the Declaration on the Right to Development in which Article 1 states that,
“The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.”
From these perspectives one will therefore begin to see the indispensable role of freedom of expression and of the media in protecting human rights and fulfillment of development. Free speech merely entails citizens having the freedom, space and opportunity to openly air their views and opinions about all and any issue concerning their lives and their society. The role of the media is to merely amplify these voices and circulate it within and beyond the borders of that society. Free speech and media therefore promotes the generation of ideas, information and knowledge and prevent the imposition of any idea or information on society unchallenged.
Because the media has also professionalized the art of amplifying voices, not merely from a mechanical point of view, rather it employs other means and avenues to assist citizens to speak out and exchange opinions, thereby bringing about:
1. Contestation of ideas and information to ensure the best ideas, most accurate information and must useful knowledge prevail
2. Self-regulation to generate individual and institutional responsibility and discipline,
3. Ensuring public and private institutions and enterprises provide quality, affordable and decent products and services,
4. Ensuring individuals as private citizens, public officials or business people among others conduct themselves in a manner that respects rights and promotes excellence in their lives and work;
5. Enabling citizens to hold their leaders and institutions accountable and consequently promote good governance, popular participation and the respect for the rule of law,
6. Creating space and opportunity for all citizens to take part in national affairs equally,
7. Combats corruption and abuse of office and brings government under the control of citizens,
8. Ensuring peace and stability and effective resolution of conflicts.
It is clear therefore that the right to development is inconceivable in the absence of a free media, and free media is inconceivable in the absence of freedom of speech. The point highlights the indispensable role and significance of free speech and media in the attainment of national and human development and the promotion and protection if human rights.
The Gambia is the smallest country on the African mainland and gained its independence from Great Britain in 1965. Even though it was one of very few African countries that maintained multi-party democracy when virtually all its neighbours were ruled by one-party dictatorships, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) of former President Sir Dawda Jawara dominated the political terrain for the first 30 years of independence until when it was toppled by a military coup d’etat in July 1994.
The 1994 putsches which brought into power young military officers led by then Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, led to a two-year transition which ushered in a new constitution and a completely new style of governance different from what had obtained under the former regime.
While under the Jawara regime the media was not quite as robust as it is today, at least journalists were left alone to carry on with their job without being subjected to intimidation and harassment from the authorities. However, since the advent of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) junta and its successor, the Alliance for Patriotic, Reorientation and Construction (APRC) regime, freedom of expression has come under a serious strain. “Gambian journalists have seen more red in 17 years of AFPRC/APRC rule than under the 30 years of PPP rule,” a veteran Gambian journalist was quoted saying.
In addition to the iron-grip, control and manipulation of the public media by the authorities, Gambian journalists have also endured harassment and intimidation, frequent arrests and even torture, as well as arson attacks and arbitrary closure of their media houses.
The ‘Undesirable’ Media Situation
Like the other parts of Anglophone West Africa, the Gambian media started from a modest beginning in the mid-1800s with the first news sheets being produced by merchants in Banjul, the capital. While the scope and frequency of their publications changed with time, until the founding of the government- owned Gambia News Bulletin in 1943, the publication of newspapers remained in the hands of individuals, most of whom were not professional journalists, but people who had other interests. It was not until in the 1990s when the Gambian media underwent some transformation from cyclostyled news sheets to tabloid publications which appeared with more regularity.
Until the opening of Radio Syd the first private radio station in Banjul in 1970, which was also the first in the sub-region, the government-owned Radio Gambia which began operations in 1962, was the only radio station in the country. The dawn of the 1990s however saw a proliferation of FM radio stations, based mostly in Banjul and its environs. There are about fourteen radio stations in the Gambia, most of them situated around the Greater Banjul Area. These FM radio stations, the majority of which are commercial do not air news. They only play music and host ‘irrelevant’ talk shows of imminent events and activities.
There are about six regular newspapers and two news magazines in the Gambia. Whereas most of the newspapers in the Gambia are privately owned, government seems to have influenced a good number of these papers.
However, unlike most of its neighbours, The Gambia as yet has only one television channel, the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), which is owned and controlled by the government. Therefore, satellite television and television stations from neighbouring Senegal remain the only alternative sources available to Gambian viewers.
There are a good number of online media owned by Gambians but there is no full functional Gambia based online media so far, even though there are a number of bloggers. Most of the Gambia online media moderators are abroad-based and termed ‘slanderous’ and as ‘engage in a smear campaign of hate against the government of the Gambia’. This has led to the situation where most of them are inaccessible (blocked) in the Gambia.
Similarly, the media (especially new media) in the Gambia is not adequately reporting on these issues of media freedom and freedom of expression. The traditional media is seriously constrained in the Gambia, giving the background of the difficult environment of press freedom nurtured by harsh and draconian laws.
Under the second republic of the Gambia, the number of media outlets has proliferated and more than triple what it used to be about a decade ago. However, these proliferations of media outlets have not necessarily translated into a more pluralistic society with increased respect for press freedom and freedom of expression in the Gambia. Instead, media freedom and free speech remain a continued casualty and a dream for many Gambians. Thus what we see is that under the second republic, the struggle for media freedom and freedom of expression remains more resilient and determined. This is all the more serious giving the situation that the anti-press freedom legislations today are harsher and stiffer than they were under the first republic. This means that contrary to what government officials say is the Gambia government’s commitment to free speech and pluralistic media; the gains in the media are as a result of giant strides of a people-centered demand for participatory government through free speech and a vibrant press.
- ‘Defying the Odds’ GPU Annual Media Report, 2011 is published by The Gambia Press Union (GPU) under the “Strengthening Freedom of Expression Protection in The Gambia” Project implemented by ARTICLE 19 in partnership with the GPU.
- Constitution of the Republic of the Gambia 1997
- Declaration on the Right to Development (access at: http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/41/a41r128.htm) on Wednesday 9th May 2012 at 12:05 pm.
- Saine A, Post Coup Politics in the Gambia, Journal of Democracy, Volume 13, Number 4, October 2002, pp.167-172 (Article)