President tightens media laws in The Gambia

The Gambia’s media is outraged by the promulgation of two new press laws it says were signed in secret by President Yahya Jammeh to muzzle freedom of expression as the country gears up for elections next year.

Jammeh, a former army lieutenant who came to power in a 1994 coup, has approved the two laws, which were passed by Parliament in December, despite a storm of protest at home and abroad.

The Criminal Code Amendment Bill 2004 makes all press offences, including libel, punishable by imprisonment of six months or more. The other law, the Newspaper Amendment Act, cancels existing publication and broadcasting licences, forcing the media to re-register at five times the cost.

The head of the Gambia Press Union, Demba Ali Jawo, had strong words against the introduction of the criminal code Bill, which punishes libel only by jail, excluding the possibility of a fine.

“A bad law which is not good in any democratic country,” was how he described it in the daily newspaper The Independent earlier this week. “We see it as another attempt by government to muzzle the press.”

The global press freedom body Reporters sans Frontièeres said it is outraged by both the government’s secretive methods and the content of the two laws.

It urged the international community to move in to stop what it described as Jammeh’s mounting crackdown on the country’s media.

“[The] Gambia’s president clearly intends to keep tight control on journalists during a period of unrest and in the approach to a crucial election year,” the organisation said in a statement.

Jammeh (39) has said he will run for a third five-year term in presidential elections scheduled for 2006.
Parliamentary polls are due the following year.

“The silence of his African and European counterparts leaves his hands free to turn [The] Gambia into one of the West African countries that most restricts press freedom,” said Reporters sans Frontièeres.

Jammeh has long been locked in conflict over freedom of expression with The Gambia’s private media and has made no secret of his loathing for journalists, saying in the past they should be given “a long rope to hang themselves”.

One of the country’s leading journalists, Deyda Hydara, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen last December amid protests over the new press laws. The killers have yet to be arrested.

No charges have been laid either against arsonists responsible for burning down The Independent‘s printing press last year, the second such attack in six months against the paper.

Gambian journalists said they will challenge the constitutionality of the two new press laws, promulgated on December 28, because they were only made public late February. The Constitution stipulates new laws have to be published within 30 days.—Irin