Repression in The Gambia
Friday, April 27, 2012
Tt is no secret that human rights are stifled in the Gambia. Ever since President Yahya Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994, freedoms in the country have steadily shrunk and an alleged attempt to overthrow him in 2006 caused him to tighten the reigns even more, actively pursuing and persecuting journalists, human rights defenders and government critics.
At the heart of this authoritarian government, are draconian laws that are used to silence dissent. Crimes such as, sedition, sedition intention, treason and false publication are used to muzzle the press, suppress criticism of the government and keep the people in check. In addition, the media is constantly harassed.
In recent years, private radio stations, such as Teranga FM, Sud FM, Citizen FM and Radio 1 FM have been visited by state agents and issued with arbitrary notices to shut down. This has resulted in most self-censoring their reports.
Such offences fly in the face of the national constitution that secures the right to free speech, and the human rights treaties the Gambia has ratified, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights. But this does not seem to worry the government.
Instead, journalists, critics and activists are often arbitrarily detained and in some cases tortured at the hand of the state. In 2010, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court found that a journalist had been tortured when illegally detained by state agents in 2006.
The Court has ordered the government to redress the violations - but the government is yet to show any political will to compensate the victim and comply with the court’s judgment. This case is symptomatic of a government campaign to intimidate and silence.
And detention centres such as the Mile Two prison are a black hole for human rights abuses. With an accountability vacuum, cases of ill-treatment, torture and enforced disappearances are not investigated and the litany of human rights violations go on unabated.
State apparatus, like the National Intelligence Agency have gained notoriety for the arbitrary arrest and detention of real or perceived government critics. State-endorsed incommunicado detention was even noted by the UN Human Rights Committee when reviewing Gambia’s human rights record in 2002.
At Gambia’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in 2010, it was urged to amend its legislation to respect, protect and fulfil the rights to expression, as well as protect human rights defenders, including journalists. Such recommendations however were rejected by the government.
The African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) has also repeatedly raised similar concerns about the government’s disregard for its human rights obligations. These calls go unheeded. Instead, when questioned about its responsibilities for human rights, the government refers to the fact that it hosts the ACHPR in Banjul as its get- out-of-jail-free card.
And yet, human rights defenders in the Gambia are still particularly at risk. In a stark example, four activists peacefully protesting by wearing and distributing t-shirts calling for an ‘end to dictatorship now’ in June 2011 were recently sentenced. One of them, a former Minister of Information and Communication, has been convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. The other three were sentenced to three years with hard labour.
The severity of their sentences, the compromised credibility of the judiciary and the excessively broad nature of these laws serve to reinforce the tight hold the government has over fundamental freedoms and rights. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders published a report in 2011, following a fact-finding mission to the Gambia in 2010.
The report documents how judicial harassment as well as arbitrary arrests and detention are being used to muffle activism and the work of human rights defenders. After 17 years, Jammeh secured another term in power in November 2011.
In an environment inimical to democracy, the elections were far from free and fair. ECOWAS decided against monitoring the presidential elections, stating that a fact-finding mission report reveals “a picture of intimidation, an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power, the lack of neutrality of state and para-statal institutions, and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation.”
A day before the election results, it is reported that, rebuffing criticism Jammeh told the press that, “they talk about rights, human rights, and freedom of the press, and (say that) this country is a hell for journalists. There are freedoms and responsibilities.
The journalists are less than 1% of the population, and if anybody expects me to allow less than 1% of the population to destroy 99%, you are in the wrong place.” Such statements go hand in hand with his statement in 2009 when he threatened to kill human rights defenders.
Such statements hardly inspire confidence in his regime or indicate a change in policy. Unless something changes, this term in power for Jammeh, cements another term of repression in the Gambia.
Author: Sanyu Awori, Programme Officer, Strategic Initiatives Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative