The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by new legislation that threatens press freedom in the Gambia. Last week, the National Assembly passed two pieces of legislation that impose criminal penalties for press offenses and could limit media ownership and development. CPJ urges Your Excellency not to sign this legislation into law.
The first piece of legislation, an amendment to the Criminal Code, imposes mandatory prison sentences of six months to three years for media owners or journalists convicted of publishing defamatory or "seditious" material, without the option of a fine. The amendment also calls for prison sentences of at least six months for those found guilty of publishing or broadcasting false news. In addition, the legislation allows the state to confiscate without judicial oversight any publication deemed "seditious."
The second piece of legislation is an amendment to the Gambia's Newspaper Act. The original law required all print media owners to register with the government, and to sign a statement--known as a bond--that they own enough money or assets to ensure payment of any penalties imposed by a court for press offenses, including libel or sedition. The latest amendment raises this bond from 100,000 dalasis (US$3,348) to 500,000 (US$16,740). The legislation also extends this requirement to broadcast media owners and renders all existing registration null. Media owners will have to re-register within two weeks after the law goes into effect. Local journalists say that this bill will inhibit media development because the required sum is prohibitive.
Signing these two amendments into law would be a setback in a year where the National Assembly repealed a restrictive press bill, the controversial National Media Commission Act, which legislators overturned on December 13. The act, enacted in 2002, created a media regulatory body with jurisdiction over complaints against journalists. It also required journalists and media organizations to register with the commission for one-year renewable licenses.
In addition, these new laws come against a background of violent attacks against independent journalists and media outlets in the Gambia. In the early hours of Friday, December 17, veteran journalist and press freedom advocate Deyda Hydara was shot dead by unidentified attackers as he drove home from his office in the capital, Banjul. Hydara had been an outspoken opponent of the National Media Commission Act, as well as the recent amendments.
In the last several years, several independent media outlets and a journalist have been targeted in successive arson attacks. No one has been prosecuted in connection with any of these attacks.
We urge Your Excellency not to sign the amendments to the draconian Newspaper Act 2004 and the Criminal Code. The Gambia is introducing this repressive legislation at a time when several other African countries are repealing criminal sanctions for press offenses, which have a chilling effect on the media. Your government must foster an open media environment, which is a vital component of democracy.
CPJ also calls on Your Excellency to do everything in your power to ensure that Deyda Hydara's murderers are brought to justice, and to ensure that journalists in the Gambia are able to do their work without fear of reprisal.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters.