The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press; however, the government restricted these rights. According to a statement issued in 2011 by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, “the environment for independent and opposition media remained hostile, with numerous obstacles to freedom of expression, including administrative hurdles, arbitrary arrest and detention, intimidation and judicial harassment against journalists, and the closure of media outlets, leading to self-censorship.”
Freedom of Speech: Individuals who publicly or privately criticized the government or the president risked government reprisal. For example, police arrested Mass Kah, a messenger of an opposition newspaper, on charges of sedition in November 2013 and held him beyond the 72-hour detention limit. According to the court, the charge was based on the messenger stating, “Why can’t you paste the photo of the president on the sky?” Mass Kah denied the allegation. In September the presiding magistrate said the statement could “not bring hatred, disaffection, and disrespect to the person of the president.” The court acquitted and discharged Mass Kah.
In December 2013 police arrested and detained an activist of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), Lansana Jobarteh, for eight days. Police accused Jobarteh of using an iPod and Skype to facilitate the foreign broadcast of two opposition political rallies. On July 10, a magistrate in Bundung convicted him on charges of “broadcasting without a license” and fined him 50,000 dalasi ($1,160), or in default thereof to serve one year in prison. Jobarteh paid the fine.
Press Freedoms: Laws that impose excessive bonds on media institutions also require newspapers to reregister annually and mandate harsh punishment for the publication of so-called false information or undermining constitutional protections. According to Freedom House, these provisions gave authorities great power to silence dissent.
In 2011 President Jammeh warned independent journalists he would “not compromise or sacrifice the peace, security, stability, dignity, and the well-being of Gambians for the sake of freedom of expression.” Accusing some journalists of being the “mouthpiece of opposition parties,” he vowed to prosecute any journalist who offended him.
On January 13, plainclothes police officers arrested two journalists--Musa Sheriff, editor and publisher of The Voice newspaper, and freelance journalist Sainey M. K. Marenah--following publication of a story in The Voice with the headline “19 green youths defect to UDP” in December 2013. The “Green Youths” are part of the ruling APRC party, and the newspaper article reported 19 of them had joined the opposition UDP. Police freed the journalists on bail on January 16; they appeared in court on February 13 and were charged with “conspiracy to cause a misdemeanor and publication of false news with intent to cause fear and alarm to the public.” They denied the charges, and a court acquitted them on November 10.
The government published The Gambia Now newspaper, formerly called The Gambia Info. The privately owned Daily Observer favored the government in its coverage. There were five other independent newspapers, including one published by an opposition political party, which remained highly critical of the government. One independent biweekly magazine covered political and economic issues. As a “New Year’s gift to the nation,” President Jammeh lifted a previous ban on The Standard newspaper and Teranga FM, which had been banned since August and September 2012, respectively. One newspaper, The Daily News, remained banned since 2012.
The government-owned Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) and nine private radio stations broadcast throughout the country. The GRTS gave limited coverage to political opposition activities. GRTS television, foreign cable, and satellite television channels that broadcast independent news coverage were available in many parts of the country, and the government allowed unrestricted access to such networks.
Violence and Harassment: Media restrictions tightened during the year, and the government continued to harass and detain journalists. Numerous journalists remained in self-imposed exile due to government threats and harassment.
The government routinely denied journalists from news outlets perceived to be critical of the government access to public information and excluded them from covering official events at certain venues. For example, Sana Camara, a journalist employed by The Standard, was detained by police for “false publication” on June 27. His arrest was in connection with an article published that day, entitled “Police ‘admit’ Problems with Human Trafficking,” in which he referred to an interview with the public relations officer of the Gambia Police Force. Camara reported to the police headquarters in Banjul more than 10 times after his initial detainment; he was told he had to report due to the absence of the inspector general of police. Police, however, never formally charged Sana Camara or explained why he had to continue to report to police headquarters after the inspector general returned in early July.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Private media outlets generally practiced self-censorship due to fear of reprisal by the government, and many refrained from publishing content deemed contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and sects. Nevertheless, opposition views regularly appeared in the independent press, and there was frequent criticism of the government in the English-language private press.
The 2013 Information and Communication (Amendment) Act created several new offenses for online speech that are punishable by a 15-year prison term and/or a fine of three million dalasi ($69,600). The act criminalizes spreading false news about the government or public officials, caricatures or making derogatory statements regarding public officials, and inciting dissatisfaction with or instigating violence against the government.
Libel Laws/National Security: The NIA was involved in the arbitrary closure of media outlets and the extrajudicial detention of journalists; however, there were no reports of torture of journalists during the year.
There were few government restrictions on access to the internet or credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without judicial oversight. Internet users, however, reported they could not access the websites of foreign online news blogs such as Freedom Online and occasionally other domestic dissident blogs.
In addition, from March to July, the gateway provider blocked voice over internet protocol (VOIP) such as Skype and Viber. Internet Without Borders argued blockage of VOIP services in the country represented a violation of International Telecommunication Union (ITU) standards. The permanent secretary at the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure, Lamin Camara, previously denied the services were blocked. In July the services were restored without public comment from the government.
The ITU reported 10.9 percent of individuals in the country used the internet in 2011.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
In November Sait Matty Jaw and two foreign nationals, Seth Yaw Kandeh from Ghana and Olufemi Erenli Titus from Nigeria, were arrested at the Brikama campus of the University of The Gambia. The NIA took them into custody. Matty Jaw was held for eight days without charge and then released, only to be re-arrested in December. The two foreign nationals remained in NIA custody. The three men were charged on December 10 with disobedience of statutory duty, conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, and failing to register a business. These charges were brought after Kandeh and Titus spent more than one month in detention without charge. Observers speculated Jaw’s research projects and advocacy surrounding issues of youth and gender equality attracted the scrutiny of the government, thus prompting his arrest. The court set bail at five million dalasi ($116,000), which was relatively high compared with typical bail amounts. On December 23, the Magistrate’s Court convicted Kandeh and Titus after they changed their pleas to guilty, and they were each fined 50,000 dalasi ($1,160) in lieu of one year in prison. Sait Matty Jaw maintained his innocence, and the court scheduled his case for January 15, 2015.
In April a dispute between the government and the Gambia National Olympic Committee (GNOC) resulted in GNOC staff being barred from entering their own headquarters. Despite a ruling from the International Olympics Committee (IOC) in September that the GNOC did not commit an offense and should be allowed to enter its own office, authorities maintained the prohibition.