Reporters Without Borders wrote to Gambian President Yayah Jammeh today urging him not to sign into law two bills recently approved by the national assembly, one making all press offences punishable by imprisonment, the other increasing the cost of a newspaper licence fivefold.
The Criminal Code Amendment Bill 2004, which was adopted by the national assembly on 14 December and which provides for prison sentences for press offences, would "represent a serious setback for free expression in West Africa," Reporters Without Borders said in its letter.
"This new legislation runs counter to the tendency to decriminalize press offences in Africa, as recently shown in Togo, the Central African Republic and Uganda, which this year have joined the club of countries that no longer want to throw journalists into prison just for doing their job," the letter said.
The organisation said it therefore urged President Jammeh "to reconsider the national assembly’s decisions and to not sign either of these pieces of legislation into law, so that Gambia’s journalists are able work in an untroubled and professional climate."
Gambia has a long tradition of harassment of the privately-owned press. Journalists recently campaigned successfully against the introduction of a media commission, a sort of thought tribunal that was finally dissolved on 13 December. This new legislation runs counter to that success and bodes ill for the practice of journalism in Gambia.
The Criminal Code Amendment Bill 2004 does away with fines for press offences but replaces them with sentences of three months to three years in prison. These covers defamation, sedition, the dissemination of false news and improper remarks. According to Hawa Sise Sabally, the lawyer of the Gambia Press Union (a journalists’ union), this bill applies to politicians as well as journalists.
The other piece of legislation, the Newspaper Amendment Bill 2004, has also been heavily criticised by the opposition. It would rescind the existing registration of all of Gambia’s news media, and newspaper proprietors would have to pay five times the old price for a new operating licence which would now cost 500,000 Dalasis (about 12,855 euros).
Under Gambian law, President Jammeh has 14 days to sign these newly-approved bills into law. After the legislation takes effect, the news media will have two weeks to comply. The Press Union has decided to challenge the legislation in the courts.