After learning that a second draconian press law was secretly promulgated on 28 December, Reporters Without Borders today reiterated its appeal to the international community to put pressure on President Yahya Jammeh to stop his mounting crackdown on Gambia’s news media
"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 press freedom organization said. "The silence of his African and European counterparts leaves his hands free to turn Gambia into one of the West African countries that most restrict press freedom."
The organization added: "This is virtually already the case, with the approval of this new law, the fruitless investigation into the murder of newspaper editor Deyda Hydara and the president’s frequent inflammatory comments about journalists."
It has emerged from the official Gambia Gazette of 30 December that, despite appeals from international organizations and African journalists, Jammeh promulgated the Newspaper Amendment Act 2004 at the same time as the Criminal Code Amendment Bill 2004.
This law cancels all the licences that had previously been issued to the news media and forces them to re-register, while at the same time increasing the cost of a publishing licence five-fold, from 100,000 dalasis (2,600 euros) to 500,000 dalasis (13,000 euros). It also forces journalists to adopt a strict code of conduct within six months that imposes sanctions on violators.
The promulgation of these two laws was not made public until the end of February. The Gambia Press Union (GPU) - a journalists’ union - has said it intends to challenge the constitutionality of these two laws in the courts. Reporters Without Borders supports this initiative.
23.02.2005 - President Yahya Jammeh promulgates law opening prison gates to journalists
Reporters Without Borders voiced "outrage" today at the treatment reserved for the press in Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh promulgated at least one press law on 28 December without the Gambia Press Union (GPU) - the journalists’ trade union - ever being able to get a copy.
"Gambia sinks deeper into darkness and the international community pretends not to see," the press freedom organization said. "Gambia’s journalists have learned through the press that, despite the appeals of African journalists and international organizations, the president surreptitiously promulgated a draconian press law without the government seeing the need to tell them for two months."
Reporters Without Borders said it was outraged by both the government’s methods and the law’s content. "This is a serious reverse for press freedom in western Africa and an additional humiliation by President Jammeh for Gambia’s journalists after the blow they received in the form of newspaper editor Deyda Hydara’s murder in December."
The organization added: "It is high time that the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Commonwealth and democratic countries with good relations with Gambia should convince President Jammeh that this spiralling repression is alarming and dangerous. The international community must help Gambian journalists to preserve their freedom instead of ignoring them."
The Daily Observer said yesterday that, in an undistributed issue of the official Gambia Gazette dated 30 December, the president’s office promulgated a criminal code amendment that was passed by the national assembly on 14 December. The amendment, which changes the press code, stipulates that publishing deliberately defamatory comments or publishing inaccurate news - deliberately or not - is punishable by a prison sentence of six months or more. Seditious comments are punishable by six months in prison for the first conviction and three years for subsequent convictions. According to the Gambia Gazette, Jammeh signed this into law on 28 December.
The other bill passed by the national assembly on 14 December, the Newspaper Amendment Act 2004, appears not to have been promulgated. Heavily criticized by the opposition during the parliamentary debate, it would rescind all existing news media licences, increase the cost of a new licence for newspaper owners from 100,000 dalasis (2,571 euros) to 500,000 dalasis (12,855 euros), and make them register their homes as security for non-payment.
GPU president Demba Jawo told Reporters Without Borders the government did not give him a copy of the new law despite his repeated requests. "There aren’t many people in the government willing to give me information on this subject," he said. He added that the journalists’ union intended to challenge the law’s constitutionality as soon as it got all the details.