|Official Country Name:||Republic of the Gambia|
|Region (Map name):||Africa|
|Language(s):||English, Mandinka, Wolof, Fula|
Background & General Characteristics
The Gambia is a very small, multi-party democracy in West Africa. The geographic territory of the Gambia, a narrow finger of land surrounded by Senegal, follows the Gambia River in an eastward direction from the Atlantic coast. The capital is Banjul. The Gambia's population of only 1.4 million, comprising a number of ethnic groups, practices Islam and Christianity. English and indigenous languages are used throughout the country.
Since independence several decades ago, the Gambia has enjoyed relatively long periods of political stability, broken by occasional coups and political violence. The current president, Yahya Jammeh, formerly served with Gambian peacekeepers in Liberia and took power from the Gambia's first elected president, Dawda Jawara, in a military coup in 1994. Two years later, President Jammeh was confirmed as president in an unfair election. He was reelected president in October 2001, this time in an election viewed as free and fair by international observers. However, after the election, allegations were made that thousands of Senegalese from Casamance, Senegal and living in the Gambia had fraudulently been registered and allowed to vote for Jammeh. The accusing journalist, Alhagie Mbye, was arrested, detained, and reportedly beaten and tortured by President Jammeh's security forces for reporting on the fraudulent voting.
President Jammeh is extremely sensitive to criticism and the possibility of renewed civil unrest in the country. Angered by his perception that the staff of Radio Gambia were siding with the political opposition and reporting unfavorably on him, the president in July 2001 threatened that anyone "bent on disturbing the peace and stability of the nation will be buried six feet deep." A large public and media outcry ensued against the president's intimidating behavior toward television and radio journalists.
Gambian government laws and practice considerably restrict freedom of expression and the media. The U.S. Department of State summarized the situation in the Gambia in 2001 as follows: "The Government significantly limited freedom of speech and of the press, and security forces arrested and detained persons who publicly criticized the Government or who expressed views in disagreement with the Government. Journalists practice self-censorship." In general, the state-owned broadcasting media are skewed in favor of the government and afford little coverage to opposition politicians, including Members of Parliament. However, during the presidential election campaign of 2001, opposition candidates were given relatively fair access to and coverage by state radio and television, at least more so than previously. This was due in part to the fact that journalists in the Gambian Press Union adopted a Code of Conduct aimed at ensuring more balanced reporting as well as to President Jammeh's July 2001 lifting of a ban on the opposition party he had ousted in 1994.
The Daily Observer is the largest-selling, independent daily newspaper in the country. Other independent and privately owned papers include The Independent , The Point, Foroyaa , The Gambia News , and Report Weekly Magazine .
The Gambian economy is based almost entirely on the production of peanuts. Other significant exports are fish, cotton lint, and palm kernels. Annual per capita income is only about US$330. Although the country has the Gambia River's ample water supply, much of the soil is unsuitable for farming, and only one-sixth of the land can be farmed. Peanuts are the only crop that can be easily grown. The Gambia also lacks valuable natural resources like the minerals and timber found in abundance in countries nearby.
The private press sometimes has difficulty supporting itself financially due to the excessive fees and taxes levied by the government to stifle the political opposition and silence criticism of government officials, policies, and actions. Nonetheless, several independent and private newspapers do exist, some of which are supported financially by adherents of various political parties.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. However, the government substantially interferes with the media, censoring journalists, withdrawing licenses of radio stations it wishes to censure, and exacting other penalties and sanctions on those whom government officials believe criticize or are a threat to the ruling APRC party or the president.
Amnesty International noted that in 2001, "restrictive legislation severely limiting freedom of expression remained in force." For example, Decrees 70 and 71 obstructed the free reporting of news by imposing a requirement that all newspapers either post a bond equivalent to US$6,500 or stop publishing. The bond funds were intended to cover future possible government judgments to be imposed against the papers for blasphemy, sedition, or other libelous acts.
Since at least 1999, the government has attempted to establish a National Media Commission that essentially will control free expression and interfere greatly with the practice of journalism. Although strong protests by Gambian journalists and media associations stopped the National Media Commission Bill of 1999 from passage, a yet-more-stringent bill was introduced to the Gambian parliament in March 2002.
On May 2, 2002 (ironically, the eve of World Press Freedom Day) the Gambian parliament passed the National Media Commission Bill of 2002. Amended two months later at the president's request to include a requirement that the commission's chair be a high court judge appointed by the state's chief justice, this bill awaited President Jammeh's signature in early August 2002, when the present article went to press. International media organizations and human rights associations were urging President Jammeh not to sign into law this bill, which would place even greater restrictions on journalists, requiring them to register with an obviously politicized government regulatory commission. The commission also would be empowered to impose substantial fines, jail journalists, close down newspapers, oblige journalists to reveal their sources, and take other harsh steps to control free expression. The Gambian Press Union and numerous international media associations such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the World Editors Forum, and the World Association of Newspapers all protested this bill, pointing out that it contradicts both the Gambian Constitution and international human rights standards, including those set forth over fifty years ago by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As noted above, the president is especially sensitive to criticism and seeks to tighten control on the media when the international spotlight is shifted off the Gambia, as in the periods just before and just after the presidential election campaign. The president and his government show little tolerance for those who do not provide favorable coverage of government activities or policies or for those who report on the activities of opposition parties and their key leaders, particularly opposition figures known for their scathing critiques of the ruling party and president.
Interestingly, in 1999 the most popular independent daily, The Daily Observer , was purchased by a supporter of the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party. Since that time, journalists at the paper have been harassed and controlled in what they are permitted to report. This led to the June 2001 resignation of at least eight of the paper's journalists, including editor-in-chief Paschal Eze. Their managing director, Bubacar Baldeh, an APRC party propagandist, had tried preventing publication of stories related to Lamin Waa Juwara, a staunch critic of President Jammeh and controversial propagandist for the UDP, one of the Gambia's opposition parties.
One independent radio station in particular, the popular Citizen FM, has experienced especially strong government efforts to silence its programming and harass those associated with its broadcasts. For several years, the radio station has had its license suspended repeatedly by state authorities for breaching the limits of government tolerance. Moreover, in October 2001, the station's owner himself, Babucar Gaye, fell into the government's ill favor. Gaye was arrested and taken to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), a stalwart enforcer of government restrictions on free speech and press freedom, where he was ordered to pay allegedly unpaid taxes before his station could broadcast again. Although Gaye complied and paid his supposedly overdue taxes, despite denying that he had broken any Gambian law in broadcasting the October presidential election results, at the end of 2001 Citizen FM still was not allowed to broadcast.
Also in October 2001, George Christensen, the owner of Radio 1 FM, a private radio station broadcasting in the Gambia, was arrested by the NIA and questioned for several hours about his station's finances, then released without charge. The international media protested government treatment of the two radio station owners, Gaye and Christensen.
Even one of the key staff members of the Gambia's state-run radio, Radio Gambia, was blacklisted by the government. Peter Gomez, a key producer of the station's programming, lost his job in January 2001 after refusing to broadcast a government-mandated "correction" of a news story Gomez insisted was true: namely, that President Jammeh had announced his intention to promote Shari'a (strict Islamic law) in the Gambia, an announcement made by the president when he met with a group of Muslim elders on a Muslim feast day. The Press Institute and the Gambian Press Union stood by Gomez, believing he had reported what the president in fact had said.
The government likewise interrogated three journalists from various media outlets in June 2001 for reporting on problems with accommodations and food at the 5th National Youth Conference and Festival. One of the journalists, Momodou Thomas, was held incommunicado for about eight hours by the NIA before being released.
On a more serious topic, campaigners against female genital mutilation, which is still widely practiced in the Gambia and has not yet been specifically outlawed, have been denied access to state-owned media to publicize their cause and educate the public about this widespread health hazard and abuse of women's human rights.
With deliberate attempts by the Gambian government to regulate the media and curtail press freedom, journalists typically practice self-censorship, an increasingly necessary practice for Gambian journalists wishing to avoid fines, imprisonment, or sudden dismissal from their jobs.
The U.S. Department of State noted that in 2001, "Freedom of expression remained under threat as journalists from the privately owned independent media were arrested, beaten and harassed." Some journalists accused of publishing inaccurate or insensitive reports about the government have been arrested and detained. The State Department backed up its claim by stating that Kassa Jatta, an activist with the opposition UDP, was arrested in April 2001 after publishing an article in which he criticized the foreign policy of President Jammeh.
A court reporter, Omah Bah, who works for The Independent , was beaten in July 2001 by government soldiers for attempting to cover the military trial of a lieutenant in Banjul. This occurred despite the fact that Bah had been given official permission to report on the trial.
Besides government soldiers, the NIA also works as the government's strong-arm, attacking and arresting journalists deemed to be acting against the best interests of the ruling party and the president. Alhagie Mbye, another reporter with The Independent , was twice detained in 2001 by the NIA—once in August for three days after publishing a story about reports of coup attempts and again in November for eight or nine days. His second detention, during which he reportedly was beaten and tortured, followed a report he had sent to the British-based news magazine, West Africa , alleging that vote fraud had occurred by the thousands in the October presidential election. In both cases, Mbye was held incommunicado. Another journalist, Alagi Yoro Jallow, the managing editor of The Independent , was questioned by NIA agents for publishing an editorial in early December in which he criticized the attack on Mbye and likened the NIA to the Gestapo, Nazi Germany's secret police.
Attitude toward Foreign Media
For the most part, foreign newspapers, magazines, radio programs, and television broadcasts are permitted and distributed in the Gambia. According to the U.S. Department of State, in 2001, "Local stations sometimes rebroadcast the British Broadcasting Corporation, Radio France Internationale, and other foreign news reports, and all were available via short-wave radio. Senegalese television and radio are available in many parts of the country."
However, specific instances have occurred of problems faced by journalists working for foreign media. In May 2001, for instance, police held and beat a reporter for The Daily Observer —Alieu Badara Mansaray from Sierra Leone. Mansaray apparently had witnessed an act of bribery involving another police officer and a woman. Besides being beaten and bruised, Mansaray lost his watch, necklace, and mobile phone, all of them destroyed by the police. Released some hours later, he was never charged. Only one of the police was dismissed; the other two officers met with no punitive action.
In October 2001, Muhammed Lamin Sillah, who heads the Gambian chapter of Amnesty International and serves as coordinator for the Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, was arrested by the NIA after being interviewed for the BBC's "Focus on Africa" program. Having told the BBC that he believed the human rights situation in the Gambia called for improvement, Sillah was held incommunicado for four days in detention, the released on bail for US$18,000 after his case went to the High Court. The NIA accused Sillah of trying to overthrow the government and of inciting confusion and genocide, all of which Sillah denied.
Furthermore, in late July 2002, a journalist working in the Gambia for the Pan African News Agency (PANA) was arrested for supposedly running a newspaper without proper government permission. Guy-Patrick Massoloka, the journalist in question from Congo (Brazzaville), was arrested by the NIA and taken into custody. The incident provoked an international outcry from media associations and other journalists protesting government abuse and led to Massoloka's expulsion from the Gambia in early August. Massoloka was told by Immigration Department officials that he could return to the Gambia after renewing his expired visa abroad. While held by the NIA, Massoloka apparently was questioned about the likes of a French newspaper called " Echo du Baobab ."
In 2001 only one private radio station regularly created its own news programming in the Gambia. Otherwise, private radio simulcasts news and programming produced by the one state-owned radio station, Radio Gambia, or broadcasts international news from such media outlets as the British Broadcasting Corporation and Radio France Internationale. Public affairs programs are occasionally developed by at least two independent radio stations.
The government runs the only television service that broadcasts nationally. Its programs cover about 60 percent of the Gambia's territory and reach those living in the eastern part of the country.
Those who can afford satellite systems are able to receive additional independent television programming such as that provided by the Premium TV Network, an external, privately owned station that transmits by Arab-sat to Banjul.
Electronic News Media
Internet access is readily available and unrestricted by the government in the Gambia. Both Internet cafés and private Internet accounts make accessing the Internet affordable for many.
The level of government censorship has been increasing steadily in the Gambia, despite positive measures by journalists themselves to promote balanced, fair reporting. Although the most recent presidential election was considered reasonably fair and a significant proportion of the votes cast went to opposition candidates, the legal restrictions on press freedom are increasing and the president and his National Intelligence Agency seem more determined than ever to control public expression deemed hazardous to their own political health. With the advent of international media associations on the Gambian scene, however, and the vocally courageous Gambian Press Union, it appears unlikely that the president and his ruling party will continue to expand their powers indefinitely. Surely, the time will come when both the domestic press and the international community of journalists gather sufficient strength to challenge President Jammeh's maneuvers and demand respect for the basic rights of journalists, with positive effect.
- 1999: The most popular independent daily newspaper, The Daily Observer , is purchased by a major supporter of the ruling party, the APRC.
- 1999: The first National Media Commission Bill, which would severely impair press freedom, is proposed, but Gambian journalists gather enough strength to defeat its passage.
- January 2001: Peter Gomez, a key producer of the government-sponsored radio station, Radio Gambia, is dismissed after refusing to broadcast a government-dictated "clarification" of an earlier broadcast claiming that President Yahya Jammeh had declared his support for extending Shari'a law in the Gambia.
- July 2001: President Jammeh threatens to put "6 feet deep" those "bent on disturbing the peace and stability of the nation"—a pointed remark aimed at Radio Gambia's reporting of his speeches, which he claimed were misrepresented.
- October 2001: President Jammeh is reelected to office in an election basically considered free and fair, although thousands of Senegalese are later alleged to have been allowed to register and vote for the incumbent.
- November 2001: Alhagie Mbye, a reporter for The Independent newspaper and the British news maga zine, West Africa , is arrested and held for more than a week by the National Intelligence Agency, during which time he is beaten and tortured for having reported the occurrence of vote fraud in connection with the October presidential election.
- May 2002: National Media Commission Bill of 2002 is passed by the Gambian parliament, much to the dissatisfaction of supporters of press freedom; as of early August 2002, the president, faced with strong domestic and international protest from media professionals and rights associations, has not yet signed the bill into law.
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Independent, The. "NIA Swoop Down On Foreign Journalist." The Independent , Banjul, the Gambia, July 23, 2002. Available at http://allafrica.com/stories/printable/200207230472.html .
Reporters without Borders. "The Gambia." Africa annual report 2002. Paris, France: Reporters sans fronti¤res, April 30, 2002. Available at http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=1840 .
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). "Parliament Passes Harsh Media Bill." July 25, 2002. Available at http://allafrica.com/stories/printable/200207250223.html .
Barbara A. Lakeberg-Dridi