Written by Pa Nderry M’Bai

The international rights group—Amnesty International, has been accused of publishing a one-sided report, about Gambia’s unrepealed draconian laws, of which according to Gambia’s Information Minister Ebrima Sillah, was factually inaccurate.  “Let me tell you that I think the report by Amnesty International, there are aspects of it that are not entirely accurate. The government of The Gambia has taken the bold initiative when it came to office in 2017 to have a consultancy to look at all these bad media laws that are being inimical to press freedom in the country,” Information Minister Sillah told me in a phone interview on Thursday.

In a report issued on Thursday, Amnesty International says despite President Barrow’s pledge to reform the country nearly five years ago, oppressive laws curtailing human rights including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, are still active in the nation’s law books.

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The rights group cited what it called the draconian laws that were used by the former President Yahya Jammeh to oppress Gambians. It says there are laws that empowered security agencies to spy on journalists, intercept communications without legal recourse.

“Upon assuming power in 2017, President Adama Barrow vowed to carry out critical reform in the country and to reverse the oppression which characterized the previous government. Nearly five years later, Gambia’s legislative landscape has barely changed,” said Michèle Eken, Amnesty International West Africa researcher.

Reacting to the amnesty report, Information Minister Sillah notes that for him to say that he is disappointed with the amnesty report, is an understatement. He says amnesty has woefully failed to observe the common “fair doctrine” to avail The Gambian government the right to respond to the allegations contained in its report. He said amnesty merely relied on information it received from The Gambia Press Union, the nation’s main journalist body, and Gambia’s Civil Society Organizations (CSO) to source its report without contacting the government in Banjul for their own side of the story.

“Let me say this Pa, I have to say that I am really disappointed that the amnesty international issued this report without having us to verify some of the things that they talked about in the report. Normally, in working relations like this, we expect that when you have allegations against us because all what I saw in the report, they were quoting The Gambia Press Union and the other Civil Society Groups (CSOS), of course those are working partners of the amnesty international, they may write these organizations, but this country is run by a government and the issues of concerns that were raised in this report, those issues are expected to be resolved by the government of The Gambia. If you are to issue those reports based on what other people told you, I guess conventional wisdom will demand that you come back to government to verify some of the claims that have been said,” Sillah stated.

According to Sillah, an amnesty international team came to Banjul some time ago and requested to have an audience with him, which he granted, but to his chagrin, he said, the amnesty team never showed up at his office. They left Banjul without meeting him.

“These people came to this country, they contacted my office for appointment, I gave them an appointment, only for us to see this of The Gambia. There are certain aspects of this report that are inaccurate. Our reaction was never sought,” Sillah lamented.

Information Minister Sillah noted that it is unfair for amnesty international to sideline The Gambian government in its report. He adds that The Gambia government being the subject of the report should be availed with the right to be heard in the spirit of fair, responsible and balanced reporting.

“When it comes to country report, you look into a number of verifiable mechanisms that you put in place so that when the report comes out, not only the victims that you are talking about, but also the government that supposed to take action, can be heard and then their views be provided, the input of the government of providing you the facts is critical in any country report,” he remarked.

“They never came to my office. They contacted me, to say they were in the country, and they would like to have an appointment, I consented to it, I even gave them a date, I can’t remember but they never showed up to my office.  That notwithstanding, we have a good working relationship with all the human rights organizations and international organizations because what we want is to have a country, where we have a pluralistic democracy, where everybody can express your views based on the laws of this country without fear of being arrested or coerced.  So, that is our position as a government, and we want to enrich that, we want to improve on that, and we want to enhance on that as always,” he added.

In her report, Michèle Eken, the Amnesty International West Africa researcher, has observed: “There is still no new Constitution. Punitive and restrictive legal provisions on human rights, particularly the rights to freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly among other issues are still on the statute books. What’s more, the current parliamentary session, which represents one of the rare opportunities to make significant legal reforms and changes consistent with the country’s international human rights obligations before the presidential election in December, is expected to end by next week.”

“On 14 February 2018, the Court of Justice of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued a judgment that found most Gambian media laws violated freedom of expression. The court asked the government to repeal or amend all criminal laws on libel, sedition, and false news in line with Gambia’s obligations under international human rights law. However, most of the laws which were used to oppress human rights defenders, activists and journalists during Jammeh’s rule are still in force,” the report stated.

Information Minister Sillah said The Gambian Executive has done its part when it comes to the issue of constitutional reforms. He said the government has been tabled before the National Assembly for the draconian laws to be repealed.

“We came up with a report, the report was reviewed by cabinet and the government in its wisdom submitted its report as a bill to the National Assembly to repeal and we call it the criminal code amendment bill.  So, therefore since 2019, this bill has been before the National Assembly. The National Assembly, remember is a co-equal branch of the government. The Executive cannot impose its will on the legislature,” said told Freedom radio Gambia.

“The National Assembly, we are made to understand has also been doing its due diligence on this bill. We don’t know when they will be finished with that and I am sure when that is done, they will also come up with the appropriate action to repeal these laws,” he added.

Amnesty has also raised the issue of Gambia’s criminal code, which it says  still contains several clauses restricting the right to freedom of expression, criminalizing sedition as related to the President and providing for stiff penalties, including imprisonment, for those who dare to criticize the authorities.  It  says the criminal code allows for the confiscation of publications and printing machines.

“The issue of sedition remember was a subject of litigation before the Supreme Court of The Gambia and the law courts, which is the highest court actually ruled that sedition is relevant because it is the duty of those who are giving out information to proof that they have taken verifiable steps to make sure that the information that they are given out to the public is accurate and is true,” Information minister Sillah noted.

Amnesty has quoted a GPU member of having said: “More attacks on journalists are feared as we are coming close to the elections. The country is increasingly polarized, especially because attacks are not investigated. In the last four years, we recorded more than 15 cases of assaults from police and supporters of political parties. Not a single one of those cases was prosecuted.”

The rights group also said radio stations have been shut down under Barrow’s rule.

Sillah says the police have acted right by closing those radio stations.

“They also talked about the repression of the media, especially in reference to two radio stations that were closed down by the security, but Pa Nderry, you have to understand that in a situation that is abnormal, that involves chaos, the security forces are given emergency powers under the constitution to do whatever they can to quell that security situation. In that way, if they see that entities exist that are fanning the flames of that situation, the security can use that as a safeguard measure to make sure that they stop that process so that the situation can be brought to normal,” he remarked.

“They also talked about attacks on the media, you know that government has not attacked any press organization in this country, has not attacked any media group in this country, has not attacked any journalist. However, yes, we have seen reports where political parties and, in some cases, one or two cases, fracas between journalists and the police, but remember those things were appropriately to the police, the police have mounted their investigations, I don’t know the extent of the outcome of those investigations, but that is not a sign of lack of will on the side of the government. I think these are processes that amnesty international understand very well, that investigations also can sometimes take time and that government cannot influence some of those things, which it will be seen as if we are interfering into the processes,” Sillah added.

Sillah has also dismissed amnesty’s claims suggesting that the case of the detained journalists was thrown out of court.

“Also, it is not entirely true that it was the courts that actually true that case out of the court. In fact, it was the government of The Gambia that worked with the National Human Rights Commission, the owners of those radio stations and the journalists concerned,” he said.

Amnesty has noted that Gambia’s truth commission was a crucial first step towards fighting impunity, but it warns that it cannot be judged a success if the government fails to implement its recommendations.

“Amnesty international is only voicing its concern on speculation. For God’s sake, the TRRC report is not even before the government yet, therefore we will not speculate on whatever the outcome of that report is going to be. We will comment on that because the report is not before the government,” said Mr. Sillah.

When contacted for comment by Freedom radio Gambia, Sadibou Marong, the media manager for Amnesty international Dakar office, he referred us to his boss Michèle Eken, the Amnesty International West Africa researcher. “She was the one who wrote the report,” Marong said.

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