Parliamentarians in the tiny West African state of the Gambia have ratified and passed a new law that clamps down on critiquing or lampooning government officials on the Internet.
The Information Communication (amendment) Act 2013 imposes a jail term of up to 15 years in prison or a fine of up to three million Dalasi (about 100,000 US dollars) or both. The law seeks to punish “instigating violence against the government or public officials”, and also targets individuals who “caricature or make derogatory statements against officials” or “impersonate public officials”.
The Gambia's Minister of Information, Communication, and Information Infrastructure, Nana Grey-Johnson, said the bill is meant to serve as a deterrent.
“This bill seeks to provide for the deterrent punishment of such persons who are engaged in such treacherous campaigns against The Gambia both internally and outside The Gambia,” he was quoted as saying last Wednesday shortly before the Assembly approved the new bill.
Reporters Without Borders stated on 5 July, 2013 that the organization is “very disturbed by amendments to the 2009 Information and Communications Act”:
The authorities are using these amendments to target news providers and crack down on the Internet, one of the last spaces for freedom of information in Gambia. We call for their immediate withdrawal and a complete overhaul of the law, which already gags the media in the name of state security.
The Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh is on the May 2013 Reporters Without Borders list of “Predators of Press Freedom” while Gambia is ranked 152nd out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. The organisation further said:
The amendments to the Information and Communications Act that the Gambian parliament has just adopted aggravate what is already one of Africa's most repressive laws.
Amnesty International noted that the new law is “an outrageous attack on freedom of expression” in the Gambia:
By attempting to repress dissent even on the internet, the new bill takes the restriction of freedom of expression in The Gambia to a shocking new level,” Amnesty International Africa Deputy Director, Lucy Freeman said. Amnesty laments that the new law means a simple cartoon or satirical comedy could carry up to 15 years in jail and a fine of up to of three million Dalasi (about £54,500).
Condemning the new law, Article 19 said:
The newly adopted law is the latest attempt by the Gambian authorities to stifle dissent in a country that already has some of the harshest laws on the right to freedom of expression in Africa.
The Gambia's National Assembly also came under fire not long ago from activist groups for an April 16, 2013 amendment of Section 114 of the Criminal Code which imposes a jail term of five years or a fine of 50,000 Dalasi (about 1,650 US dollars) on people convicted of giving false information. That law previously allowed a jail term of not more than six months or a fine of 500 Dalasi (about 17 US dollars) or both.
Fatou Jaw Manneh, an exiled Gambian journalist living in the USA, wrote on her Facebook wall, “Senseless and Ruthless! We are not threatened and shall never back down!!!” while referring to the new Internet amendment.
She further added:
We [online journalists in the diaspora] should be ready to declare war on Yaya [Gambian president] and his political and intellectual prostitutes! We all know the scumbags behind this outrageous bill. We cannot let some heartless government folks scare us. You men of the pen should equally declare war on them.
On the Gambia Free Expression Campaign Facebook group, Baboucarr Ceesay, the first Vice President of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), has a warning for his colleagues:
Beware!!!!! The Gambia has a National Assembly where every kind of draconian Bill can be passed without thorough scrutiny.
Bax, a reader on online citizen news site, JollofNews, wondered how this law will be enforced:
To even convene a National Assembly Sitting to discuss this Bill was a complete waste of Public Funds,not to mention the Stupidity of passing it as Law…A law that no one in that country can enforce,because the intended target group,whether it be the proprietors of the online media (Freedom,Jollof news,Hello Gambia,Maafanta ,etc) or the numerous bloggers,are either not within their reach or are “faceless” and “nameless”.
Another reader, B4Africa, wrote that spreading false news online is not recipe for chaos:
The only recipe for chaos and instability is your laws/decrees which are ment [sic] to control our people`s mind.Controlling your people like animals is not a recipe for peace/stability.
Dictator jammeh will,against the will of the Gambain people enact laws to suit his own ends.
Dictator jammeh will always pass statute law that will decrease the rights of the people with free speech,freedom of movement and freedom of thought.
Dictator jammeh will ensure that those close party members or fools around him will receive unearned rewards/protections and he will cease back those rewards/protections from them after using their brains for them.
The Gambians should unite and kick out this vampire from power to save our country.
However, Radiokangkang supported the law:
I totally agree and sopport these laws to held those responsible accountable. We shouldn't wait until the damage is already done by the “ENEMY OF THE STATE” But, to engage them within the law os the land, to prosecute them and if convicted to punish them accordingly.
These laws are well overdue. I welcome!!! this new law in place.
On Twitter, Africa Seen Heard (@AFRICASeenHeard) reacted by writing:
@AFRICASeenHeard: The law is a spider’s web; only the little insects get caught in it. #Gambia
“It's your kid, ladumdum” (@ladumdum) asked:
@ladumdum: @ayittey So through which media can citizens express their opinion about his excellency without facing stiff penalties. #Gambia
George Ayittey (@ayittey) pointed out the irony behind the new legislation:
@ayittey: And the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights (Banjul Charter) was crafted in Gambia and adopted in 1981 http://bit.ly/hm5nMy