FREEDOM is UNDER FIRE
ODAY, July 22, is Freedom Day in The Gambia.
As the government of The Gambia celebrates this day, media organisations and practitioners are using it to draw the world's attention to the country's deteriorating situation of freedom of expression.
The Gambia is party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and is seat of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights.
The charter guarantees every individual's right to receive information and to express and disseminate their opinion.
These guarantees are further entrenched in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. Principle I (1) of the declaration states that "freedom of expression and information, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other form of communication, is a fundamental and inalienable human right and an indispensable component of democracy".
Since my appointment as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa in November 2005, I have received a number of reports on and have written a number of letters of appeal to the president of The Gambia on the situation of freedom of expression in that country.
The reports and letters related to unlawful arrest, detention without trial, assault, disappearances, harassment and intimidation of journalists and media practitioners and closure of independent newspapers.
One prominent case is the disappearance of Chief Ebrima Manneh, a journalist of the Gambian newspaper the Daily Observer, in July 2006. He has not been seen since he was allegedly picked up at his office by security officials. The government has denied knowledge of his whereabouts.
The Media Foundation of West Africa took Manneh's case to the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in Abuja, Nigeria. The case was postponed a number of times due to the nonappearance of the government of The Gambia.
Eventually, the trial continued in the absence of the government. The court ordered the release of Manneh and awarded him compensation of R780590.
To date the government has ignored the court order. In response to one of my many letters enquiring about the enforcement of the Ecowas court order, the government responded as follows: "Chief Ebrima Manneh has never been arrested ... and therefore to allege that the Gambian authorities are holding him incommunicado and even to the extent of going to a court to have him released is quite incredible and is considered an indication of contempt towards The Gambia and the Gambian authorities," adding that it "will no longer entertain any exchanges on the subject of Chief Manneh".
Other allegations include the killing of Deyda Hydara, the co-founder and editor of the Point newspaper in 2004.
In June this year, seven journalists were arrested in connection with a media statement issued by the Gambian Press Union criticising comments made by President Yahya Jammeh on the stalled investigation into the killing of Hydara.
These journalists face six counts of, inter alia, conspiracy to and publishing seditious publications with the intent to bring hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the person of the president or the government of the Republic of The Gambia and conspiracy to commit criminal defamation with the intent to bring the president of the Republic of The Gambia and the government of The Gambia into contempt and ridicule."
This is despite the fact that the declaration requires states to ensure that they repeal laws relating to criminal defamation. On July 10 when these journalists appeared, the high court granted the prosecution's request to conduct the trial in camera in order to protect the identity of the state security personnel called as witnesses even if the charges against them do not reveal any issue of national security.
The situation of freedom of expression in The Gambia is reaching a crisis point.
In November last year, the African Commission passed a resolution on The Gambia in which it urged the government to bring an immediate end to the harassment and intimidation of independent media institutions and to respect the rights of journalists and human rights defenders.
I hope the AU ensures that the government of The Gambia abides by its obligation under the African Charter.
l Tlakula is a member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.