Dear International Partners,
Your Excellencies and staff of the Embassy of the United States of America, the United Kingdom High Commission, the Representative of the European Union, the Resident Coordinator of the UN System and Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the African Union Commission, ECOWAS, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and all members of the International Community interested in the wellbeing of the Gambian people and the success of The Gambia’s transitional justice process:
It is with profound concern that the Never Again Network writes this open letter to you regarding recent attacks on the Gambian media by public figures and institutions.
The Never Again Network strongly and unequivocally condemns any attack on press and media freedom because it is among the first steps towards full blown dictatorship. Yahya Jammeh’s brutal dictatorship commenced with an assault on press and media freedoms. Any form of dissent or critical views in the press and media were severely reined in with punitive measures, including the closure of newspapers and radio stations, arson attacks on media houses and the arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and even killing of journalists. In addition, many draconian legislations such as Decrees 70 and 71 were promulgated to stifle the media and other critics. In essence, Yahya Jammeh weaponized the law and public institutions vested with regulatory powers to clamp down on critics and those perceived to be opposed to his regime. We are calling upon all our international partners to execute our collective responsibility to protest and raise the alarm when we observe similar trends in our current dispensation. We cannot allow this country to slide back into dictatorship.
After 22 years of bitter struggle and countless sacrifices, The Gambia is now transitioning from Yahya Jammeh’s brutal dictatorship to a functional democracy. Enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms is expressly articulated and guaranteed in Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia, 1997. In December 2016, the Gambian people rejected dictatorship in favour of a return to democracy where human rights, multi-party democracy, the rule of law, justice and fairness will be respected by their government. We cannot allow any government to take us back to the dark days of state tyranny, bullying and the unjust abrogation of our fundamental human rights in the name of political expediency.
It is against this background and context that the Never Again Network (NAN) observes with grave concern that the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) recently wrote to two radio stations, King FM and Home Digital FM with threats of imminent punitive sanctions. The versions of the letter to King FM seen by NAN made no specific mention of what such utterances are, while the letter to Home Digital FM makes vague reference to alleged utterances aired on the radio back in November 2022. The reasons proffered by PURA relate to content that allegedly contravenes some provisions of licenses issued to these stations. The threats are all the more troubling coming as they did only days after President Adama Barrow publicly expressed discontent over community radio stations and suggested that they “need to be looked into”. Threats of punitive action against King FM and Home Digital FM represent attacks on their right to freely express opinions and impart news anchored on the principle of media freedom enshrined in our country’s constitution. Such unprovoked attacks on the media, in any form and manifestation, directly threatens the integrity of press and media freedom and the right to freedom of speech and expression in The Gambia. It is as well, a clear and present danger to the general fundamental human rights of the Gambian people.
As we strive to consolidate and nurture our young democracy, the Government of The Gambia should proactively aspire to expand and uphold our hard-won fundamental rights and freedoms rather than seek to weaponise the law or allow public regulatory authorities to restrict these rights and freedoms. Limitation of rights and freedoms narrows the space for constructive and honest exchange of ideas and knowledge, and therefore stifles the development potentials of our people. If a crime is committed, recourse may be made to the courts by aggrieved parties, but institutions may not be arbitrarily shut down without due process or simply for expressing views critical of the state. That would be taking a damaging page from the just ended dictatorship to which we all say never again.
Section 17(1) of the Gambian Constitution imposes an express mandatory obligation on the state and public institutions such as the Police and PURA to respect, uphold and protect the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all Gambians. It is a duty and an obligation of the Executive and all state organs to protect these rights and freedoms and to ensure that they are not unnecessarily and unreasonably restricted by coercive tactics and undue interference.
Section 25(1) of the Gambian Constitution provides that every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media. The supreme law of this country also places an express compulsory duty, which is also a positive duty, on the state to ensure the realization and fulfilment of the rights provided in this section. The right to freedom of expression, which encapsulates the freedom of the press and other media, transcends domestic law frontiers. It is a universally recognized international law right as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, among other international instruments to which The Gambia subscribes. It is also the cornerstone and embodiment of all other fundamental rights and freedoms because where the respect for press and media freedom is the norm, it is generally customary that citizens enjoy all other rights without interference. Muzzle the press and you are on the path to muzzling other forms of dissent and therefore on the path to dictatorship.
Article 19 of the UDHR provides that everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This reinforces the point that press and media freedom is sacrosanct and the very foundation of democratic ideals and progressive liberal society, pursuant to international customary norms and values.
The Never Again Network believes that PURA’s threats to the two radio stations are disproportionate and unreasonable in a free and democratic society as they are intended to stifle the imparting and dissemination of news and information. Threats of punitive punishment induces self-censorship. Both King FM and Home Digital FM are private and commercial radio stations with a right to express their opinions without let or hindrance. The threat of coercive action, with potential risk of losing their licenses, is capable of interfering with their work and represents the interference that both section 25 of the Constitution and Article 19 of UDHR seeks to eliminate because of their inherent adverse consequences on entire nations and peoples. Repression in whatever form is always a threat to national peace and security and must be avoided and opposed without qualification.
PURA is a public body exercising public functions on behalf of the public and for the benefit of the public. The fact that both radio stations have programmes critical of government, and have previously been shut-down by the police, strongly suggests that this latest interference is politically motivated. We are in the campaign season for local government elections and this is seen by many Gambians as a direct threat to these stations designed to suppress the free flow and imparting of news and opinions. PURA’s actions are also a stark reminder of how state institutions, at the behest of the Executive, suppressed the media during Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorship. It is a worrying reminder of the dark days of media suppression in this country and cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
Content published by the press and media is best self-regulated by the media industry itself. That is international best practice. We now have the Media Council of The Gambia tasked with the responsibility of addressing content in the event of complaints and it has thus far, carried out its mandate successfully and prevented complaints that could otherwise have escalated into contentious and protracted litigation in the courts. The Gambia Press Union, as the industry trade union, with the collaboration of the Media Council, are well placed to address issues relating to content. PURA, in terms of suspending or revoking licenses, should not only be a last resort in the most exceptionally serious circumstances. They should also be limited to serious statutory breaches such as failure to pay taxes and related dues and not content-related issues. Rightly or wrongly, the general public’s view of the matter is that PURA is acting at the behest or on behalf of, the Gambian government. This seems to be the obvious conclusion considering President Barrow’s recent statements on “the need to take a look” at community radios.
The people of this country endured a lot under Yahya Jammeh and we are at crucial crossroads in terms of our democratic trajectory and transitional justice process. This is why we are calling on the international community and our development partners to continue standing by and in solidarity with the Gambian people in promoting and strengthening human rights, the rule of law and good governance, and not to be silent in the face of these very real threats to our fledging democratic dispensation. Any attack on the media is a setback and an affront to our democracy and constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms. Dictatorship serves nobody’s interest and must be rejected and discouraged out of hand.
We are confident that you will raise this important issue with the relevant authorities and help keep our dear country from sliding back into the bad old days of media suppression and the rampant abuse of human rights and the rule of law.
The Never Again Network