The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Regional Court today ruled that the Gambia’s draconian media laws on sedition, false news and criminal defamation violate the right to freedom of expression.
In December 2015, Federation of African Journalists along with four exiled Gambian journalists filed a case against the former Gambian regime. The journalists, whose rights to freedom of expression had been violated through the enforcement of laws criminalising libel, sedition and false news, would not go without a fight. In fact, two of the said journalists were tortured while in state custody at the National Intelligence Agency.
Supported by the Media Legal Defence Initiative, Amnesty International and other freedom of expression organisations, the case was heard on 11 October 2016 at the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja, Nigeria.
Amnesty International West Africa researcher Sabrina Mahtani described the ruling as “an history day for Gambian journalists and human rights defenders.”
“Today is an historic day for Gambia’s journalists and human rights defenders who, for decades, have suffered torture, imprisonment or exile just for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” Sabrina said in a statement.
“These laws have done nothing but created a pervasive culture of persecution, violence, and injustice against those working in the media in Gambia under the regime of former President Jammeh. Today’s ruling should spur the new government to waste no time in repealing these laws, to ensure it meets its responsibilities under international and regional law, and to lay a foundation for a strong human rights culture.”
“Our hope is that this ruling will also have a positive impact on other countries in West Africa where similarly restrictive laws are being used to prosecute journalists.”
The inauguration of President Adama Barrow in January 2017 had resulted to significant improvement in freedom of expression, but these draconian laws still hover over citizens.
The ruling, Sabrina Mahtani agreed, will set an important precedent as many countries within West Africa continue to use similar repressive laws to silence freedom of expression, and hinder the vital work of journalists, in violation of international and regional human rights law.