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Country Backgrounder

A new dawn for free expression: country profile of the Gambia

 
Supporters of president-elect Adama Barrow celebrate Barrow's election victory in Banjul, Gambia, 2 December 2016
Supporters of president-elect Adama Barrow celebrate Barrow's election victory in Banjul, Gambia, 2 December 2016

REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

"I sometimes have to tell myself this is not a dream. That this is real. That Jammeh is gone and I can work freely."
Biram Sait Jobe, presenter of Taranga FM community radio
Al Jazeera, 3 April 2017


Overview

The smallest and most densely populated country on the African continent, the Gambia is a popular tourist destination. Yet, until recently, beneath the idyllic surface there was a dark undercurrent where paramilitaries preyed on those who spoke out against former President Yahya Jammeh, killing, torturing and disappearing journalists and opposition activists. The election of a new government, one that has pledged to end violations and to bring justice to victims, brings hope for the hard fought for establishment of democracy.

Capital:

Banjul

Population:

1.991mi

GDP:

$850.9 USi


Government:

The United Democratic Party of President-elect Adama Barrow. Barrow defeated Yahya Jammeh's Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction in a national election on 1 December 2016.


Member of:

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union, United Nations


IFEX members working in the country:

West African Journalists Association
Media Foundation for West Africa | mfwa.org


Press Freedom Ranking:

Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2017: 143 out of 179


A reign of terror under the 'King of Impunity'

For over two decades, since he seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994, former military officer, Yahya Jammeh ruled the Gambia in a manner that can be described as despotic. A 2015 Human Rights Watch report, Gambia: Two decades of fear and repression chronicles incomprehensible atrocities: abductions, murders, acute torture among them. Many of the crimes were attributed to a paramilitary group known as the 'Jungulers', an elite unit who took their orders directly from the President. Jammeh appeared to revel in his reputation for violence, frequently making public statements that were chilling. For example in 2009 he warned that he would personally kill human rights defenders, saying: 'I will kill anyone who wants to destabilise this country. If you think that you can collaborate with so-called human rights defenders, and get away with it, you must be living in a dream world. I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it.' In a country where LGBT people are targets of attack, hate speech and laws criminalising homosexuality, Jammeh's May 2015 public threat to 'slit the throats' of gay people escalated the danger to them to the extreme. It is no wonder that Jammeh earned himself the title of the King of Impunity.

Deeply feared and widely criticised inside and outside the Gambia, Jammeh survived at least four assassination attempts, but was elected to a fourth term in December 2011, in elections that were decried as far from fair. Any person who dared to criticise the election process faced dire consequences. In April 2016, for example, several opposition party members calling for electoral reform were arrested. Two were to die in prison because of the appalling conditions there and lack of medical care.

This photo from 23 October 2013 shows Alhaji, a refugee, in Dakar, Senegal. Alhaji fled his home in Gambia in 2012 after being beaten, tried, and persecuted for being gay
This photo from 23 October 2013 shows Alhaji, a refugee, in Dakar, Senegal. Alhaji fled his home in Gambia in 2012 after being beaten, tried, and persecuted for being gay

AP Photo/Jane Hahn


A shock election result

So, it was a great surprise, when on 1 December 2016, Jammeh's rival, Adama Barrow, won the presidential elections with 45.5% of the vote over Jammeh's 36.7%. Not that Jammeh went quietly. At first he conceded defeat, but ten days later, on 10 December, he changed his position, stating that there had been irregularities and that there should be fresh elections. This threw the country into turmoil and as the 19 January inauguration of the Gambia's new president neared, Jammeh ordered a state of emergency. Military officers accused of siding with Barrow were arrested, radio stations were forced to close, and foreign journalists deported. Meanwhile the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) announced it was gathering forces in neighbouring Senegal and Nigeria to intervene if Barrow was blocked from taking up the presidency.

When it became clear that Jammeh would not step down, the inauguration ceremony went ahead anyway at the Gambian embassy in Senegal. Two days later, on 21 January, Jammeh conceded defeat and fled into exile in Equatorial Guinea.


A new President brings hope for justice

President Adama Barrow's approach to power is in stark contrast to his predecessor's. A former property developer who had spent some time in Britain holding down a low paid retail job to fund his studies, he has had little previous political experience. Yet Barrow's manifesto pledges protection for human rights, specifically a free press, the release of political prisoners and the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring justice to victims of Jammeh's regime, among others.

Among the victims of Jammeh's era are several journalists:
Deyda Hydara, editor of The Point, shot dead in 2004, allegedly by Jungulers. In May 2017 a court issued an arrest warrant against two military officers implicated in his murder, a promising early sign that the new government will meet its commitments to bring justice to human rights victims.
'Chief' Ebrima Manneh, went missing after being arrested by national intelligence officers in 2006. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Musa Saidykhan, editor of The Independent newspaper, arrested in 2006. Held for 22 days during which time he suffered acute torture.
Alhagie Abdoulie Ceesay, a radio journalist, arrested in 2015 and sentenced in absentia in November 2016 to four years in prison for sedition. He was reportedly severely tortured.


Media reforms to bring a new era of hope

In March 2017, President Barrow gave a personal commitment to protecting freedom of expression. "A country cannot develop without strong media and that is why my government is committed to taking steps such as reforming media laws and working with partners to ensure a freer environment for the operations of the media," he told a delegation from the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), an IFEX member organisation, who met with him to discuss media freedom. Three months later, in June 2017, a media reform initiative kicked off, led by MFWA and the Gambian Press Union, working with the Ministry of Communications. Through a series of workshops and consultations, also involving experts from the Denmark-based International Media Services, the aim is to develop a comprehensive media reform strategy including changes to legislation and policy, capacity building, and the transformation of the state broadcaster to a public service broadcaster. It is planned that the initiative will later by joined by delegates from ECOWAS and the UN.

The engagement of both civil society and government towards change, gives real hope that after decades of terror, a free press and an end to impunity in the Gambia is in sight.

More Resources & Information

Musa Saidykhan and Ebrima Manneh: Justice Subverted by the State

Africa IFEX 17 October 2016

In 2006, Gambian journalists Musa Saidykhan and Ebrima Manneh were separately arrested and detained by state agents in Banjul, Gambia. Saidykhan was subjected to brutal torture, while Manneh disappeared with little trace. The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice has issued judgements against the Gambia in both cases, finding the state guilty of criminally violating their rights and owing them recompense. To date, the Gambia has yet to comply with either ruling.

State of Fear: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture, and Killings

Africa Human Rights Watch (HRW) 15 September 2015

This report provides an overview of the human rights situation in the country since President Jammeh came to power in 1994. It documents human rights abuses by state security forces and pro-government paramilitaries, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, unlawful killing, and the role of President Jammeh in facilitating these abuses.



ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
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