The Gambia: imperilled free press seek urgent help from ECOWAS Court

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The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will hold a hearing in Cote d’Ivoire on Tuesday in the case of Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) and others v. The Gambia, brought with the support of the Media Legal Defence Initiative.

The case was filed in December 2015 on behalf of four exiled Gambian journalists whose rights, including their rights to freedom of expression, have been violated by The Gambia through the enforcement of laws criminalising libel, sedition and false news in the country.  Two of the journalists were also subject to torture whilst in the custody of the National Intelligence Agency following their arrests under these laws.

The Federation of African Journalists, the African office of the International Federation of Journalists, also brings a claim as a representative of all Gambian journalists whose rights have been, and continue to be, violated by the maintenance and enforcement of these laws. This is the first time that The Gambia’s laws on criminal libel, sedition and false news have been challenged before an international court.

“The suppression of free speech in the Gambia will continue as long as the laws of criminal defamation, sedition and false news remain on the country’s statute books.  We therefore need a speedy hearing to properly safeguard the imperilled free press in the country” said MLDI’s Legal Director Nani Jansen, who will be present at the hearing.

Nigerian lawyer Noah Ajare, acting for the applicants and also present at the hearing, has commented that “this case offers the ECOWAS Court an opportunity to build on its previous jurisprudence relating to press freedom in The Gambia. Moreover, we hope that the Court will go further than these previous cases by considering the statutory framework that is itself used as a tool by The Gambia to stifle critical reporting of the President and the government.” 

“The case before the ECOWAS Court today raises serious issues regarding the treatment of journalists in The Gambia” said Maria Luisa Rogerio, President of the Federation of African Journalists.  “Over the years, our organisation has reported on journalists who have been subject to arrest, detention, conviction and even torture because of the laws that criminalise speech in the country. A positive judgment from the ECOWAS Court would not only help resolve the crisis for journalism in The Gambia, it would promote the right to freedom of expression and press freedom across the region more generally. This would ultimately foster the legal environment necessary for our members to freely carry out their vitally important journalistic activity.” 

Since President Yahya Jammeh seized control in 1994, journalists in The Gambia have suffered arbitrary detention, criminal prosecution, and even torture at the hands of the state authorities.

At the preliminary hearing on 19 April 2016, the court will consider issues relating to the admissibility of the case, and will also consider requests for an accelerated hearing and to introduce three Amici Curiae briefs. Requests have been filed by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression (David Kaye), the Redress Trust, and a coalition of eight human rights organisations who have all expressed an interest in intervening in the case.

For additional information, or to arrange an interview with MLDI’s Legal Director, Nani Jansen, the Nigerian lawyer acting for the applicants, Noah Ajare, or a contact person from the Federation of African Journalists please contact Jonathan McCully on +44 203 752 553 or send an email to jonathan.mccully@mediadefence.org.

 

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