Criminal Libel Under Fire
Laws that criminalise libel are under fire in West Africa. The legislation causing so much concern is usually couched in sweeping terms to make it possible for a government to lock up anyone who says anything critical of it. Some of these laws go back to Colonial times, some are more recent.
In many cases the accused never make it to court. The police simply imprison the offender for a few days and then charges are not pressed. However, some do get charged and imprisoned. Of those who end up behind bars, some understandably choose flight to avoid persecution. Four such people fled The Gambia. They are Lamin Fatty, formerly of The Independent Newspaper, Fatou Camara, a former Presidential spokesperson, Fatou Jaw Manneh, a US based journalist and The Daily Observer’s Alhagie Jobe. They have spent four years in exile because of laws introduced by the regime of ousted leader Yahya Jammeh. Those laws are still active.
In 2015, The Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) and the exiled journalists filed a case with the ECOWAS Regional Court claiming the laws were unjust. The case was heard in 2016 with support from the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) and Amnesty International. The Court has agreed with the complainants and have found that Gambia's treatment of the journalists under this legislation violated their rights.
Now the Media Legal Defence Initiative and Amnesty International are calling on The Gambia to repeal the laws.
“These laws have done nothing but create a pervasive culture of persecution, violence, and injustice against those working in the media in Gambia under the regime of former President Jammeh,” says Sabrina Mahtani, who is the Amnesty International West Africa researcher.
Not all the criticism is coming from NGOs and journalists. In Sierra Leone, the Attorney General and Minister of Information have both said they want to see the end of such legislation in their country. The Attorney-General knows what it is like to be targeted under this legislation. In 2009 he was jailed under the 1965 Public Order Act and spent some time behind bars. He has since, alongside the current Minister of Information, argued strongly against the law which criminalises libel.
The use of criminal libel to silence critics is widespread. Sierra Leone and The Gambia could set a fine example to the world by decriminalising libel and getting rid of pernicious legislation.
Managing Director GMT Media Ltd