- Draconian amendments to the press code in The Gambia had been signed to law by the President already in December, the national press union found out yesterday. The Gambia Press Union (GPU) however has not been allowed to get a copy of this controversial new press code, which includes prison sentences for publishing "inaccurate news".
Gambia's independent 'Daily Observer' said yesterday that, in an undistributed issue of the official 'Gambia Gazette' dated 30 December, the President's office promulgated a criminal code amendment that was passed by the national assembly on 14 December. The amendment, which changes the already draconic press code, stipulates that publishing deliberately defamatory comments or publishing inaccurate news - deliberately or not - is punishable by a prison sentence of six months or more.
Further, seditious comments are punishable by six months in prison for the first conviction and three years for subsequent convictions. According to the 'Gambia Gazette', President Yaya Jammeh signed this into law on 28 December.
The other bill passed by the Gambian national assembly on 14 December, the Newspaper Amendment Act 2004, appears not to have been promulgated. Heavily criticised by the opposition during the parliamentary debate, it would rescind all existing news media licences, increase the cost of a new licence for newspaper owners from 100,000 dalasis (2,571 euros) to 500,000 dalasis (12,855 euros), and make them register their homes as security for non-payment.
GPU president Demba Jawo told the Paris-based group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) that the Gambian government did not give him a copy of the new law despite his repeated requests. "There are not many people in the government willing to give me information on this subject," Mr Jawo told RSF. He added that the journalists' union intended to challenge the law's constitutionality as soon as it got all the details.
RSF in a statement released today voiced "outrage at the treatment reserved for the press" in The Gambia. The Gambia "sinks deeper into darkness and the international community pretends not to see," the French group said. "Gambia's journalists have learned through the press that, despite the appeals of African journalists and international organisations, the President surreptitiously promulgated a draconian press law without the government seeing the need to tell them for two months."
The press freedom group said it was outraged by both the government's methods and the law's content. "This is a serious reverse for press freedom in western Africa and an additional humiliation by President Jammeh for Gambia's journalists after the blow they received in the form of newspaper editor Deyda Hydara's murder in December." The killer of Mr Hydara has still not been found and observers have hinted that the murder may have been ordered by President Jammeh himself.
RSF today urged the international community to start putting pressure on the Jammeh regime. "It is high time that the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Commonwealth and democratic countries with good relations with Gambia should convince President Jammeh that this spiralling repression is alarming and dangerous. The international community must help Gambian journalists to preserve their freedom instead of ignoring them," the RSF statement said.
Mr Jammeh came to power in a military coup in 1994, being a young and poorly educated Sergeant in the Gambian army. As he was forced by international pressure to return the country to constitutional and democratic rule in 1996, Mr Jammeh has used every trick in the book to manipulate elections and control and muzzle the remnant of the independent press.
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