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GPU condemns troubling remarks of Gambian President on press freedom and democracy

Gambia’s President, Adama Barrow, has made a series of remarks that directly threaten the state of press freedom, freedom of expression and the country’s fledgling democracy.

On 29 September, while opening his National People’s Party (NPP) bureau in Bansang, Gambia’s Central River Region, South, President Barrow said: “If there was no democracy, Kerr Fatou wouldn’t have existed. If there was no democracy, Mengbe Kering ‘Radio’ would not exist in The Gambia. And all radio stations that criticize the government would not exist either.”

Mengbe Kering is not a radio station, it is an online TV platform which hosts a special current affairs talk show by the same name and other programmes. It now forms part of the Home Digital FM and regularly broadcast on Facebook.

The two media platforms have since condemned the president’s remarks as a “dangerous attack”. “The president’s intention was to assault our integrity, demonise our professionalism and use that vitriolic rhetoric to spark public hostility towards me and my establishment,” Pa Modou Bojang, Mengbe Kering founder and owner of Home Digital FM, said in a statement.

“When a government singles out specific media outlets for intimidation or suppression, it sets a perilous precedent that endangers the essential role of the press as a bulwark against governmental overreach,” Fatou Touray, proprietor of Kerr Fatou, also said in a statement.

While inaugurating an another NPP bureau in Wassu, Central River Region, North, President Barrow said that “the state of democracy in the country had reached an excessive point, with people freely expressing their opinions without accountability.” “I will talk to the Inspector General of Police, those who want to burn this country will be arrested and detained,” he said.

On October 3, while inaugurating another NPP bureau in Jarra Soma, Lower River Region, President Barrow called the leading opposition, the United Democratic Party, “the biggest threat to national security” and threaten to arrest radio station owners and rearrest individuals granted bail by the courts.

“However, I want to emphasize that no one will be allowed to insult others in the Gambia without facing consequences. Even on radio, if someone calls in and engages in insulting behavior, we will take appropriate action, including arresting the owner of the radio station. Moreover, on social media, we will put an end to the practice of insulting others. Even if individuals are released on bail by a judge, we will re-arrest them,” he is quoted as saying in Mandinka, a local dialect.

“These threats directed at the media are totally unacceptable – such remarks from President Barrow have the effect of inciting his supporters and party militants and the police against the media,” GPU Secretary General, Modou S. Joof, said.

“Barrow had in the past accused the Gambian media of bias, which was followed by physical attacks on journalists by his supporters and State House staff with impunity. These included attacks on journalists working for Kerr Fatou in the buildup to the 2021 presidential election and the arrests of four journalists after police raided radio stations and the subsequent arbitrary closure of Home Digital FM and King FM for a month in 2020.”

Barrow’s government has made very little progress on the implementation of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) recommendations on attacks on the media, upholding press freedom, the rule of law and media law reforms. The promise of greater freedoms, the protection of journalists, and media law reforms have yet to be fulfilled, six years into the country’s transitional justice process.

“Giving voices to those who hold the government to account is fundamental to the media’s watchdog role which is guaranteed by the Gambian Constitution,” GPU President, Muhammed S. Bah, said. “The GPU calls on President Barrow to give due consideration and observance of the recommendations of the TRRC as they relate to press freedom, freedom of expression and the safety of journalists.”

  • The GPU is reminding the President to uphold his responsibility to protect press freedom and freedom of expression as guaranteed by the laws of the Gambia and relevant international legal instruments to which the Gambia is a signatory.
  • To ensure the country recovers from the brutal past, the government must be committed to ending impunity and intimidation of journalists and create a safer environment for the media to carry out its constitutional mandate.
  • The GPU also urges the President to take concrete measures to ensure journalists covering government and his party’s events are free from harassment, intimidation, and physical and verbal attacks.
  • President Barrow’s government must be committed to end impunity for crimes against journalists, and also stop attacks and the harassment of human rights defenders and political activists for expressing their opinions and criticisms of the government and its leadership.
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