Minister of Justice must protect civil liberties and not damage them

by Madi Jobarteh

The Minister of Justice is hereby reminded that even though Gambia’s Supreme Court had ruled that the law on false news is constitutional the ECOWAS Community Court to which the Gambia is a party had however ruled that those laws in the Gambia violate citizens right to freedom of expression. Furthermore, I totally disagree with the Supreme Court that false news is constitutional. It is not!

The Gambia Constitution under Section 25 does not in any way anticipate any restriction to freedom of expression as it relates to false news. While the Constitution provides for limitation to this right it is clear in the Constitution that such restriction has to be backed by a just law, and to serve a legitimate purpose and to be necessary in a democratic society.

Hence the false news provision in the Criminal Code is utterly undemocratic and does not serve any legitimate purpose. This is because this law itself was created in 1939 by the colonialists purposely to deny Gambians to freely express themselves especially against colonialism. This is why the law describes false news as any information published that is ‘likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace’.

This provision is, first of all vague and misleading, because it makes no distinction between opinion and fact. For example, I can say that the Barrow Government is useless or that the Barrow Government is efficient. This simple statement, looked at either way, may cause discomfort to someone who supports or dislikes the government respectively. But this state is my opinion and does not in anyway lead to fear or alarm or undermine peace.

But what makes this law dangerous is that it gives power to Government to determine if my opinion indeed causes fear or alarm or disturbs the peace. In that case if the Government does not like my opinion they can claim it to be false news. Hence this law is unfair and unjust because it places a citizen and her opinion at the mercy of a public officer to decide. What this means is that Government has now become the determinant of what opinion can be expressed and what opinion cannot be expressed. This means criminalizing opinion.

From the perspective of democracy this law is therefore the foundation of dictatorship. In democracy, especially in a republic, the Government is the product of the opinion of citizens. This is why we vote. Everyone votes based on your opinion that Party A or B or Candidate A or B appeals to you. Hence when we criminalize opinion then it means we will have a Government that is not based on our opinion. Then the question is, where is that Government from?

The colonialists never wanted Gambians to create their own government because that would mean independence where the sovereignty of our citizens lies in our people. Consequently, the colonialists created the ‘offense of false news’ in 1939 so that they can impose their government on us. They never cared what opinion Gambians had and certainly they never tolerated any opinion that opposed colonialism.

When we gained Independence, we had a constitution that recognises that the sovereignty of the Gambia resides in the people of the Gambia and that the Government derives its authority and legitimacy from the people. It went further to state that the Government functions in our name and for our welfare. This means therefore that the Gambia Government is the opinion of Gambian citizens. How therefore can the Supreme Court and the Minister of Justice, both of who derive their authority from the people, now claim that the opinion of those people is unlawful and criminal?

What is more disappointing about the Supreme Court and the Minister of Justice is that both of them very well know that this was the very law that the Despot Yaya Jammeh and his regime had used to deny Gambians to express themselves. It was precisely because of the criminalization of opinion that Gambians were not able to scrutinize Yaya Jammeh and hold his regime to account. This was because if a citizen had said that Yaya Jammeh was corrupt publicly immediately that citizen would be arrested and subjected to torture or enforced disappearance or execution.

How therefore can Minister Tambadou have the temerity to face Gambians to proudly declare that this Government, which is the product of our opinion, will enforce false news provisions in the Criminal Code? Who determines what opinion causes fear or alarm or disturb the peace? If citizens cannot speak their opinion, true or false, how can we hold the Government to account? Have we not seen uncountable incidents of corruption, patronage, inefficiency and indiscipline permeating the length and breadth of the Government of Adama Barrow? Has the Minister of Justice sought any ways to address these direct threats to peace and stability of the Gambia?

False news is unconstitutional, undemocratic and tyrannical. It is a shame that any government, more so a government that is coming after a dictatorship such as the Barrow Government would contemplate even in the slightest way of enforcing this obnoxious law. Our expectation was that this law should have been removed out of books since one year ago. This is because it was Barrow himself who said in his Manifesto that within his first six months in office, he would remove all laws that infringe on democracy, human rights and popular participation. It is now 18 months, and nothing has happened only for that Government to now threaten citizens with those very draconian laws it promised to abolish!

Gambians have a right to express their opinion about the Barrow Government and this opinion can be true or false. If the Government feels an opinion expressed by a citizen is wrong let the Government issue a counter statement and set the records straight. If two citizens defame each other let them go to court which is not government’s business. But citizens have right to express their opinion about the government as they see fit.

Let me remind the Minster of Justice that if there is anyone perpetuating false news in the country it is the Barrow Government itself. Consistently the Barrow Government has been lying and misleading Gambians on fundamental issues without shame. Therefore, let the Minster of Justice address the false news coming out of the Barrow Government than to seek to silence citizens. This is my opinion and it cannot cause fear or alarm or damage the peace.

Enough of Dictatorship!

For the Gambia Our Homeland!

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