by Alagi Yorro Jallow
Mamudu: The biggest enemies of President Adama Barrow’s regime are his own legal and political advisors. I have a feeling that by the time the current wave of madness ends, Barrow’s government will be irredeemably damaged. In fact, it appears the government is unwittingly inciting a revolution against itself, thanks to incompetent legal and political advice. Ironically, by so doing, the Government might precipitate a national crisis that can only be resolved by acceding to the oppositions extra-legal demands for national dialogue and a caretaker government.
Mamudu: This is all bad news for our national pastime of following the new episodes of our leaders’ legislating bad laws; bad for freedom of expression, for a while, at least. I now understand that old saying by Ismet Inonu. “You just cannot predict what the bandits can do at night.” Nobody expects to be surprised by politics with more than two years behind them, but events these days are unlike anything we have seen before. We are truly in the “interesting times”. The Gambia’s story is as classic a tragedy as can be.
Mamudu: Remember the 18th Brumaire of Louis-Napoleon? It was an essay by Karl Marx discussing the French coup of 1851 in which Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte assumed dictatorial powers and became Napoleon III.
Louis-Napoleon was the president of France then and he was incidentally the nephew of the first Bonaparte. Marx’s famous phrase, “history repeats itself; first as a tragedy, second as farce” describes that event. So too, the Nana internet law is again second to Baa Tambadou Hate speech law. The first time was a tragedy, now a farce.
Mamudu: This government is reconsidering the Nana Grey law amendment that had been passed to prevent Gambians from engaging in “unpatriotic behavior” against the government and public officials. The changes to the 2009 Information and Communications Act was passed by the previous National Assembly. The law criminalizes “derogatory statements against officials” as well as caricature, impersonations and any content “instigating violence against the government.” This law “aggravate what is already one of Africa’s most repressive laws, noting that they seemed to target Internet users.
Mamudu: On April 2013 16, the National Assembly amended the country’s Criminal Code Act to include the president, vice president, ministers, and members of the National Assembly as public servants. The amendment runs counter to the constitution, which does not recognize these officials as public servants. The amendment also increased the penalty for providing false information to a public servant from six months and a fine of 500 Dalasi (about US$15) to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 Dalasi (about US$1,515). that would impose prison terms of up to 15 years for publishing “false news” about government officials.
Mamudu: Gambian authorities were trying to protect themselves by denying their citizens the right to use modern communications and social media The National Assembly on July 4 amended the 2009 Information and Communication Act to introduce a 15-year jail term and fine of 3 million Dalasis (about US$100,000) to any individual convicted of using the Internet to spread false news or make derogatory statements, incite dissatisfaction, or instigate violence against the government or public officials, news reports said. The penalties apply to individuals living in the country or abroad.
Mamudu: If an amendment to an existing law is coming, it has to be well defined on what amounts to hate speech because our freedom of expression was not won on a platter of gold in the Gambia, but through various litigations. Thanks to the Gambia Press Union for defending freedom of expression and of speech.
Mamudu: I envisage that such a law on hate speech is going to be contested in court on how to delineate what hate speech is. The Gambia’s National Assembly too is deeply conservative. NAMs rarely debate or pass legislation on emotive subjects.
First of all, modifying the Sedition Act is devoid of meaning. It merely goes to show the scope of the discretionary power enjoyed by our ruling elite. Good for them, bad for the country. But I have to note President Adama Barrow and his Attorney General are not as ingenious and strategic as the Ghanian President and his Attorney General as opposed to the former, the latter knows how to handle dissent through inclusiveness.
Mamudu: Secondly, Gambia’s transformation is far low one in terms of the rule of law, freedom of expression and democratic government. Thirdly, a law protecting the president and public officers is not enforceable. Will it actually stop people from using social media, Facebook live and WhatsApp networks? Will the prime minister actually “finish Twitter,” as he proclaimed? The thought is ridiculous. Gambians will be using Facebook. Twitter and WhatsApp network channel. There are web sites already showing all of us how to bypass the government’s ham-handed efforts.
Mamudu: Sedition law is no different. Will hundred and thousands of social media users in the Gambia just stop what they have been doing? We are already far too accustomed to the new technology. We are too used to communicating with each other at breakneck speed. There is Facebook, WhatsApp and many more such systems that will connect us to one another. But in this new age of interconnectedness, the Attorney General is Don Quixote. Remember that the problem in that story is not windmills actually turning into giants. The problem is in poor Don Quixote’s mind. He is surrounded by illusions, pretending to be the hero of the old while people look at him with pity. Unlike the story however, Our Don Quixote is imbued with great power and responsibility.
Mamudu: The things we hear about an archaic law about Insulting the President and bulling of public officers is utter nonsense. Nonsense on stilts. Forget the clever legal and semi-legal arguments from various political quarters. The so-called conflict of interest is too remote to be of any legal consequence. But perhaps what should worry us is not the remoteness or otherwise of the alleged conflict of interest. What should worry us is that the political class is ready to vilify and destroy critical thinking and freedom of expression and free speech just for the sake of politics. And the semiliterate among us can’t see the big picture. Whoever bewitched us must have died. Or is it the melanin?
Mamudu: In 2013 Nana Grey Johnson amendment law to the 2009 Information and Communication Act adopted by the National Assembly that imposes lengthy prison sentences and heavy fines on individuals who use the Internet in any capacity to criticize government officials.
Mamudu: We are entitled, as a matter of right, to offer political support to the Government or whoever we choose. But we also have a higher duty, especially as lawyers, to offer honest legal opinions on important matters of grave public interest. After all, professional ethics require lawyers to avoid being recruited into their clients’ cause(s), and to be forthright in their legal advice. Even in situations where forthrightness means losing out on government briefs and state patronage.
by Alagi Yorro Jallow