In his attempt to spinning last President Adama Barrow’s threat to ban political activities of his opponents, the spokesperson of the Gambia government, Ebrima Sankareh, has unveiled a State House plot to criminalize some aspects in the use of social media by Gambians who criticize President Adama Barrow and officials his administration.
The intention of the Barrow government, as written in the press release issued by its spokesperson, is to makeshift some seeming legitimate legal need to criminalizing whatever Gambian officials deem an “insult” on any of them, on social media.
“Working with the National Assembly, the president hopes to eventually come up with legislation to bring a lasting solution to the abuse and insults innocent citizens are subjected to daily on social media platforms,” the Gambia government’s spokesperson said in his press release.
In 2017, the then-new government of President Adama Barrow made arrests on people involving claims of offline defamation against Barrow, sending a signal that the regime is not at ease with citizens speaking freely online.
In fact, dubious prosecutions over online activity have since continued under the Barrow administration. In addition, some recurrent violence against journalists has been reported despite the Ministries of Justice and of Information committing themselves to legal reform to bring The Gambia’s expression laws in line with the best models.
Although Barrow’s regime new intent, as expressed by the government spokesperson, seems different from the infamous law on “False Publication on the Internet” under Yahya Jammeh, the purpose appears to be exactly the same.
It’s about suppressing critics of the government officials from voicing out sharp criticism and dissent views on the people in the Public Administration handling the management of public affairs.
In 2018, the Supreme Court declared “unconstitutional” the law on False Publication on the Internet used to silent ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh’s critics.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court stated, “This court can find no reasonable justification for shielding persons who hold or occupy public office by criminalizing criticism against them without appropriate safeguards for legitimate criticism. A person should not be merely prosecuted for having the audacity to criticize their government or any public functionary for that matter. A vibrant, decent, and responsive democracy should shun that,” the Court said.
Meanwhile, the Barrow government’s intention to legislating on insults on the internet is a clear sign that some people in his administration have never been the thick skin uninterested country servants they claimed to be.
Instead, they have become too nervous and allergic to the soft, and sometimes hard criticism inherent to a vivid democratic society in turmoil.
Internet is the bitter side of such modern democracy, and every exposed public official is under public scrutiny where they endeavor in every government activity. This is so true in government generally perceived Gambians as the most corrupt and inept ever the country has ever had.
Given the heated presidential pre-campaign period in The Gambia, some online exchanges between supporters of different political groups have often devolved into feuds featuring abuse and insults.
But in The Gambia, a person who harms another person’s reputation through an oral or written insult can be sued for defamation in the civil courts.
There are exceptions for certain types of speech. This includes speech that is true, speech that reflects an opinion, and speech about a matter of public interest.
These exceptions are intended to ensure that political speech remains protected from the civil penalties that would otherwise apply.
So like the threat of banning political activities of the opposition, there are ample reasons to have faith that Gambians would not let happen the government’s intention to evade sharp criticism from the Internet at the cost of hindering the citizens’ digital rights in the country.