ECOWAS Must Not Fail The Gambia

The MFWA has learnt with great excitement and anticipation reports that three exiled Gambian journalists have filed a legal claim at the ECOWAS Court of Justice. The claim, which was jointly filed with the Federation of African Journalists on December 7, 2015, is to challenge the repressive laws, attacks and systematic violations against journalists in The Gambia.

According to the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), which is supporting the journalists in their suit, the journalists are challenging laws “which have their roots in colonial times when they were used to suppress dissent, but are now specifically used to target journalists and human rights defenders.”

“The applicants have asked the Court to make a declaration that their very existence violates the right to freedom of expression,” the MLDI statement said. “In addition, some of the applicants argue that they suffered torture as a consequence of them exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

Under President Jammeh’s 21 year rule, several journalists, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens have suffered arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, intimidation etc. Many of these people have been forced to flee to the United States and neighbouring Senegal. President Jammeh’s security apparatus, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) work in total impunity. Dissent is ruthlessly repressed and journalists live and work in fear.

The Gambia is the country with the highest and severest cases of impunity in West Africa. At the time of writing this piece, a radio station manager, Alhagie Abdoulie Ceesay, has spent 153 days in detention for distributing, to two protocol officers of President Jammeh– Fatou A. Drammeh and Zainab Koneh– photos of the president with a gun pointed at him. He was arrested and detained by the NIA on July 17, 2015. He was first arraigned before the Banjul Magistrates’ court on August 4, and charged with a single count charge of “inciting hatred and discontent against the president.” He was later arraigned before a High Court with additional seven counts charges pressed against him. Ceesay has been denied bail three times.

While the MFWA welcomes the latest legal challenge to the state of impunity in The Gambia, we also recall the previous judgements by the ECOWAS Court that The Gambia has failed to comply with. The Gambia under Yahya Jammeh has failed to comply with three judgements against it for the disappearance of Ebrima Manneh, the arrest, detention and torture of Musa Saidykhan, and the murder of Deyda Hydara.

Manneh’s judgement was given on June 2008. The ECOWAS Community Court ordered the government of President Jammeh to release Ebrima Manneh, a journalist who has been missing since July 2006, and pay his family damages of US$100,000. Unfortunately, Manneh’s whereabouts remain unknown and the Gambian government has not paid the mandated compensation.

In 2010, ECOWAS also ordered The Gambia to pay Musa Saidykhan– who is currently on exile in the United States of America– US$200,000 in compensatory damages. The country is yet to comply.

In the case of Deyda Hydara, the ECOWAS Court ruled in June 2014 that The Gambia did not conduct a proper investigation into the murder of the journalist and allowed a climate of impunity to thrive. Furthermore, the Court found that “such impunity has the effect of denying journalists the right to operate effectively, thus stifling freedom of expression.” Thus, The Gambia has not satisfied its duty “to ensure respect for the rights of journalists” as directed by Article 66 of the ECOWAS Treaty. The Court awarded $50,000 in damages to Hydara’s family.

While the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in itself cannot compel governments and individuals to comply with the judgements, ECOWAS has the power to impose sanctions on The Gambia for non-compliance with the judgements. In the ECOWAS Treaty, countries which breach Article 66 are liable for sanctions. ECOWAS has, however, not initiated any processes to sanction The Gambia.

The MFWA is hopeful that the journalists will be successful in their suit. We also hope that when the ECOWAS Court rules against The Gambia, the country will comply this time round. If the country disregards the decision of the Court once again, ECOWAS must step in and ensure compliance through sanctions. The least ECOWAS can do is suspend The Gambia from its activities until the country abides by the judgments of the ECOWAS Court. Gambian journalists, human rights defenders and citizens are looking up to ECOWAS to call President Jammeh to order and ensure that freedom of expression and human rights conditions improve in The Gambia, and ECOWAS must not fail them!

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