The Gambia

Partly Free
49
100
A Obstacles to Access 10 25
B Limits on Content 22 35
C Violations of User Rights 17 40
Last Year's Score & Status
48 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

The online environment has improved in the Gambia since 2017, when President Adama Barrow succeeded Yahya Jammeh, who ruled for more than two decades and oversaw a regime that overwhelmingly failed to protect political rights and civil liberties. Gambians now take to the internet to express views on many sensitive issues. Arrests and harassment of internet users for their online activity have steadily declined. However, the Barrow administration’s crackdown of the Three Years Jotna (TYJ) protest movement, which mobilized after Barrow reneged on his promise to resign in January 2020, raised fears of a return to Jammeh-era repression.

Before the 2016 election, which resulted in a surprise victory for Barrow, Jammeh came to power through a bloodless coup in 1994. Fundamental freedoms, including the rights to free assembly, association, and expression, improved after Barrow took office, but the progress towards consolidating the rule of law remains slow. LGBT+ individuals face severe discrimination, and violence against women remains a serious problem.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 - May 31, 2020

  • Brief nationwide connectivity disruptions were recorded in November 2019 and January 2020, likely due to malfunctions in undersea cables (see A1).
  • In late January 2020, the Barrow administration closed two private radio stations, including their online services, and arrested four people affiliated with the stations after they covered protests against the president (see B2 and C3).
  • In November 2019, the government introduced draft legislation that would tighten media industry regulation and place onerous restrictions on media companies, including digital broadcasters and news sites (see B6).
  • In January 2020, the government banned the TYJ movement, which called for President Barrow to honor a campaign promise to resign that month, and criminalized association with its members (see B8).
  • In March 2020, a government commission published the draft of a new constitution, which would safeguard freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and access to information (see C1).

A Obstacles to Access

Brief nationwide connectivity disruptions were recorded in November 2019 and January 2020, likely due to malfunctions in undersea cables. The overlap of the disruptions with antigovernment protests prompted suspicion of government involvement. The Gambia’s high poverty rates continue to limit access to the internet, and the COVID-19 pandemic limited Gambians’ ability to access free internet services.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 1.001 6.006

The country’s internet penetration rate remains low, at 19.8 percent in 2017, according to the most recent statistics from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU),1 and a notable expansion in internet access that took place earlier in the decade has slowed. Flagging growth in internet access may be linked in part to reduced government funding for regional internet café and telecenter hubs operated by the public telecommunications company, Gambia Telecommunications Company Limited (Gamtel).2 Similarly, a state internet-gateway monopoly, which analysts believe directly impacts costs, persists.3 However, in late June 2019, Gamtel, in collaboration with Chinese technology firm Huawei, launched the National Broadband Network (NBN) initiative to expand internet speed and access across the country.4 While broadband installation is still ongoing, accessibility and speed remain a significant challenge.

The Gambia has one of the highest mobile-phone penetration rates in Africa, standing at 141.2 percent in 2017, though one individual may have more than one subscription, and not all phone plans include data use.5 Nevertheless, most Gambians who access the internet do so via mobile devices, with less than 20 percent of users subscribing to fixed-line broadband services.6

The government launched the country’s first internet exchange point (IXP) in July 2014 to boost the speed and security of internet services across the country, though the IXP runs slowly.7

The Gambia saw at least two hour-long nationwide disruptions during the coverage period, following technical problems with the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) undersea cable in November 2019 and a malfunction in the South Atlantic Telecommunications 3/West African Submarine Cable (SAT-3/WASC) in January 2020.8 Moreover, there were other minor national disruptions in recent months, which Gamtel attributed to “technical problems” and “data migration.” 9 In November 2018, there was a major network shutdown in many parts of West Africa, including the Gambia.10 This regionwide shutdown lasted several hours and was attributed to technical problems around the ACE cable.

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 1.001 3.003

High cost remains a primary hindrance to internet access in the Gambia, where 48.6 percent of individuals live in poverty, according to 2015 World Bank data.1 The introduction of 3G mobile networks has made internet access more accessible, albeit only for a small subset of the population who can afford data packages. The IXP introduced in July 2014 (see A1) aimed to make internet services more affordable, but it remains unclear whether the IXP succeeded in doing so. Internet service providers (ISPs) generally sell data bundles rather than weekly or monthly unlimited access, with prices ranging from 8 Gambian dalasi (15 cents) for 20 MB to 1,620 dalasi ($31) for 13 GB of data.2

Data from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund show that up to 48 percent of the country’s almost 2 million people live in poverty. Changing rainfall patterns in the past several years have increased food insecurity from 5 to 8 percent according to the latest World Food Programme data.3 High levels of poverty and food insecurity limit access to the internet.4

The COVID-19 pandemic brought increased demand for internet connectivity as schools transferred classes online and some workers connected from home, which in turn led to increased demands for lower data prices. For instance, an outcry followed the University of the Gambia’s decision to cancel a plan to offer free data to its students after a cost dispute with mobile service provider Africell in April 2020.5

Limited access to telecommunications services in the Gambia is compounded by a significant urban-rural divide, as well as by occasional interruptions to the power supply. In general, rural areas suffer from poor or virtually nonexistent infrastructure, a lack of affordable electricity, and frequent power cuts.6 In addition, network coverage of rural areas has not been an investment priority for most service providers.7 The government has identified “closing the digital divide” as a goal of the NBN (see A1); as of June 2020, no progress was noted.8 In March 2020, the government launched its Digital Terrestrial Transmission (DTT) infrastructure project, which aims to ensure the Gambia’s analog-to-digital transition.9 DTT is expected to foster an increase in internet access nationwide.

In May 2019, the government announced the introduction of a new tax on GSM (global system for mobile communication) operators across the country.10 Reports indicate that the levy, which took effect in June 2019, raised millions of dalasi for the government.11 In September 2019, government proposed a new digital tax in a draft media services bill, but that proposal was eventually abandoned.12

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 4.004 6.006

The Gambian government’s monopoly over the main telecommunications infrastructure enables it to restrict access to the internet and mobile phone services with little to no oversight or transparency. However, the current post-Jammeh government has not used these capabilities. Brief nationwide connectivity interruptions in November 2019 and January 2020, attributed to technical problems with undersea cables (see A1), also overlapped with mass protests calling for President Barrow’s resignation, prompting speculation of government interference with internet connectivity.1

Gamtel owns the fiber-optic cable that runs across the country and thus controls the country’s connection to the international internet via the ACE submarine cable system. The government began liberalizing gateway services in May 2013 by granting international data transmission licenses to private telecommunications operators.2 Details are vague as to how many new licenses have been issued. The new administration has expressed willingness to further liberalize the sector but as of early 2020, the status quo remained.3

The authorities last placed restrictions on connectivity on the eve of the 2016 presidential election. Ahead of the polls, authorities ordered ISPs to shut down internet services,4 international calls, and short-message service (SMS) access across the country. This was ostensibly done to disrupt the spread of false information, but actually disrupted vote-counting and election-monitoring processes.5 Lasting for over 48 hours, the communications blackout failed to guarantee the reelection of former president Jammeh, who oversaw the shutdown.6

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 4.004 6.006

A state-owned and operated company, Gamtel, has a monopoly on the internet gateway, though it has granted other service providers permission to operate international data links.1

The Gambia’s information and communication technologies (ICT) market is relatively small. There are four ISPs: the state-owned Gamtel, and privately owned QuantumNet, Netpage, and Airtip.2 The country has four mobile service providers: Gamcel, a Gamtel subsidiary, and privately owned Qcell, Africell, and Comium.3 Africell is by far the largest mobile service provider, controlling over 60 percent of the market.4 All mobile service providers offer 2G, 3G, and in some places, 4G data service.

The Barrow administration has pledged to improve the regulatory environment and liberalize the telecommunications sector; while its approach represents a reprieve from the highly restrictive environment that characterized the Jammeh era, progress has been slow. As in many other sectors, businesses still must contend with inefficient bureaucracies coupled with nepotistic and preferential practices by government officials.5 Registration for ISPs and mobile service providers remains an onerous and expensive process.6

Internet cafés, which are much less common than in the past, contend with regulatory obstacles. Moreover, Gamtel has reduced funding to the internet café and telecenter hubs it operates (see A1).

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

There are serious concerns about the independence and efficacy of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, the Gambia’s telecommunications regulator. The telecommunications sector is regulated under the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority Act 2001, which established PURA in 2004 to regulate the activities of telecommunications providers and other public utilities.1 However, PURA is largely an advisory body, and both its board of governors and managing director are appointed by the president on the recommendation of the finance minister2—in effect undermining the body’s independence.

Moreover, PURA regulates not only telecommunications but also media licensing and content, sewage, electricity, and petroleum.3 This, experts say (and some PURA officials agree), is not tenable and stretches the authority’s limited resources. Ultimately, decisions on telecommunications are in the hands of the information minister.4 Despite persistent calls for reform, the government inaugurated in January 2017 has not signaled any intent to reform PURA.

Nevertheless, the regulator appears to have carried out its functions more effectively in recent years, though some of its moves also threatened to infringe on consumers’ rights to privacy. In February 2017, PURA fined two mobile service providers—the privately owned Africell5 and state-owned Gamcel—for failure to comply with rules on SIM card registration (see C4). Africell challenged the regulator’s decision at the civil division of the Gambia’s High Court, but the court ruled against the company. In the meantime, the vice president and three government ministers reportedly stepped in to resolve the issue between Africell and PURA, resulting in Africell’s eventual compliance with the SIM card registration requirements.6

B Limits on Content

The government banned the TYJ movement, which called for President Barrow to honor a campaign promise to resign in January 2020. During the subsequent crackdown, the Barrow administration suspended two private radio stations, including their online services. A draft bill that seeks to regulate the media industry would impose onerous fees and restrictions on digital broadcasters and news sites.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 6.006 6.006

There have been no reports of blocking or filtering of websites or apps under the Barrow administration.

Over 20 sites were blocked under the former administration,1 most of them independent news and opposition websites that were known for criticism of the government2 and were operated from abroad by exiled Gambian activists and journalists. All blocked websites and apps, including those containing pornographic material, became accessible when President Barrow assumed office in January 2017.3

Social media platforms and communications apps were unrestricted during the coverage period, but were frequently targeted under the previous administration. Apps were last restricted in August 2016, when the authorities blocked popular communications platforms WhatsApp, Viber, IMO, and Skype.4 Analysts believed the blocks came in response to the growing reliance on WhatsApp group messaging among opposition groups and candidates in advance of the 2016 presidential election.5 Tech-savvy Gambians were able to access the blocked apps via virtual private networks (VPNs)6 and other proxy servers,7 which may have prompted the authorities to shut down the entire internet on the eve of the election (see A3).

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 2.002 4.004

While forced content deletion does not occur systematically, activists and journalists have reported receiving informal requests from senior government officials for content removal.1 The government filed two requests to remove content from Google between January and June 2018, both of which were for defamation, neither of which were granted.2

In January 2020, the government suspended two private radio stations, Home Digital FM and King FM, along with their online services, on charges of incendiary messages and inciting violence,3 and arrested four affiliated individuals (see C3). Both radio stations reported on protests calling for President Barrow’s resignation (see B8).4 The government permitted the stations to reopen one month later following mediation led by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).5 The Gambia Press Union (GPU) hired a lawyer to sue the government over what it termed “illegal” closures and arrests.6 No lawsuit was filed by the end of the coverage period.

In June 2017, the Daily Observer, one of the country’s oldest and most widely circulated national daily newspapers, was shut down by the Gambia Revenue Authority (GRA) for tax arrears accumulated over 17 years. The newspaper and its website then ceased operations.7 The Daily Observer was widely considered to have been controlled by the Jammeh administration; there was speculation that its closure was politically motivated and came in response to stories critical of the new Barrow administration.

Under former president Jammeh, websites were routinely required to take down content. In general, stories that risked catching the attention of security officials were likely to be removed, either through self-imposed post-publication censorship, or as a result of unofficial takedown orders from government officials.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 2.002 4.004

Though online content is not systematically restricted in the Gambia, Gamtel remains state controlled, and has retained the ability to restrict access to internet content without oversight. There is no process through which site administrators can appeal content-restriction decisions.1

Experts believe that the former government blocked specific internet protocol (IP) addresses and domain names at the internet gateway level.2 According to former officials, the Jammeh administration intentionally avoided issuing written orders for website blockings and internet shutdowns to maintain a degree of plausible deniability.3

The Media Council of the Gambia (MCG), a self-regulatory body tasked with arbitrating complaints about media reports, began adjudicating proceedings in May 2020.4 The MCG was established by the GPU in December 2018 to regulate the media industry, including complaints about content, without relying on state intervention. The MCG’s formation is a result of collaborative efforts between government and civil society actors working for media reform under the Barrow administration.5

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 2.002 4.004

Activists, journalists, bloggers, and ordinary internet users have posted content more openly since the 2017 political transition, and a number of independent journalists have reemerged after decades of severe self-censorship or exile.1

However, some topics, including female genital mutilation (FGM) and issues affecting LGBT+ people, are still considered by many to be taboo, and are often discussed online only by pseudonymous users. Social media has seen a proliferation of hate speech in recent years.

Some local activists, particularly sympathizers of the former president, also post critical content anonymously to evade potential legal repercussions or other offline retaliation.2 A handful of detentions under the new government, including one in 2017 involving claims of offline defamation against Barrow, reinforced citizens’ unease with speaking freely online (see C3).3 Similarly, the January 2020 arrest of four people and shutdown of two privately owned radio stations sent chilling effects on journalists and activists, as did the designation of the TYJ movement as a subversive group (see B8).

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 2.002 4.004

The current government seeks to promote its image through a variety of well-resourced press and public-relations offices, but there is no evidence it proactively employs progovernment trolls or bots, or otherwise seeks to covertly manipulate the information landscape.

During local council elections held in 2018, there was a noticeable increase in content manipulation across the political spectrum, including a proliferation of purportedly false news intended to harm particular candidates, apparently disseminated by opposing party loyalists. While there is no evidence linking these activities directly to political parties, they were largely spearheaded by party members and party youth groups, and detracted from the civility of the preelection environment, which saw some cases of political violence, particularly between members of the former ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) and the United Democratic Party (UDP).1 WhatsApp groups were among the most common platforms for spreading misinformation, including distorted videos that smeared politicians.

During the coverage period, the Barrow administration appointed information officers across almost all government ministries with the objective of disseminating information to the public.2 Interviews with senior government officials, who remained anonymous, indicate that the information officers are tasked with framing the government more positively in the media, particularly in state-owned media outlets, as part of a larger strategy to bolster President Barrow’s reelection bid in 2021.3 Most of these new information officers are former journalists, including some who were critical of the government.

  • 1. “Another fight breaks out between APRC and UDP supporters in Talinding,” Gambiano, March 29, 2017, http://gambiano.net/breaking-news-another-fight-breaks-out-between-aprc….
  • 2. Interview with senior information officer at Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure – May, 2020.
  • 3. Interview with senior policy officials and former officials at the Office of the President, Banjul. February – May 2020.
B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 2.002 3.003

Small media businesses, especially online platforms, have expanded in recent years and have a growing impact on the media landscape.1 Such operations are supported in part by advertising from government and private businesses; some programs offered by these online outlets, such as news and current events coverage, conferences, and talk shows, are similarly sponsored. Under the previous administration, private businesses avoided advertising with critical outlets for fear of government reprisal.2 Nevertheless, economic sustainability for independent online media outlets remains a serious challenge.

In November 2019, the cabinet approved a draft media services bill that would establish a media authority to license and regulate media companies. The draft bill would place onerous restrictions on media companies, including digital broadcasters and news sites, through fees and other restrictions.3 Civil society organizations critiqued the bill, saying it targets the ability of journalists to do their work.4 As of June 2020, the bill has not been presented to the parliament.

The government’s position on net neutrality provisions, which would ensure that ISPs treat internet traffic equally, remains unclear.

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 3.003 4.004

The online information landscape has become increasingly pluralistic as the highly restrictive environment for bloggers and internet users that existed during the Jammeh era has eased. Online outlets and platforms including Kerr Fatou, the Fatu Network, Gambia Talents Promotion, and Eye Africa TV provide useful and diverse information to Gambians both within and outside the country.1

These and other media outlets play an important role in Gambian society, especially in light of the ongoing work the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which investigates Jammeh-era human rights abuses and violations, as well as that of the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) and other bodies that address sensitive topics in the Gambia.2

  • 1. Freedom House consultant interviews with PURA, March 2019
  • 2. Constitutional Review Commission, accessed March 2019, https://crc220.org/.
B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 3.003 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because of a government ban that forbade associating with the TYJ movement, which called for President Barrow to fulfill his previous promise to resign in January 2020.

Mobilization platforms and websites are freely available. Local digital activism efforts culminated in offline actions in the early days of the Barrow administration, but a January 2020 ban on an anti-Barrow protest movement and a coronavirus-related lockdown appear to have slowed online mobilization.

In January 2020, the government banned the TYJ movement, which mobilized protesters calling for Barrow’s resignation after he reneged on a campaign promise to resign that month. The ban stated that no individual or entity should conduct any form of business with the organization and its members. Security forces arrested at least 137 protesters during the crackdown, including prominent journalists and movement leaders.1 Protesters promoted the use of the #ThreeYearsJotna hashtag online, though its use declined after the movement was banned.2

No significant online movements were observed during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Experts attributed this to the lack of e-governance measures within Gambian public administration; for instance, all public petitions must be physically signed and accompanied with details including a national document number.3

Past digital campaigns include crowdfunding campaigns to help victims who testified at the TRRC.4 Separately, in early 2018, the hashtag #FreeIsmailaCeesay went viral after the prominent political science lecturer Ismaila Ceesay was arrested. Within hours, people had converged at the police headquarters in Banjul to demand his release.5 Ceesay was eventually released, and all charges against him were dropped.

A history of prosecutions for online activity and related restrictions under the Jammeh administration likely still dissuades many people from mobilizing. For instance, in October 2017, amid an acute power and water shortage across the country and especially within the Greater Banjul Area, the #OccupyWestfield movement emerged to protest the failures of the National Water and Electricity Company (NAWEC).6 After a permit to demonstrate against the company was denied, issued, and denied once again, protesters went ahead with the event, which was dispersed by paramilitary officers in riot gear.

C Violations of User Rights

A new draft constitution would enshrine freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and access to information, while legislation on access to information awaits passage by the parliament. There were no reports of internet users receiving multiyear prison sentences, facing significant pretrial detentions, or being subjected to physical violence for their online activities, a significant improvement for the Gambia.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 2.002 6.006

The 1997 Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, though fundamental freedoms were severely restricted in practice under the administration of former president Jammeh, who once stated that he would “not compromise or sacrifice the peace, security, stability, dignity, and the well-being of Gambians for the sake of freedom of expression.”1

The CRC released a final draft of the constitution in March 2020.2 The draft enshrines freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information as fundamental human rights, following strong public support for protections of fundamental rights and freedoms.3 The draft was gazetted in May 2020 and will be tabled in the parliament in August, after which it will be considered by Gambians in a referendum.4

Meanwhile, an access-to-information bill drafted by a civil society-led coalition awaited parliamentary passage at the end of the coverage period. The bill, which guarantees the right to information and is billed as an improvement in government transparency, was approved by the cabinet in November 2019.5 Activists are optimistic it will pass given what they described as wide multiparty support.6

In March 2020, President Barrow declared a state of public emergency, restricting certain rights to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.7 The 1997 constitution authorizes the government to declare a state of emergency, but it may not derogate certain rights, including freedom of speech and the press.8 The government extended the state of emergency in early April, late May, and again through June and July 2020, after the coverage period ended.9

In February 2020, the Supreme Court ruled against an executive order revoking the nomination of a lawmaker by the president, signaling a degree of judicial independence.10 Previously, the Supreme Court has deferred to executive authority, as with a decision on criminal sedition that privileged the president over other officials (see C2).

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 1.001 4.004

While some of the worst Jammeh-era restrictions have been overturned by courts, several restrictive media laws remain on the books, with some being recently upheld.

In a landmark May 2018 decision, the Gambian Supreme Court declared parts of the infamous Information and Communication Act 2013 (ICA) unconstitutional, including provisions on criminal defamation. It also invalidated sections that had criminalized use of the internet to criticize, impersonate, or spread false news about public officials.1

However, in the same ruling, the court upheld criminal code sections prohibiting “false publication and broadcasting.”2 While the definition of sedition was narrowed, sedition against “the person of the president” and “administration of justice” remains a crime. The previous definition of sedition had included the entire government of the Gambia.3

Given the slow pace of reforms, media and civil society representatives have continued to call on lawmakers to introduce legislation that will repeal all draconian laws. However, many harbor doubts that the current parliament would approve such legislation.4

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 4.004 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there were no reported instances of individuals facing imprisonment or long pretrial detention for their online activities, though arrests continue.

Under the previous administration, arrests and prosecutions of journalists and others for their online activities were common, with users frequently prosecuted on “false information” charges under the ICA. Despite improvements under the Barrow administration, dubious prosecutions over online activity have continued.

In late January 2020, the government shut down two private radio stations, Home Digital FM and King FM, along with their online services (see B2); two journalists and two technicians, both of them working at King FM, were arrested. Both radio stations covered the protests demanding President Barrow’s resignation. Pa Modou Bojang, of Home Digital FM, was detained for three days and was charged with incitement before he was released on bail. Gibbi Jallow, a reporter and general manager at King FM, was detained for the same period, and was charged with inciting violence.1 The technicians were released without charge. Following the intervention of the NHRC, the charges against the journalists were dropped in February.2

In June 2020, after the coverage period, prominent human rights activist Madi Jobarteh was briefly detained by local police at a Black Lives Matter protest and was charged with false information and broadcast. The charges were based on an interview with Jobarteh broadcast by local media, including online, where he criticized the government’s response to the police killings of Ousman Darboe in United States and Kebba Secka and Haruna Jatta in the Gambia.3 The charges against Jobarteh were dropped in July.4

In February 2018, Ismaila Ceesay, a political analyst and political-science lecturer who emerged as a prominent critic of the Barrow administration, was arrested and charged over comments he made to a local newspaper, which were published both online and in print, though charges were later dropped after activists demanded his release.5

In September 2018, former parliamentarian Abdoulie Saine was arrested and charged with incitement of violence and seditious intent after a WhatsApp audio clip, in which Saine was heard castigating the Mandinka ethnic group, went viral.6 The legitimacy of the charges is debated;7 as of June 2020, the case remains ongoing.

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 2.002 4.004

The ability to communicate anonymously is hampered by procedures surrounding SIM-card and local-domain-name registration.1 In February 2018, PURA fined two mobile service providers for noncompliance with SIM registration regulations (see A5).

It is not clear if Gambian law forbids the use of encryption. However, under the ICA, users can be compelled to reveal a message by ministerial order.2 The ICA also requires ISPs to maintain capabilities to intercept and retain data from users (see C6).3

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

Legal and technological frameworks put in place by the former administration still allow unchecked government surveillance of ICTs. Article 138 of the ICA gives sweeping powers to national security agencies and investigative authorities to monitor, intercept, and store communications in unspecified circumstances while also giving the regulator, PURA, the authority to “intrude communication for surveillance purposes,” all without judicial oversight.1

In December 2019, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice introduced amendments to the ICA to provide judicial oversight, but the parliament rejected the amendments. Freedom-of-expression campaigners at the GPU voiced their disappointment over the parliament’s rejection, saying parliamentarians lacked clear understanding of what they were voting on.2

Observers believe the former administration actively monitored and intercepted citizens’ communications, particularly the communications of activists and independent journalists who were perceived as threats to national security.3 Intercepted phone and email communications were often used as evidence in trials against government critics. However, the scope of the government’s current technical surveillance capabilities remains unknown, and it is uncertain whether the new government has continued to carry out the same surveillance practices.

In July 2020, after the coverage period, human rights activist Madi Jobarteh alleged that he and others were being targeted by security agencies with surveillance, including of their communications devices.4

The level of transparency for communication surveillance remains largely low. The director of the then infamous National Intelligence Agency—now the State Intelligence Services— warned in early 2018 that social media may “affect security,” exacerbating concerns about the potential for online surveillance and user restrictions.5

In December 2015, the Jammeh administration unveiled a worrying National Cyber Security Strategy.6 The plan included the establishment of a monitoring office with a mandate that includes scrutiny of personal data protection, electronic transactions, electronic records and signatures, and computer misuse and cybercrime7—all of which are already regulated by the ICA and provisions in the Criminal Procedure Act. However, the Barrow administration, as it confronts the challenge of reforming the fragile economy and weak institutions of the Jammeh era,8 does not appear to have pursued these plans.

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 1.001 6.006

The ICA requires ISPs to “implement the capability to allow authorized interception of communications.” Article 141 of the ICA imposes onerous data retention requirements, obliging service providers to retain metadata for up to three years.

In May 2019, PURA issued a Draft Data Protection and Privacy Policy. The draft policy would establish rules for data processing in the Gambia by private– and public-sector entities. 1 The draft policy was not implemented into law at the end of the coverage period.

In practice, technology companies frequently assist the government in monitoring the communications of users.2 According to insider sources, investigative authorities need only cite suspicious activity in such requests to technology companies.

The implementation of capabilities to allow authorized interception of communications is included in the preconditions for the issuance or renewal of ISP licenses. It is not clear if any licenses have been denied and or revoked as a result of lack of those capabilities.3

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 3.003 5.005

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because no cases of internet users facing offline retribution or violence for online activities were reported during the coverage period.

While there were no reported instances during the coverage period, the risk of physical violence and harassment in response to online activity persists.

Members of minority religious groups, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at1 and Ndigal,2 have reported harassment both online and offline. Conservative Muslims often consider members of these groups non-Muslims, and sometimes incite hatred or violence against them. Such incidents increased after members of these groups testified in front of the TRRC.3

In 2018, there were several instances of violence against journalists, including online journalists.4 In September 2018, Babucarr Manga, an Eye Africa TV cameraman, was allegedly assaulted by personnel of the Police Intervention Unit (PIU), a paramilitary unit of the Gambia Police Force, for filming a public protest by aggrieved teachers.5 Earlier, a journalist from the state broadcaster was beaten by people ostensibly providing security for the APRC while covering the August 2018 funeral proceedings of Yahya Jammeh’s late mother. The remains of Asombi Bojang were flown from Equatorial Guinea, where she resided. The broadcaster’s news crew was first denied access to the airport. They then followed the service to Bujinga, where one of the journalists was assaulted and his camera was reportedly seized.6

At least two journalists covering local government elections in April 2018 were assaulted by supporters of the former ruling APRC. Both incidents reportedly took place at the Elections House in Kanifing during the filing of nomination papers by the party’s mayoral candidate for the Kanifing Municipality.7 That June, another online journalist, Pa Modou Bojang, was beaten by members of the PIU while covering a protest in Faraba. Bojang sustained injuries, and said he was detained for hours and that his digital recorder had been seized.8

Under the previous administration, violence and property confiscation against Gambian journalists for their independent and critical reporting was a serious risk, and numerous media workers, bloggers, and online journalists fled the country as a result of the unsafe environment for independent voices. Overall, such incidents have decreased under the new administration, and scores of online journalists and activists returned to the country following Jammeh’s fall from power.

Women routinely experience online harassment in the Gambia. LGBT+ people do not regularly identify as such openly online, in part because same-gender sexual activity remains criminalized in the Gambia.

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 2.002 3.003

Recent years have seen some technical attacks against politicians, opinion leaders, and journalists. Although most of these attacks are not publicly reported, the Cybersecurity Alliance of the Gambia has recently documented an increase in technical attacks.1

The last publicly reported incidents occurred during the 2016 election and subsequent political impasse that reached into early 2017.2 A few websites that published election results indicating Jammeh’s defeat were hacked to have the results removed, including sites run by a pro-Jammeh newspaper and the Independent Electoral Commission.3 Numerous journalists, bloggers, activists, and internet users separately reported that their social media accounts had been hacked.4 Activists suspected that the Jammeh administration initiated or supported the attacks in order to counter growing antigovernment sentiment online.5

On The Gambia

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  • Global Freedom Score

    46 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    49 100 partly free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    No
  • Pro-government Commentators

    No
  • Users Arrested

    No