Freedom in the World

Gambia, The

Gambia, The

Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4.5

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5
Ratings Change: 


The Gambia's political rights rating declined from 4 to 5 due to the failure to allow the opportunity for a rotation of power in the lead-up to elections in 2006.

Overview: 


Press freedom in The Gambia suffered a serious setback in 2005 with the murder of a prominent journalist and the passage of new restrictive press laws. During the year, authorities arrested three prominent opposition leaders for alleged subversion. Meanwhile, President Yahya Jammeh announced that he would seek another five-year term in presidential elections scheduled for October 2006.

After gaining independence from Britain in 1965, The Gambia functioned as an electoral democracy under President Sir Dawda Jawara and his People's Progressive Party for almost 30 years. A 1981 coup by leftist soldiers was reversed by intervention from Senegal, which borders The Gambia on three sides. The two countries formed the Confederation of Senegambia a year later, but it was dissolved in 1989. Senegal declined to rescue the Jawara government again when Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh spearheaded a military coup in 1994. The leaders of the coup denounced the ousted government's alleged corruption, promising transparency, accountability, and early elections. Instead, they quickly imposed draconian decrees curtailing civil and political rights and the free media. A new constitution, adopted by a closely controlled 1996 referendum, allowed Jammeh to transform his military dictatorship into a nominally civilian administration.

Jammeh secured a victory in the October 2001 presidential poll, defeating opposition leader Ousainou Darboe, a human rights lawyer who headed a three-party opposition coalition, by 53 percent of the vote to 33 percent. Three other candidates won a combined total of 14 percent. While the Independent Electoral Commission was under some pressure by the ruling party, it generally operated freely. However, there were lingering concerns about Jammeh's commitment to democracy when several opposition supporters, human rights workers, and journalists were detained after the polls. Following the vote, allegations surfaced that Jammeh's party had brought in members of his ethnic group living in neighboring Senegal and had issued them voter cards.

In the January 2002 National Assembly elections, the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) won all but three seats. The polls showed signs of improvement over the previous, highly flawed, legislative vote in 1997. However, there were some administrative problems with voter registration, and the major opposition coalition boycotted the polls.

Officials announced in November 2005 that three opposition leaders had been arrested for alleged "subversive activities." Hamat Bah of the National Reconciliation Party, Omar Jallow of the People's Progressive Party, and Halifa Sallah of the People's Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism had formed a coalition in 2004 with the United Democratic Party. The coalition, the National Alliance for Development and Democracy, had made a strong showing in parliamentary by-elections in October 2005. Officials said the three men posed a threat to national security but did not release further details.

Jammeh announced that he will run in presidential elections scheduled for October 2006. Although in 2005 the political opposition formed a coalition to pose a more formidable challenge to Jammeh, no clear opposition candidates have emerged. Meanwhile, journalists suspected that Jammeh was attempting to gain greater control of the press ahead of the presidential poll through the promulgation in 2005 of new restrictive press laws-including legislation making all press offenses, including libel, punishable by imprisonment of six months or more.

A poor, tiny country, with few natural resources, The Gambia depends on exports of peanuts and other commodities. However, oil has been discovered offshore. Tourism and remittances from Gambians living abroad are important sources of foreign exchange.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Citizens of The Gambia cannot change their government democratically. The 2001 presidential election was a more legitimate exercise than previous polls, despite being marred by sporadic violence and other irregularities. The president is both chief of state and head of government. He is elected by popular vote for a five-year term; the number of terms is not restricted. Of the 53 seats in the unicameral National Assembly, 48 are elected by popular vote and five are appointed by the president; members serve for five years. Main political parties include the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction the Gambian People's Party-Progressive People's Party-United Democratic Party coalition, the National Convention Party and the National Reconciliation Party.

Despite government anticorruption efforts, official corruption remains a serious problem in The Gambia. The country's anticorruption commission began hearings in July 2004 as part of President Yahya Jammeh's "Operation No Compromise." Chaired by a Nigerian judge, the commission is probing the acquisition of assets by active and retired ministers and senior military officials during Jammeh's decade in power. No elected lawmaker has had to appear, and neither has the president. The Gambia was ranked out 103 of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Press freedom is guaranteed, but harassment and self-censorship sometimes inhibit free expression by the country's independent print media. Private broadcasters and newspapers in The Gambia struggle to pay high licensing fees. State-run Radio Gambia broadcasts only tightly controlled news that is also relayed by private radio stations. A single, government-run television station operates. Citizen FM broadcasts in a number of indigenous languages and is an important source of independent information for rural Gambians. Authorities shut down the station in October 2001, and it remained closed in 2005. The government does not restrict internet access.

The independent press suffered a serious blow in December 2004 with the murder of prominent journalist Deyda Hydara, managing editor of The Point newspaper who also worked for Agence France-Presse and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Hydara, a veteran campaigner for press freedom, was gunned down in his car at night on his way home from work. Hundreds of people marched through the streets of Banjul in a peaceful protest against Hydara's murder. RSF, which said that his death had striking similarities to murders of other critics of the Jammeh government, called for an independent commission to investigate the killing.

Hydara's murder came two days after the National Assembly passed amendments to the Criminal Code and the Newspaper Act. The amendments made all press offenses, including libel, punishable by imprisonment of six months or more. The amendments also canceled existing publication and broadcasting licenses, forcing the media to register again at five times the cost. Facing a lawsuit by independent journalists, the National Assembly repealed the controversial National Media Commission Act on the same day the amendments were passed. The act provided for the creation of a commission that had the power to decide who is and is not a journalist and to deny the right to confidentiality of sources. The commission could issue arrest warrants for journalists and jail journalists for contempt for up to six months.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in April 2005 said a series of unsolved arson attacks and unchecked threats, as well as the passage of the restrictive new press laws, have created deep mistrust between The Gambia's small independent press and the government. Hydara's murder and the government's failure to bring the perpetrators to justice have compounded suspicions.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed, and the government respects this right. Academic freedom is guaranteed and respected.

Freedom of assembly and association are guaranteed, but these rights are not always respected in practice. Security forces often crack down violently on demonstrators. Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely, although human rights workers and members of the political opposition occasionally face harassment. Gambians, except for civil service employees and members of the security forces, have the right to form unions, strike, and bargain for wages. Unions are most active in the modern wage sector, where about 20 percent of the workforce is employed.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. Lower courts are hampered by corruption and are sometimes subject to executive influence, but the judiciary has demonstrated its independence on several occasions, at times in significant cases. A number of judges have been brought to The Gambia from other African countries, and they tend to operate fairly and vigorously. Local chiefs preside over courts at the village level. The judicial system recognizes customary law, or Sharia (Islamic law), primarily in marriage matters.

Although the Jammeh government has made some steps toward political openness, it still has extensive repressive powers. A 1995 decree allows the National Intelligence Agency to cite "state security" to "search, arrest, or detain any person, or seize, impound, or search any vessel, equipment, plant, or property without a warrant." In such cases, the right to seek a writ of habeas corpus is suspended. Torture of prisoners in jails has been reported, although conditions in some of the country's prisons have improved.

Impunity for the country's security forces is a problem. The National Assembly passed a law in 2001 giving amnesty "for any fact, matter or omission to act, or things done or purported to have been done during any unlawful assembly, public disturbance, riotous situation or period of public emergency." The legislation was backdated to April 2000, when security forces had cracked down on demonstrators, killing 16 people. Military decrees giving authorities broad power to detain individuals indefinitely without charge "in the interest of national security" still exist.

Ethnic groups in Gambia live harmoniously. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, language, ethnicity, gender, and other factors, and the government generally enforces these provisions.

Religious and traditional obstacles to the advancement of women are being addressed by both the government and women's organizations. Higher education and wage employment opportunities are still far fewer for women than for men, especially in rural areas. However, the government has waived school fees for girls, and women occupy senior government posts, including those of vice president and education minister. Sharia provisions regarding family law and inheritance restrict women's rights. Female genital mutilation is not banned and is widely practiced, but women's groups are working to eliminate the practice, and the government supports these efforts.