By Lamin Njie
I think Ba Tambadou was bluffing when he said people found wanting of spreading false news will be prosecuted. He said ‘people’ of which my gut tells me he meant ‘journalists’. He was speaking at a press conference he held on Tuesday. What an incredibly pathetic threat.
Baa is a very smart, very humble and very meticulous man. He was appointed the Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister in February last year, having worked at the office of UN Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. His arrival was a major achievement for a government that was just freshly coming in.
False news has been a contentious issue in The Gambia. It’s always been the Gambia government versus the Gambia media. The government has always seen the media as the biggest peddlers of false news and the media has always refused to accept that perception.
And this is why things got more spellbinding in May this year when the Supreme Court upheld that false publication and broadcasting is still a criminal offence. This followed a lawsuit that was filed at the apex court in 2017 by the Gambia Press Union challenging the constitutionality of the law.
Let’s be honest here, this government since coming to power has done pretty well on freedom of the press. Journalists, in the past 19 months, have been given ample wriggling room to do their thing. There hasn’t been a single time when a journalist has been arrested. That’s something to applaud. That’s something to appreciate.
But then I have to say Ba’s remarks on Tuesday have left much to be desired. His words are borderline preposterous – a threat to the freedom and independence of the media. They are meant to frighten journalists and to make them stop being critical of the government. Appalling really.
Anyway, it’s important that media people stand up to the government’s naked attempt to restrict them and their work. Freedom of the press is an absolutely essential tool of any true democracy. Even these government officials say that from both sides of their mouths every day. Just that I don’t believe they believe in it.
Still, when one talk about false news one should talk about governments since they live on it every day. Believe it or not, governments survive on misinformation and disinformation. And this includes President Adama Barrow’s government. In one instance we’ve seen GRTS announce that President Barrow gave over 11 million dalasis to 1,700 Gambian pilgrims. The Office of the President was happy it was reported that way.
It was only when the development elicited widespread public condemnation that the government spokesperson swept in to straighten who was behind the gesture. And I mind has just gone to Kanilai. When security forces used force to disperse a crowd of protesters there in June 2017, the information minister at the time told journalists live bullets were not used and that no one was killed. That turned out to be false news.
Ba will agree with me that a cardinal principle of justice is equality before the law. In law, there is should be no sacred cows. In law, there should be no cherry-picking. And in law, there should be no discrimination. If you start prosecuting journalists for publishing false news, then you better start prosecuting those government officials who almost on a daily basis give false news to journalists.
Lamin Njie is a former press secretary at the ministry of the interior. He has also worked as an editor for The Standard, The Voice and Paradise TV. You can reach him via email at [email protected]