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Why Should the Government Charge a Citizen with Sedition?

Once again, The Gambia Government has expressed its dictatorial tendencies when the Inspector General of Police Seedy Muctarr Touray announced today that the State will charge Ebrima Dibba and Bakary Sillah for sedition. In the Criminal Code, Section 51 defines ‘seditious intention’ as basically any criticism that generates hatred, contempt, disaffection or discontent against the President or the Government. In other words, the IGP is saying that Ebrima and Bakary made comments that were intended for this purpose and therefore they committed sedition.

This obnoxious charge is coming at a time when the Barrow Government had already submitted a revised Criminal Offenses Bill to the National Assembly in 2023. After reviewing the Bill, the National Assembly Select Committee on Human Rights and Constitutional Matters submitted its report to the whole floor of the parliament in November 2023 in which they recommended that the “that the word ‘sedition’ should be deleted entirely from the Bill. Clauses 48 to 52 be deleted from the Bill.” Clauses 48 to 52 relate to offences including sedition.

In presenting the Bill before the National Assembly, the Minister for Justice stated in his objects and reasons, among others that, “The Bill seeks to align our criminal justice legislation with current trends by removing all provisions inimical to freedom of speech such as criminal defamation and sedition.”

Why therefore is the same Government imposing the charge of sedition on anyone? Well before today, in 2016 when the Coalition presented its candidate Adama Barrow, he submitted his presidential manifesto to the IEC. In that document, Candidate Adama Barrow stated in black and white that,

“The Coalition Government endeavors to propagate legislation to revoke all provisions of a law criminalizing speech including libel, sedition, false news and false publication within six months of assuming political office.”

What has changed from when this manifesto was made to today? It is now seven years since Barrow assumed the leadership of this country. Not only has his Government failed to repeal sedition out of the laws, but he has gone further to charge several citizens with sedition, with the latest being Ebrima and Bakary. If Barrow was that tolerant democrat that he portrays to be, then one wonders why is his Government charging citizens with sedition today?

But what is sedition actually? Sedition is a tyrannical idea invented by the colonialists in England as a punishment for anyone who criticizes their king. In 1661 a law was created in London that anyone who wrote, printed or preached any words against the king would be punished. Since the UK had colonized many parts of the world, they transported this idea everywhere they went. And even when some of their colonies gained independence, the new rulers in those newly independent countries also began to use sedition as a means to silence citizens from criticizing public officials. For example, the US, which was a former colony of the UK, also created their own sedition laws in 1798 purposely to prevent any citizen from criticizing their government.

In the Gambia, the Criminal Code was created in 1933. Since then, the offense of sedition has been in the law. Over the decades, the law has been amended several times in 1940, 1964, 2004 and 2005 just to make it even more stringent in silencing and punishing citizens for criticizing the President or the Government. The impact of sedition is huge on not only citizens but also on journalists, independent researchers, academia, human rights activists, artists, musicians, and indeed anyone who engages in research, publication, communications, information, entertainment or knowledge sharing in general.

It is for this reason that in 2014 the Gambia Press Union went to the Supreme Court to argue “that the provisions of the Criminal Code relating to the offences of sedition and the publication of false news or information were unconstitutional.” Unfortunately, in 2018, the Supreme Court, “held that section 51(a) was constitutional to the extent that it criminalized negative statements about the President but that its criminalization of negative statements about the Government was unconstitutional.”

This was quite an unfortunate decision that only entrenches colonial-era and dictatorial practice which goes against international norms and standards relating to freedom of expression and opinion in a democracy. Embarrassingly, as the Supreme Court ruled in favor of sedition as it relates to the President, the ECOWAS Community Court on the other hand ruled in the same year that the Gambia’s media-related laws including sedition violate the right to freedom of expression.

Therefore, why is the Barrow Government still charging citizens with this colonial and tyrannical offense? The only reason is that this Government has no interest in upholding constitutionalism, democracy and good governance. In other words, Pres, Barrow and his Government do not wish to be transparent and accountable hence they wish to maintain such a bad law to silence and punish citizens who disagree or criticize them.

As a democratic republic, citizens have a right to freedom of opinion and expression to question and criticize or praise public institutions and officials including the President. Freedom of opinion and expression are fundamental tools in exposing and combating corruption, incompetence and inefficiency in public institutions. These freedoms are necessary for popular participation and strengthening good governance. It is freedom of opinion and expression that enables citizens, communities, CSOs as well as journalists, artists, academicians, researchers and many others to raise issues, proffer solutions, share information, and defend human rights.

Why would the Government create an Anti-Corruption Act and Access to Information Act as well as establish a National Human Rights Commission only to maintain sedition which serves nothing but to criminalize opinion and weaken human rights. The purpose and effect of sedition is to undermine democracy, encourage poor leadership, enable bad governance and entrench corruption as is the case currently in the Gambia.

DROP THE CHARGES AGAINST EBRIMA DIBBA AND BAKARY SILLAH.

For The Gambia Our Homeland

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