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Stranglehold on Freedom of Expression on the Internet – Gambia Style

12 July, 2013
Brian Thomson, ICT Africa

July 12, 2013

A lot has been written on ICT Africa about the use of the ICT as an alternative platform for expressing free speech in Africa. In countries where people have no other avenues for exercising their God given rights to free speech, many take to the Internet as an alternative.

In an article on Cyberpunks , we discussed the role of cyber-activists in instigating political change. In response, a number of African governments have taken a number of steps to control open political dialogue on the Internet.

A number of countries, including Zimbabwe, Zambia and Nigeria have acquired cyber-surveillance technologies to monitor the Internet. While the technologies are acquired under the pretext of National Security, they may also be used to muzzle free speech.

Recently in Gambia, the Minister of Information, Communication and Information Infrastructure, Hon Nana Grey Johnson introduced the Information and Communications (Amendment) Bill 2013, which is obviously intended to muzzle political descent on the Internet.

The Bill is the first one in Africa to outline and define what constitute an offence on the Internet.

"A person, who commits an offence under sub-section (1) of section 173A, is liable on conviction to a fine of three million Dalasi (USD$90 000) or imprisonment for fifteen years or to both the fine and imprisonment."

The following components of the bill, outlining what constitutes an offence on the Internet are seen as an attempt to prevent those opposed to the Gambian ruling party from having a platform to freely express their views:

(a) Spreading of false news against the Government or public officials;
(b) Inciting dissatisfaction or instigate violence against the Government or public officials;
(c) Caricaturing, abuse or make derogatory statements against the person or character of public officials;
(d) Impersonating any public official;
(e) Blackmailing any person;
(f) Threatening to commit a criminal offence against any person.

This is not the first time the Gambian authorities have instituted regulation that stifles free speech. Earlier in the year, the government of President Yahya Jammeh banned the use of free Internet calling services, Viber and Skype.

The regime, through the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) said the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services was not authorized.

PURA gave a stern warning that anyone engaging in free Internet calling was committing an economic crime.

“PURA wishes to inform the general public that it has come to its notice that there are companies and/or individuals operating through Internet Cafes and offering Dating services and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services as a commercially available service to the public in The Gambia. Therefore, all are hereby informed that such practices are not authorized.”

Many organisations, including the United Nations have condemned Gambia’s muzzling of free expression by cracking down on ICT services. We wish to add our voices to those of other progressive forces in advising the Gambian regime and other African regimes to respect the rights of its individuals to freely express themselves using ICT services.


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