Federation of African Journalists v. The Gambia

Challenging the laws used to silence and intimidate journalists in the Gambia

On 14 February 2018, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) delivered a landmark judgment in which it found that the rights of four Gambian journalists had been violated through the enforcement of laws criminalising speech and by the actions of the Gambian authorities. The judgment of Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) and others v. The Gambia recognised that the criminal laws on libel, sedition and false news disproportionately interfere with the rights of Gambian journalists. The Court directed the Gambia to “immediately repeal or amend” these laws in-line with its obligations under international law.

This was a significant judgment, not only for the Gambia but also for the West African region as a whole. The ECOWAS Court expressed in the strongest terms the crucial role that the media play in society, and unequivocally condemned the enforcement of criminal laws against journalists for carrying out this role.

We worked with a team of international and Nigerian lawyers to file the case in December 2015 on behalf of four exiled Gambian journalists who had been arrested and detained by the Gambian authorities because of their journalistic work, and who later fled the country out of fear of further persecution. Two of the journalists were also subject to torture whilst in the custody of the Gambian National Intelligence Agency following their arrests. The case was also brought in the name of the Federation of African Journalists, which acted as a representative of all Gambian journalists whose rights have been, and continue to be, violated by the maintenance of criminal laws on libel, sedition and false news.

In its judgment, the ECOWAS Court held that the arrest and detention of the four Gambian journalists amounted to violations of their rights to freedom of expression, liberty and freedom of movement. The ECOWAS Court also recounted in detail the torture that was inflicted on two of the journalists, which included beatings, detention in poor conditions, and the infliction of electric shock. It relied on the testimony of the journalists, as well as independent medical evidence provided with the assistance of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, to conclude that there had been a violation of the prohibition on torture.

The ECOWAS Court also considered the “root” cause of the claims brought before it, namely the Gambian criminal laws on libel, sedition and false news. It quoted extensively from jurisprudence of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, in reaching the conclusion that these laws were “obvious” and “gross” violations of the right to freedom of expression. The Court indicated that it was particularly important that laws applicable to speech be “narrowly drawn” because of the “chilling effect” that can be caused by vagueness or imprecision.

“This judgment provides an impressive overview of international norms on freedom of expression and the media,” observed Gabriel Baglo, General Secretary of Federation of African Journalists, who was in attendance at the time, “as reform is already underway in the Gambia, we hope that the decision of the ECOWAS Court will be fully taken into consideration by those responsible for reform of the media law.”

10 things you can do