Lawmakers in the “Smiling Coast of Africa”, The Gambia recently adopted and passed a bill that seeks to impose stiffer sanctions for publishing “false news” on the Internet. The July 3rd amendment of the Information Communication (amendment) Act 2013 imposes a jail term of up to 15 years in prison or a fine of up to three million Dalasi (about £54,500) or both. The bill seeks to punish “instigating violence against the government or public officials”, and also targets individuals who “caricature or make derogatory statements against officials” or “impersonate public officials”.
The internet remains one of the greatest goods of the 21st century and in the wake up to its tighter regulations in The Gambia, Demba Kandeh looks at why Gambian authorities should repeal the new law.
What is Internet?
Simply put, the Internet is a set of various networks linking millions of computers together, sending and receiving data of all sorts. Thus it facilitates communication between and among people in various parts of the globe. Historians have it that the internet began in the 1960s as a Department of Defence (United States of America) project called the Advance Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). It is noted that at the time, the internet was purely a “defence project” but it later, in the 1970s and 80s found its way into academia as research in computing grew.
Furthermore, as computers increased and computer technology improved, leading to smaller but faster computers, the technology of internet fell into the hands of ordinary individuals. Again as the aggregate users increased, different people found different uses for the computer leading to the prominence of the commercialisation of the internet.
From email messages to now instant audio-video messages, the internet has become a force in the area of communication technology today. It is one of the most if not the most common means of communication today. And yet beyond that the internet is used to obtain news in real time, improving health and health related issues, education to name but a few.
In The Gambia, until about three to four years ago, it was a sort of a luxury to have internet access at home. However, today anybody can access internet at home. With the emergence of mobile internet, The Gambia is getting more and more interconnected.
So, should we regulate the internet?
You do not even need to breath to answer this question. It is obvious that an industry of this essence and magnitude needs to be regulated. Yes! Undoubtedly yes, there is absolute need to legislate the usage and even proper and balanced utilisation of the internet in the interest of the majority if not all the users.
It is also important to further note here that the internet is an integral part of politics for almost all states today. It continues to play a crucial role in the political process of a host of nations worldwide.
Coincidentally or otherwise, The Gambia is not an exception to this. The Government of The Gambia has a lot of online presence. So also are the peoples of the country. The executive arm of government has a host of websites for almost all the ministries, including the office of the president, where you will find profiles/biographies of the president and his cabinet. The National Assembly also has a site, which does not seem to be regularly updated.
Beyond the government domain, The Gambia maintains a lot of web presence. Most newspapers, radio stations, magazines and the state-owned and controlled television are all online. Similarly, the hostile media landscape in The Gambia, marred by aggressive laws and regulatory measures that have almost crippled mainstream outlets, has turned some journalists into bloggers. They have since resorted to blogs to report the news.
Furthermore, according to statistics by a social marketing firm, there are about 95,800 Gambians on Facebook, one of the leading social media sites. That figure is more than twice the population of Banjul, the capital city which is estimated to be at 35,000. Socialbakers, the firm that produces the statistics, noted: “… social networking statistics show that Facebook penetration in Gambia is 6.01% compared to the country’s population and 60.25% in relation to number of Internet users.”
So, if these figures and statistics are anything to go by, the new Internet legislation is not just deeply flawed but seriously misplaced, technically faulty, socially undesirable, economically bogus and politically subjective.
It is not wise for a government to undertake such a restrictive regulation of an emerging industry with so many opportunities for progress and development. It is also not for a wise government, especially in the 21st century to even attempt to restrict the free flow of ideas and information.
It is absolutely essential that The Gambia Government understand that the need to advance Internet freedom remains great and will do so for years to come. Any attempt to curtail or even restrict that freedom is bound to fail woefully. Less the government is set to be in the records of the dark side of our history books, it is important that for once and all, this new legislation is nip in the bud.
The author, Demba Kandeh, is a Gambian journalist and blogger. He is the Editor of Front Page International (FPI), a leading Gambian news blog, a contributor for Global Voices Online, and the Publisher of The Gambia News Wave.