By Demba Kandeh
A study by GISWATCH has revealed that internet surveillance is an emerging problem in the West African state of The Gambia. Already notorious for lack of press freedom the country seems to be moving fast towards curtailing freedom of expression online. For many, the internet and new media had offered an alternative to a population where mere criticism of public officials results in the arbitrary closure of media houses and persecution of journalists.
Recently, I caught up with a former Gambian journalist, blogger and now “fighter” who recounted their hopes for an alternative through the internet and new media. The Fighter, (in order conceal his identity) said “We’ve lost it all”. He does not want to be seen as an activist. “I was an activist when I was a journalist,” he said adding that since everything vanished in that regard, some of us turned to blogging but that is also a dead end now.
In July 2013, the government passed one of the most severe internet laws not only on the continent but worldwide. An amendment to the Information Communication Act (ICA) introduced very stiff penalties for “spreading false news online”. The government dominated parliament passed the bill that imposes a 15-year jail term or a fine of three million Dalasis (approximately USD 75,000), or both a fine and imprisonment for spreading “false news” against the government or public officials on the internet.
“I am essentially forced into fighting back, the fighter in me is a reaction to our dire situation,” said the fighter, arguing that where activism did not work fighting back is not an option. “It has come to that now. We have to fight back to survive; we have families, we have friends and we have dependants,” he said.
The Gambia is one of the countries with the largest number of journalists in exile. Journalists, human rights defenders are not welcome in the country and the president does not mince his words when it comes to these issues. “Any journalist who thinks that he or she can write whatever he or she wants, and go free, is making a big mistake”, Jammeh declared back in 2009. “If anybody is caught, he will be severely dealt with,” he added.
In the final quarter of 2014, two journalists and bloggers joined the unending list of exiled Gambian journalists. Sanna Camara and Sainey MK Marena both worked for the privately owned Standard newspaper but eventually had to “flee for their safety”. The latter left Gambia shortly after he was acquitted and discharged alongside a former colleague on charges of conspiracy to commit felony and publication of false news.
“Don’t you see? No one is safe back home; no journalist, not even the bloggers are spared. If you are critical and you write critical articles, you’re “labelled” and “tagged” and then you are under the radar,” he explained. The country’s secret police, the notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA) is synonymous to intimidation and torture. It is probably this euphoria that has led to unimaginable levels of fear among the general citizenry. I remember during one of my reporting trips to the countryside back in 2011, people will generally not critique the government “because it has ears and eyes everywhere,” one of my friends told me.
According to the Giswatch report, elements of internet surveillance emerged in The Gambia back in 2006, following the hacking of an online newspaper run by exiled journalist. But whereas the technical ability of the state to monitor communications is hugely debated, state regulations are very explicit.
“It is clear that Section 138 (of the Information and Communication Act 2009) does not provide for monitoring or interception to be authorised only by a judge nor that it should at all times be in compliance with the requirements of necessity or proportionality. Against this background, the fact that information and communication service providers may be required by the minister to “implement the capability to allow authorised interception” is not just less than ideal, but detrimental to the free flow of communications and privacy,” the report highlighted.
So for now, internet surveillance is just an emerging problem only in the sense that there is a lot more to know about it. Journalists, bloggers, activists and others like The Fighter will probably have to prepare better for a future full of “unknowns” and ultimately dangerous.