The Gambia

The Gambia

Partly Free
48
100
A Obstacles to Access 10 25
B Limits on Content 23 35
C Violations of User Rights 15 40
Last Year's Score & Status
45 100 Partly Free

Overview

The internet freedom environment has improved in the Gambia since 2017—when President Adama Barrow took over from Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled for more than two decades and oversaw a regime that overwhelmingly failed to protect political rights and civil liberties. Gambians online now express views on many sensitive issues, including the work of the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which is investigating human rights abuses committed during Jammeh’s rule. The new government has pledged to improve the regulatory environment and liberalize the telecoms sector, but progress has been slow. There have been no reports of blocking or filtering of websites or apps under the new administration, but authorities have retained infrastructure that allows them to enact such censorship, and reportedly continue to compel internet service providers (ISPs) to hand over user information without sufficient cause. Small online media platforms have proliferated under the new government and play an increasing role in Gambian society, but many struggle to remain economically viable.

After more than two decades of restrictive rule under Jammeh, the 2016 election resulted in a surprise victory for Barrow, the opposition candidate, who took power in 2017. Fundamental freedoms including the rights of assembly, association, and speech improved thereafter. However, the rule of law has yet to be consolidated. A draft of a new constitution that authorities have promised, which is expected to strengthen protections for fundamental freedoms, has not yet been released by the country’s Constitutional Review Commission.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • In November 2018, there was a major network shutdown in many parts of West Africa, including the Gambia. This region-wide shutdown lasted for few hours and was attributed to technical problems around the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable (see A1).
  • In May 2019, the government announced the introduction of a new tax on GSM (global system for mobile communication) operators across the country. The new levy, scheduled to take effect the following month, is likely to negatively impact affordability for end users (see A2).
  • The information landscape online has become increasingly pluralistic, as the highly restrictive environment for bloggers and internet users that existed under the Jammeh era has eased. Users now have an increasing number of online venues to discuss critical issues, including the ongoing work of the TRRC and the Constitutional Review Commission (see B4).
  • Given the slow pace of democratic reforms, media and civil society representatives called on members of parliament to introduce legislation that will repeal all laws that restrict freedom of expression (see C2).   

A Obstacles to Access

Internet access rates remain low, with high cost and limited infrastructure serving as primary hindrances. There were some interruptions in connectivity during the coverage period, including an outage caused by technical problems with a key undersea cable. In May 2019, authorities introduced a new tax on GSM (global system for mobile communication) operators, which is likely to negatively impact affordability for end users. The telecommunications regulator is overburdened and struggles to enforce its mandates.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 16

The country’s internet penetration rate remains low, at 19.8 percent in 2017, according to the most recent statistics from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU),1 and a notable expansion in internet access that took place earlier in the decade has slowed. Flagging growth in internet access may be linked in part to reduced government funding for regional internet café and telecenter hubs operated by the public telecommunications company, Gambia Telecommunications Company Limited (Gamtel).2 In late June 2019 (after the coverage period of this report ended) Gamtel, in collaboration with Chinese tech giant Huawei, launched the National Broadband Network to expand internet speed and access across the country.3

The Gambia has one of the highest mobile phone penetrations in Africa, with a rate of 141.2 percent in 2017—though one individual may have more than one subscription, and not all phone plans include data use.4 Nevertheless, most Gambians who access the internet do so via mobile devices, with less than 20 percent of users subscribing to fixed-broadband services.5

The government launched the country’s first internet exchange point (IXP) in July 2014 to boost speed and security of internet services across the country, though the IXP runs slowly.6

In November 2018, there was a major network shutdown in many parts of West Africa, including the Gambia.7 This region-wide shutdown lasted for few hours and was attributed to technical problems around the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable. Moreover, there were at least two other minor national disruptions in recent months, which Gamtel attributed to “technical problems” and “data migration.” 8

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 13

High cost remains a primary hindrance to internet access in The Gambia, where 48.6 percent of individuals live in poverty, according to 2015 World Bank data.1 The introduction of 3G wireless internet services for mobile has made internet access more accessible, albeit only for a small subset of the population who can afford the data packages. The IXP introduced in July 2014 (see A1) aimed to make internet services more affordable, but as of 2019 it is unclear whether the measure succeeded in doing so.

Limited access to telecommunications services in the Gambia is compounded by a significant urban-rural divide, as well as by occasional interruptions to the power supply. In general, rural areas suffer from poor or virtually nonexistent infrastructure, a lack of affordable electricity, and frequent power cuts.2 In addition, network coverage of rural areas has not been an investment priority for most service providers.3 The government has identified “closing the digital divide” as a goal of National Broadband Network project (see A1).4

In May 2019, the government announced the introduction of a new tax on GSM (global system for mobile communication) operators across the country.5 The new levy, scheduled to take effect the following month, is likely to negatively impact affordability for end users.

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 46

The Gambian government’s monopoly over the main telecommunications infrastructure enables it to restrict access to the internet and mobile phone services with little to no oversight or transparency. However, the current, post-Jammeh government has not used these capabilities.

Gamtel owns the fiber-optic cable that runs across the country and thus controls the country’s connection to the international internet via the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable system. The government began liberalizing gateway services in May 2013 by granting international data transmission licenses to private telecom operators.1 Details are vague as to how many new licenses have been issued, but the new administration has expressed willingness to further liberalize the sector.2

The authorities last placed restrictions on connectivity on the eve of the 2016 presidential election. Ahead of the polls, authorities ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down internet services,3 international calls, and SMS messaging across the country, ostensibly to disrupt the spread of false information, but actually disrupting the process of vote counting and election monitoring.4 Lasting for over 48 hours, the communications blackout failed to guarantee the reelection of longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh, who had overseen the shutdown.5

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 46

A state-owned and operated company, Gamtel has a monopoly on the internet gateway, though it has granted other service providers permission to operate international data links.1

The Gambia’s information and communication technology (ICT) market is relatively small. There are four ISPs: the state-owned Gamtel, and privately owned QuantumNet, Netpage, and Airtip. 2 The country had four mobile phone providers: Gamtel’s subsidiary Gamcel, and privately owned Qcell, Africell, and Comium.3 Africell is by far the largest provider of mobile service, with 65 percent market share.4 All mobile providers offer 2G, 3G, and 4G data service.

The new government has pledged to improve the regulatory environment and liberalize the telecoms sector, and while its approach represents a reprieve from the highly restrictive environment that characterized the Jammeh era, progress has been slow. As in many other sectors, businesses still must contend with inefficient bureaucracies coupled with nepotistic and preferential practices by government officials.5 Registration for internet and mobile phone service providers remains an onerous and expensive process.6

Internet cafés, which are much less common than they used to be, contend with regulatory obstacles. Moreover, Gamtel has reduced funding to the internet café and telecenter hubs it operates (see A1).

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 04

The telecommunications sector is regulated under the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority Act 2001, which established the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) in 2004 to regulate the activities of telecom service providers and other public utilities.1 However, PURA is largely an advisory body, and both its board of governors and managing director are appointed by the president on the recommendation of the minister of finance and economic affairs2—in effect undermining the body’s independence. Moreover, PURA regulates not just telecommunications but also media licensing and content, sewage, electricity and petroleum.3 This, experts say (and some PURA officials agree) is not tenable and stretches the authority’s limited resources. Ultimately, decisions on telecommunications are in the hands of the minister of information and communication infrastructure.4 Despite persistent calls for reform, the new government inaugurated in January 2017 has not signaled any intent to reform PURA.

Nevertheless, the regulator appears to have carried out its functions more effectively in recent years, though some of its moves also threatened to infringe on consumers’ rights to privacy. In February 2017, PURA fined two GSM companies—the privately owned Africell5 and state-owned Gamcel—for failure to comply with rules on SIM card registration (see C4). Africell challenged the regulator’s decision at the civil division of the Gambia’s High Court, but the court ruled against the company. In the meantime, the vice president and three government ministers reportedly stepped in to resolve the issue between Africell and PURA, resulting in Africell’s eventual compliance with the SIM card registration requirements.6

B Limits on Content

There have been no reports of blocking or filtering of websites or apps under the new administration. Small online media outlets have proliferated and play a growing role in Gambian society, but often struggle to remain economically viable. Online users regularly discuss sensitive topics, such as the work of the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 66

There have been no reports of blocking or filtering of websites or apps under the new administration.

Over 20 webpages were blocked under the former regime,1 mainly independent news and opposition websites that were known for criticism of the government2 and were operated from abroad by exiled Gambian activists and journalists. All blocked websites and apps, including those containing pornographic material, became accessible when the new president assumed office in January 2017.3

Social media platforms and communications apps were unrestricted during the coverage period, but were frequently targeted under the previous regime. Apps were last restricted in August 2016, when the authorities blocked the popular communications platforms WhatsApp, Viber, IMO, and Skype.4 Analysts believed the blocks came in response to the growing reliance on WhatsApp group messaging among opposition groups and candidates in advance of the December 2016 presidential election.5 Tech-savvy Gambians were able to access the blocked apps via virtual private networks (VPNs)6 and other proxy servers,7 which may have prompted the authorities to later shut down the entire internet on the eve of the election (see A3).

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 24

While forced content deletion does not occur systematically, activists and journalists have reported receiving informal requests from senior government officials for content removal.1 According to the most recent Google Transparency Report, there were two government requests to remove content between January and June 2018, both of which were for defamation, and neither of which were granted.2

In June 2017, the Daily Observer, one of the country’s oldest and most widely circulated national dailies, was shut down by the Gambia Revenue Authority (GRA) for tax arrears accumulated over 17 years. The newspaper, including its online version, ceased operations.3 The Daily Observer was widely considered to have been controlled by the Jammeh administration, and there was speculation that its closure had been politically motivated and had come in response to stories critical of the new Barrow administration.

Under the Jammeh government, websites were routinely required to take down content. In general, stories that risked catching the attention of security officials were likely to be removed, either through self-imposed post-publication censorship, or as a result of unofficial takedown orders from government officials.

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 24

Though online content is not systematically restricted in the Gambia, Gamtel remains state-controlled and has retained the ability to restrict access to internet content without oversight. There is no process through which site administrators can appeal content-restriction decisions.1

Experts believe that the former government blocked specific internet protocol (IP) addresses and domain names at the level of the internet gateway.2 According to former officials, the Jammeh government intentionally avoided issuing written orders for website blockings and internet shutdowns to maintain a degree of plausible deniability.3

  • 1. Freedom House consultant interviews, February 2019
  • 2. Interviews by Freedom House consultant, February 2017.
  • 3. Interviews by Freedom House consultant, March 2017.

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 24

Activists, journalists, bloggers, and ordinary internet users have posted content more openly since the 2017 political transition, and a number of independent journalists have reemerged after decades of severe self-censorship or exile.1

However, some topics, including female genital mutilation (FGM) and issues affecting LGBT+ people, are still considered by many to be taboo, and are often discussed online only by pseudonymous users. Social media has seen a proliferation of hate speech in recent years.

Some local activists, particularly sympathizers of the former president, also post critical content anonymously to evade potential legal repercussions or other offline retaliation.2 A handful of detentions under the new government, including one in 2017 involving claims of offline defamation against Barrow, reinforce citizens’ unease with speaking freely online (see C3).3

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 24

The current government seeks to promote its image through a variety of well-resourced press and public relations offices, but there is no evidence it proactively employs progovernment trolls or bots, or otherwise seeks to covertly manipulate the information landscape.

During elections to local councils in spring of 2018, there was a noticeable increase in content manipulation across the political spectrum, including a proliferation of fake news intended to harm particular candidates—apparently disseminated by opposing party loyalists. While there is no evidence linking these activities directly to political parties, they were largely spearheaded by party members and party youth groups, and detracted from the civility of the preelection environment, which saw some cases of political violence, particularly between members of the former ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party and the governing United Democratic Party (UDP).1 WhatsApp groups were among the most common platforms for spreading misinformation, including distorted videos that smeared politicians.

Under the previous administration, authorities made efforts to coopt prominent anti-Jammeh activists, with officials often incentivizing them to support the regime through handsome gifts from the president himself.2

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 23

Small media businesses, especially online platforms, have expanded in recent years and have a growing impact on the media landscape.1 Such operations are supported in part by advertising from government and private businesses; some programs offered by these online outlets, such as news and current events coverage, conferences, and talk shows, are similarly sponsored. Under the previous administration, private businesses avoided advertising with critical outlets out of fear of government reprisals.2 Nevertheless, economic sustainability for independent online media outlets remains a serious challenge.

The government’s position on net neutrality provisions, which would ensure that ISPs treat internet traffic equally, remains unclear.

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 34

The information landscape online has become increasingly pluralistic as the highly restrictive environment for bloggers and internet users that existed under Jammeh's era has eased. Online outlets and platforms including Kerr-Fatou, the Fatu Network, Gambia Talents Promotion, and Eye-Africa TV provide useful and diverse information to Gambians both within and outside the country.1

These and other outlets that provide information and a place for discussion play an important role in Gambian society in light of the ongoing work of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC)—which is investigating Jammeh-era human rights abuses and violations—as well as that of the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), among other bodies working to address sensitive topics in the Gambia.2

  • 1. Freedom House consultant interviews with PURA, March 2019
  • 2. Constitutional Review Commission, accessed March 2019, https://crc220.org/.

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 46

Mobilization platforms and websites are freely available. Since the new administration took power and has begun to relax Jammeh-era restrictions, there have been a number of local digital activism efforts that culminated into offline actions. However, a history of prosecutions for online activity under the Jammeh regime still dissuades many people from mobilizing (see C3).

Recent digital campaigns include crowdfunding campaigns to help victims who testified at the TRRC.1 Separately, in early 2018, the hashtag #FreeIsmailaCeesay went viral after the prominent political science lecturer was arrested, and within hours people had converged at the police headquarters in Banjul to demand his release.2 Ceesay was eventually released, and all charges against him were dropped.

In October 2017, amid an acute power and water shortage across the country and especially within the Greater Banjul Area, the #OccupyWestfield movement emerged to protest the failures of the National Water and Electricity Company (NAWEC).3 After a permit to demonstrate against the company was denied, issued, and denied once again, protesters went ahead with the event, which was dispersed by paramilitary officers in riot gear.

C Violations of User Rights

While court rulings have overturned some of the most notorious Jammeh-era laws restricting expression, dubious prosecutions over online speech have continued under laws that remain on the books. Some violence against journalists has been reported. The new administration has not yet introduced a draft of a new constitution expected to strengthen protections for freedom of expression. Technology companies can be compelled to assist the government in monitoring the communications of users, and investigative authorities reportedly need only cite suspicious activity when making such requests.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 26

The 1997 Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, though fundamental freedoms were severely restricted in practice under the administration of former president Jammeh, who once stated that he would “not compromise or sacrifice the peace, security, stability, dignity, and the well-being of Gambians for the sake of freedom of expression.”1

Since coming into power in January 2017, the new administration has announced reforms aimed at strengthening individual freedoms, and the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) is expected to release a draft of a new constitution by the end of 2019.2 The CRC has actively solicited input from citizens, who have in turn submitted recommendations regarding the new charter’s protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression.3

A recent Supreme Court decision on criminal sedition privileged the president over other officials, giving continued cause for concern about judicial independence (see C2).

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 14

While some of the worst Jammeh-era restrictions have been overturned by courts, several restrictive media laws remain on the books, with some being recently upheld.

In a landmark May 2018 decision, the Gambian Supreme Court declared parts of the infamous Information and Communication Act 2013 (ICA) unconstitutional, including provisions on criminal defamation. It also invalidated sections that had criminalized use of the internet to criticize, impersonate, or spread false news about public officials.1

However, in the same ruling, the court upheld sections of the Criminal Code prohibiting “false publication and broadcasting.”2 And, while the definition of sedition was narrowed, sedition against “the person of the president” and “administration of justice” remains a crime. The previous definition of sedition had included the entire government of the Gambia.3

Given the slow pace of reforms, media and civil society representatives have continued to call on members of parliament to introduce legislation that will repeal all draconian laws. However, many harbor doubts that the current parliament would approve such legislation.4

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 36

Under the former regime, arrests and prosecutions of journalists and others for their online activities were common, with users frequently prosecuted on “false information” charges under the ICA. Despite improvements under the new government, dubious prosecutions over online activity have continued.

In February 2018, Ismaila Ceesay, a political analyst and political science lecturer who emerged as a prominent critic of the Barrow administration, was arrested and charged over comments he made to a local newspaper, which were published both online and in print, though charges were later dropped after activists demanded his release.1

A former parliamentarian, Abdoulie Saine was arrested and charged with incitement of violence and seditious intent for a WhatsApp audio that went viral, in which Saine was heard castigating the Mandinka ethnic group.2 The legitimacy of the charges is debated and the case was ongoing at the end of the coverage period.3

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 24

The ability to communicate anonymously is hampered by procedures surrounding SIM card and local domain name registration.1 In February 2018, PURA fined two GSM companies for noncompliance with SIM registration regulations (see A5).

It is not clear if Gambian law forbids the use of encryption. However, under the ICA, users can be compelled to reveal a message by ministerial order.2 The ICA also requires ISPs to maintain capabilities to intercept and retain data from users (see C6).3

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 26

Legal and technological frameworks put in place by the former regime still allow unchecked government surveillance of ICTs. Article 138 of the ICA gives sweeping powers to national security agencies and investigative authorities to monitor, intercept, and store communications in unspecified circumstances while also giving the regulator, PURA, the authority to “intrude communication for surveillance purposes,” all without judicial oversight.1

Observers believe the former government actively monitored and intercepted citizens’ communications, particularly the communications of activists and independent journalists who were perceived as threats to national security.2 Intercepted phone and email communications were often used as evidence in trials against government critics. However, the scope of the government’s current technical surveillance capabilities remains unknown, and it is uncertain whether the new government has continued to carry out the same surveillance practices.

The level of transparency for communication surveillance remains largely low. The director of the then infamous National Intelligence Agency (NIA)—now the State Intelligence Agency (SIS)—in early 2018 warned that social media may “affect security,” exacerbating concerns about the potential for online surveillance and user restrictions.3

In December 2015, the former government unveiled a worrying National Cyber Security Strategy.4 The plan included the establishment of a monitoring office with a mandate that includes scrutiny of personal data protection, electronic transactions, electronic records and signatures, and computer misuse and cybercrime5—all of which are already regulated by ICA and provisions in the Criminal Procedure Act. However, the new administration, as it confronts the challenge of reforming a fragile economy and institutions ruled by a dictatorship for over two decades,6 does not appear to have pursued these plans.

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 16

The ICA requires ISPs to “implement the capability to allow authorized interception of communications.” Article 141 of the ICA imposes onerous data retention requirements, obliging service providers to retain metadata for up to three years.

In practice, technology companies frequently assist the government in monitoring the communications of users.1 According to insider sources, investigative authorities need only cite suspicious activity in such requests to technology companies.

The implementation of capabilities to allow authorized interception of communication is included in the preconditions for the issuance or renewal of ISP licenses. It is not clear if any licenses have been denied and or revoked as a result of lack of those capabilities.2

  • 1. Freedom House consultant interviews with Cybersecurity Alliance team members, January 2019
  • 2. Freedom House consultant interviews with GPU, March 2019

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 25

In 2018 there were several instances of violence against journalists, including online journalists.1 While there were fewer reported instances during the coverage period of this report, the risk of physical violence and harassment in response to online activity persists.

In September 2018, Babucarr Manga, a cameraman for the web-based television outlet Eye Africa, was allegedly assaulted by personnel of the Police Intervention Unit (PIU), a paramilitary unit of the Gambia Police Force, for filming a public protest by aggrieved teachers.2 Earlier, a journalist from the state broadcaster was beaten by people ostensibly providing security for the APRC while covering the August 2018 funeral proceedings of Yahya Jammeh’s late mother. The remains of Asombi Bojang were flown from Equatorial Guinea where she was living. The broadcaster’s news crew was first denied access to the airport. They then followed the service to Bujinga, where one of the journalists was assaulted and his camera was reportedly seized.3

At least two journalists covering the local government elections in April 2018 were roughed up by supporters of the former ruling APRC party. Both incidents reportedly happened at the Elections House in Kanifing during the filing of nomination papers by the party’s mayoral candidate for the Kanifing Municipality.4 In June of that year, another online journalist, Pa Modou Bojang, was beaten by members of the PIU while covering a protest in Faraba. Bojang sustained injuries, and said he was detained for hours and that his digital recorder had been seized.5

Under the previous government, violence and property confiscation against Gambian journalists for their independent and critical reporting was a serious risk, and numerous media workers, bloggers, and online journalists fled the country as a result of the unsafe environment for independent voices. Overall, such incidents have decreased under the new regime, and scores of online journalists and activists returned to the country following Jammeh’s fall from power.

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 23

Recent years have seen some technical attacks against politicians, opinion leaders, and journalists. Although most of these attacks are not publicly reported, the Cybersecurity Alliance of the Gambia has recently documented an increase in technical attacks.1

The last publicly reported incidents occurred during the 2016 election and subsequent political impasse that reached into early 2017.2 A few websites that published election results indicating Jammeh’s defeat were hacked to have the results removed, including sites run by a pro-Jammeh newspaper and the electoral commission.3 Numerous journalists, bloggers, activists, and internet users separately reported that their social media accounts had been hacked.4 Activists suspected that the Jammeh government initiated or supported the attacks in order to counter growing antigovernment sentiment online.5

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    No
  • Pro-government Commentators

    No
  • Users Arrested

    No