Despite concerns and criticism from journalists and local press unions, the Gambian parliament is considering a cybercrime bill that grants authorities the power to impose harsh penalties on journalists and critics. The IPI global network today calls upon members of the Gambian parliament to either amend the draft cybercrime bill so that it aligns with their press freedom commitments under domestic and international law or reject the bill altogether. 

The cybercrime bill contains a number of vague content restrictions that would criminalize certain types of online content, thereby imposing undue restrictions on the right to access and share information online. These measures could be used to target and punish public interest reporting and critical journalism. Any individual who “uses a computer system” to “spread false news”, “incite violence”, “impersonate a person”, or “make derogatory statements against a person” faces a minimum fine of 50,000 Dalasis or a minimum prison sentence of one year. Article 12 of the bill contemplates a fine of at least one million Dalasis or a minimum jail sentence of three years for any individual who knowingly “does an unauthorized act in relation to a computer system or computer data”. 

In 2018, the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held that the prohibition of “false news” in The Gambia’s Criminal Code violated journalists’ freedom of expression due to its definition being “so broad as to be capable of diverse subjective interpretations”. The Gambian policymakers are resuscitating this provision through the Cybercrime Bill without also defining what“false news” means. 

The bill especially endangers public interest journalism. Multiple articles specify no need for proof of intent when being found in possession of “unauthorized” data. Authorities are granted extensive surveillance powers, compelling Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to decrypt data upon request by the authorities. This has implications on media freedom including the confidentiality of sources while stripping away the necessary tools that journalists use as part of their watchdog role. 

The bill comes as part of a global trend toward using cybercrime legislation to engage in “lawfare” against the press. States use the same playbook, coupling vague provisions with draconian penalties to stifle criticism and muzzle the press. Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act, for instance, has been used to detain multiple journalists this year despite being declared unlawful by the ECOWAS in March 2023. 

“IPI is alarmed by the proposed cybercrime Bill which contains multiple provisions that authorities could use against journalists and to the detriment of fundamental rights liked media freedom and freedom of expression under the guise of cybercrime control”, Nompilo Simanje, IPI Africa Advocacy and Partnerships lead, said. “We call upon the Gambian parliament to uphold their international commitment to the freedom of the press, and to address the feedback from civil society stakeholders and journalists in order to prevent this bill from becoming a tool to restrict and punish public interest journalism.”

IPI has published a resource toolkit on foundations for press freedom in Africa that outlines regional and international human rights standards that guide all states, including The Gambia, on their obligations to uphold fundamental rights. We urge lawmakers to use these standards as a guide as they draft the country’s cybercrime legislation.