Opinion is said to be the cheapest commodity in the world – because every other person has one. This might not be very true of The Gambia where people with contrary views on controversial issues are not able or willing to speak their mind.
Not only on controversial issue but people are mute on things like healthcare delivery and other social issues which they could comment on.
People are afraid of drawing attention of the authorities to some of the issues affecting their lives and livelihood including existing human rights problems and abuses and persuade the government to take action on them.
Instead, most of the times, people only open their mouth in public to praise the government - sing the praises of the big men and women - but keep mute on real issues affecting them as if everything is ok.
However, in principle the Constitution of the land has it that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion … and the freedom to express, impact opinion without interference. In practice, this is far from the reality due to various restrictions that are continuously being enacted by the government.
Citizens with divergent views on some of the national issues are either really afraid or legally not allowed to speak their minds. People are getting more and more scare from speaking their minds on national topical issues. Or if one is so strong with his/her opinion and cannot help button it, the person has to greatly censor him/herself.
People are afraid of speaking their mind for one of two reasons, or both. Some are afraid that in the process of commenting, giving their view on something, they may be seen to be going against the government in which case they could be labelled as an opposition. Though being an opposition is not prohibited anyway! Besides, others are afraid they may fall foul of one of the various laws in the country that limits people’s expression and in which case they will face dire punishment.
It has got to a stage that even when you want discuss certain things with people on phone, you will simply be reminded that “please you are on phone”, as if somebody is listening to everything. Whether that is the case, is another thing but this is an indication that people are afraid even to speak particularly if they hold a divergent view on a controversial topic.
The people have opinions but would not speak.
Also in public places, even in taxis, or any other place where one happens to meet a colleague, if suddenly you two want to talk about something that have a bearing on the government, politics of the day and it is controversial, the discussion will stall when you see anybody within earshot who is not familiar to you people. We all suspect each other of being an informer, of being a spy agent!
Now, people advised one another that when you are in public place, do not talk about things that are controversial to the state, for fear of the repercussion – legally you might be brought to court probably for seditious intention or related charges, or illegally you could be pick by unknown people to unknown location.
The Gambia is a country where limitation on freedom of expression has gone beyond the media and the journalists. Various laws have been amended or enacted by the government not only to limit the freedom of the media but take the freedom of expression the electorates as a whole.
Under the latest law of the land, even mere twitting or writing something on one’s wall on Facebook can make the person to be jailed for 15 years or pay a fine of D3 million or both, depending on the mercy of the judge.
This hefty punishment is in the Information and Commission Bill 2013, an amendment to the Communication Act, recently enacted by the National Assembly. This is an indication that the government is going all out to make the people mute on issues they have opinion about.
This is different from the criminal defamation, such as libel, slander and sedition, as well as false information charges that every other person in the country is prone to be charged with.
Every other person in the country has an opinion on one or two issues that have bearing on one’s life or on the nation as a whole but cannot say it for fear of the criminal charges awaiting you or the opposition identity tag that will be on you.
Meanwhile, the government propaganda machineries, the militants, the loyalists are busy filling the people with every kind of information. They use even the slightest opportunity to sell the image of the government to the people. Not lest the Islamic leaders are out in this branding campaign.
For instance, the 19 year anniversary of the July 22 coup that brought in Yahya Jammeh to power is recently celebrated in the Holy Month of Ramadan. Many top Muslim leaders in the country particularly key figures of the Supreme Islamic Council gathered to Islamicise the event – the coup.
In fact one of them said Jammeh’s leadership is ordained by God. This is usual of them. But what was shocking is that the well-respected Muslim leader said since President Jammeh’s leadership is ordained by God it has to happen by any means – be it elections, coup, inheritance - that is in the monarchical system where power can be inherited. But in this case it is a coup.
The point is, it is not written on anybody who wants to be a president that this is the day you will come to power and by this means. Now since that is not the case, if one tries elections and failed, will it be possible to try other means such as coup since you do not know whether that is the means God ordained for you?
Great! The propagandists are doing their work very well. The citizens have seen the excellent work of the hard working government but the fact still remains not everything can be good, as widely noted there is no perfect system. The difference is whether the citizens, the electorates are free to point out the imperfections, the flaws, the weaknesses of the system so that corrective actions can be taken to make it much better.
This is what is lacking in The Gambia!