Over the past year, Gambian journalists have made successful efforts to regulate themselves. During the run-up to last October's presidential elections, for example, the Gambia Press Union adopted a code of conduct for journalists. Partly as a result, the political coverage was some of the most balanced in the country's history.
Shortly after the election, local authorities arrested the owners of the Gambia's only independent news broadcasters and closed down Citizen FM, one of the country's most popular radio stations. Another journalist was arrested and tortured after he reported that thousands of non-citizens had been illegally registered in order to vote for President Yahya Jammeh.
Local journalists believe that the current bill is part of an ongoing government effort to silence domestic criticism in order to improve the country's international image.
The Gambian Parliament passed the bill on May 2, the eve of World Press Freedom Day. It is currently awaiting the signature of President Jammeh.
"The National Media Commission bill is a disaster," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. "If it becomes law, the Gambian government will decide who gets to be a journalist, and journalists themselves will not have the ability to protect their sources. We call on President Jammeh to reject the bill."
The bill establishes a National Media Commission with jurisdiction over complaints against journalists. The commission can summon journalists to reply to complaints and is further empowered to force journalists to reveal their sources. The president of the commission is to be appointed by the president of Gambia.
The bill requires all journalists in the Gambia to register with the commission, whose wide-ranging powers include the ability to close down media companies, impose exorbitant fines on journalists, and jail journalists for contempt.
The commission will issue one-year, renewable licenses to journalists and media organizations. Organizations and journalists that do not register will be subject to a fine of no less than 5,000 dalasis (US$278). Individual journalists who fail to pay this fine can be suspended for nine months. Media organizations can be suspended for three months.
The commission can issue warrants for the arrest of any journalist who ignores a summons to appear before it. The commission will also be responsible for formulating a journalistic code of ethics.
A similar draft bill was introduced last year but was shelved after a leaked copy sparked vigorous protests by journalists and human rights groups.
Gambian journalists have lobbied hard against this latest effort to restrict their work. On May 3, journalists protested the bill's passage on the streets of the capital, Banjul. The Gambia Press Union says it intends to pursue legal action in order to have the bill declared unconstitutional. Many local journalists have already indicated that they will not abide by the new law.
The National Media Commission Bill is the second highly restrictive media bill passed in Africa in recent months. In mid-March, the Zimbabwean Parliament passed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which also created a state commission to accredit journalists.