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World Press Freedom Review
As the September presidential elections approached, the government of President Yahya Jammeh tightened its grip on both private and state media alike. Throughout the year, journalists were arrested in droves and a newspaper was closed in a cynical attempt to prevent it from reporting on issues that might influence the course of the election.
Persistently criticised by the international community, Gambia is in danger of becoming a pariah state due to the determination of its president to remain in power. One of the most worrying aspects of the numerous arrests and detentions was the blatant disregard for the rule of law. Police officers have ignored the need to present detainees before the courts and, on occasion, they have even denied that they are holding the journalist. Such wilful refusal to heed the law has made it impossible for lawyers and human rights activists to free the journalists.
In March, there were concerns for the plight of the staff of the Independent newspaper, which has been a constant critic of the government of President Yahya Jammeh's government. According to reports, on 28 March, newspaper staff were forced to leave the office when armed guards surrounded it.
The editor of the Independent, Musa Saidykhan, and General Manager, Madi Ceesay, were also arrested by the authorities. Both men were taken to a police intervention unit, but Saidykhan was later transferred to the Banjul offices of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), however, there was no mention of a charge against the journalist. The closure of the newspaper followed the 1 March arrest of 27 Gambians, including army officers, for their alleged involvement in a coup plot to overthrow the government. Some commentators believe that the newspaper’s reporting on the incident may have led to its closure.
On 12 April, Lamin Fatty, a journalist with the Independent newspaper, was also arrested at his home. Fatty was the author of an article appearing in the biweekly newspaper on 24 March titled, "23 coup plotters arrested." The report erroneously named former interior minister and former head of the NIA, Samba Bah, as one of those arrested. On 27 March, Bah vehemently denied that he had been arrested and he received an apology from the newspaper.
In late April, Saidykhan and Ceesay were released without charge. Criticising the original arrest, then director of CPJ, Ann Cooper, said, "Gambian authorities have acted outrageously toward these journalists, holding them without charge and sowing confusion about the reasons and whereabouts of their detention." Fatty, however, remained in jail.
On 24 April, the NIA announced that the ban on the Independent newspaper had been lifted. Despite what appeared to be official approval, two vanloads of police officers prevented staff from opening the offices on 25 April. During the incident, receptionist Juldeh Sowe was detained and told to report to a police station.
In late May, police summoned apparent contributors to the U.S.-based Web site Freedom Newspaper according to its editor, Pa Nderry M’bai. Those summoned were on a list of contributors to the on-line newspaper that was posted on the government Web site Gambia Post. Based on news reports, the summons said, "The Security Services are in possession of the full list of persons who continuously supplied [M'bai] with information, which he used to castigate and vilify the democratically elected government of His Excellency, President Dr Alhaji Yahya AJJ Jammeh."
In another worrying case, Daily Observer news editor, Omar Bah, disappeared on or around 12 June. Colleagues said they feared that the journalist had also been arrested. It was not clear whether the disappearance of the journalist was related to the spate of arrests over the Freedom Newspaper.
On 21 June, IPI praised the 19 June decision of the Board of Directors of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an organisation providing US congressional aid to countries that rule justly and encourage economic freedom, suspended Gambia's suitability for assistance after "a pattern of actions inconsistent with MCC's selection criteria."
In reaching its decision, the Board said it examined "documented evidence of human rights abuses and increased restrictions on political rights, civil liberties, and press freedom by the government." The Board said Gambia would be reinstated if it took "tangible and significant actions to address the areas of decline and embrace political and economic reforms."
Commenting on the decision of the MCC, IPI Director Johann P. Fritz said, "I welcome the MCC's decision. It reflects a growing recognition that freedom of the press and an independent media are fundamental to sustainable development and fighting corruption, which is ruining so many Africans' lives. In general, governments that fail to uphold these rights should not receive the benefit of assistance."
Another sign of the breathtaking disregard towards press freedom exhibited by the Gambian government came in late June when civil society organisations were barred from holding a forum on freedom of expression in the country. The forum was to be held before the African Union (AU) Summit in Banjul. The suspension came in a 19 June letter from Bolong Sonko, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of The Gambia, who told the hotel management to suspend the freedom of expression forum until the government approves it. As a result, the forum, which was due to be held later in June, was effectively cancelled.
Responding to the effective cancellation, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MWFA) and 14 other organisations protested the decision saying it violated the AU’s constitution. The statement said, "The African Union offers a new framework for good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law. It is therefore unacceptable and intolerable that, despite being the host of the African Union Summit, the Gambian government persists in silencing free speech and trampling on the basic rights of Gambians."
During the summer, MFWA raised concerns about the continued detention of former Daily Observer journalist, Mboob, who was arrested in the sweep against contributors to the Freedom Newspaper. According to the press freedom organisation, he has been in arbitrary detention without trial far in excess of the 72 hours that the Gambian 1997 constitution stipulates, since his arrest on 26 May 2006.
While press freedom violations came to a halt during the AU summit in Banjul, they started again once the African politicians had left Gambia’s capital. In early July, there were concerns about "Chief" Ebrima B. Manneh, of the pro-government Daily Observer, who had not been seen since 7 July. The managing director of the newspaper later confirmed the reporter’s disappearance and said that he had not been at the office for a week.
Another journalist, Sulayman Makalo, former assistant editor at the closed newspaper, the Independent, also went into hiding fearing arrest. Before hiding, Mkalo had started working for a new publication, the Daily Express. In its first edition, on 1 July, the newspaper had printed the statement from the coalition of civil society organizations who were denied the right to hold a forum on freedom of expression. On 5 July, the Daily Observer published a letter accusing the newspaper of seeking to tarnish the image of the country.
On 14 July, the Daily Express was punished for its apparent temerity. Sam Obi, the founder of the Daily Express, and Abdul Gafari, one of its reporters, were arrested by the NIA. In a similar pattern to the other arrests, the authorities denied that they were holding the reporter in detention. Both men were released on 18 July.
In the trial against Fatty in late July, Samba Bah, the Gambia's former Interior Minister and head of National Intelligence Agency (NIA), gave evidence against the journalist. Based on information from MFWA, Bah had difficulty explaining why he did not institute a civil suit against the Independent. In a highly unusual revelation, Bah also admitted that the criminal proceedings had begun when two police officers visited his house to take a statement.
On 7 September, Gambian public television reporter Dodou Sanneh, who works for the state-owned Gambian Radio and Television Services (GRTS), was arrested and detained. Saneh had been given the job of covering the election campaign of the opposition UDP-NRP-GPDP alliance, which supported Ousainou Darboe as a presidential candidate. The journalist was apparently arrested for failing to display objectivity in his reporting and later fired by his media organisation. According to the Daily Observer, he was later reinstated; only to be dismissed once again in November.
After winning the presidential elections on 22 September, President Yahya Jammeh announced his intention to continue his assault on the private media. Responding to a question in the first press conference of his new presidential term, he said that he intended to be more ruthless when dealing with the media. He was quoted as saying, if you say, "Yahya is a thief', you should be ready to prove it in a court of law. If that constitutes lack of press freedom, then I don't care."
On 7 November, a magistrate’s court adjourned the case of Fatty. It was the fifth time that the case had been adjourned since it began in June. The court was forced to do so, after the police prosecutor was unable to attend court. An application was made by Fatty’s defence lawyer that the case should be struck out for undue delay and lack of prosecution, but the court rejected it.
At a 20 November hearing of the case, it was announced that the case would start afresh due to legal complications caused by the appointment of the trial magistrate, Kebba Sanyang, as Gambia's Attorney General and Secretary of State for Justice.
Noting the 15 and 16 December ceremonies for the inauguration of President Yahya Jammeh in Banjul, press freedom organisation RSF pointed out that 16 December was also the second anniversary of the murder of journalist Deyda Hydara. So far, there appears to have been little attempt by the authorities to capture the perpetrators.
On 10 December, Baron Eloagu, a Nigerian news editor of the Banjul-based private Daily Express newspaper, was violently attacked by four assailants. During the attack, the assailants said they were assaulting him because he had written "stupid things about the Gambia." The men also stole property from the journalist.
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