Over the past week, the CPJ delegation has had the opportunity to meet with journalists from private and state media, executives of the Gambia Press Union, and senior government officials. Independent journalists told us that the climate of fear intensified after the Hydara murder. Abdoulie Sey, editor of the biweekly newspaper The Independent, resigned and fled the country in fear for his life; Pap Saine, Hydara's co-editor at The Point, told CPJ that his family had also wanted him to quit for security reasons.
Journalists said they were deeply concerned by the government's failure to solve a series of arsons, including a 2000 attack on private broadcaster Radio 1 FM; an August 2004 attack on the home of BBC correspondent Ebrima Sillah; and an October 2003 attack on the offices of The Independent. A second attack on The Independent in April 2004 destroyed the newspaper's new printing press; several employees who were in the building at the time barely escaped.
The administration's antipathy toward the independent press is underscored by its information policy, which limits access to government sources and discriminates against certain media outlets. The authorities continue to enforce government orders that bar civil servants from speaking with the press without authorization from their bosses. Senior officials and their spokespeople are often unavailable, forcing journalists to rely on anonymous sources to cover routine government activities. "Even if we sometimes fall short professionally, they are partly to blame," Abdoulie Sey told CPJ. "Often we need them to verify, to react, but the response is always hostile."
In describing the pernicious legal environment, journalists cited two new laws secretly signed by the president in late December 2004. An amendment to the Criminal Code imposes mandatory prison sentences for journalists found guilty of defamation or publishing false information, while an amendment to the Newspaper Act increases fivefold the bond that all media outlets must post in order to register. Media outlets were required to re-register within 14 days after the president signed the measure into law. While authorities have not enforced the Newspaper Act, journalists say that the new laws add to their feeling of insecurity. "We will not be comfortable until we see the laws scrapped," said Musa Saidykhan, acting editor of The Independent.
We were gratified to be able to meet with a number of government officials, including the secretaries of state for information, the interior and justice. However, we were disappointed that President Yahya Jammeh did not grant us a meeting, especially because we believe that some of his public statements have contributed to the current tensions. The president's hostility toward the media was evident in an interview with the state broadcaster after Hydara's death. According to a transcript, the president claimed to have given the press too much freedom and threatened to jail journalists who made unfounded accusations against him. Rejecting allegations of government involvement in Hydara's murder, he said: "If I have to hang somebody, I will hang him and go to sleep using the law."
Journalists say they found this statement deeply troubling, especially since the government has reported little progress in its investigation into Hydara's murder. The CPJ delegation had an opportunity to meet with the director general of the National Intelligence Agency, which took over the investigation in February, and we saw indications that the NIA is carrying out an investigation in good faith. However, even the basic facts of the murder have not been firmly established, and we fear that it could be difficult to make significant progress in a climate where journalists and witnesses are unwilling to cooperate with government investigators.
A firm commitment to press freedom at the highest level would help create conditions for the private press to operate without fear in the run-up to next year's presidential elections. The independent media play an especially critical role in an environment in which state media largely convey the government's perspective. By helping to reduce mistrust, President Jammeh can also create a more favorable environment in which to investigate Hydara's murder.
CPJ calls on President Jammeh and his government to immediately take the following steps:
• Affirm the government's commitment to respect the role of the press and to ensure that journalists can work without fear of reprisal.
• Swiftly and unequivocally condemn all threats and violence against journalists and media outlets
• Renew investigations into the arson attacks and make the findings public
• Improve access to government information, notably by scrapping government orders that bar civil servants from talking to the press without authorization
• Repeal the recent repressive amendments to the Criminal Code and the Newspaper Act, and work toward decriminalizing press offenses in line with regional trends and international press freedom standards