The government’s announcement in March that it had foiled a coup plots was followed by a wave of arrests and an unprecedented crackdown on the independent press in the run-up to presidential elections in September. President Yahya Jammeh was declared the winner with 67 percent of the vote, giving him a third term in office. But the government’s brutal repression of the press and other independent voices made a mockery of democracy. Opposition leader Ousainou Darboe rejected the official results, saying there had been widespread intimidation by local chiefs, governors, and security agents.
Government forces shut down a leading independent newspaper, jailed journalists without due process, forced others into exile, and brought criminal charges against a reporter under a repressive media law. Just before the elections, a state television reporter, Dodou Sanneh, was jailed secretly for almost a week and interrogated about his coverage of Darboe’s campaign. Self-censorship increased, and the authorities pressured management at the country’s only private daily newspaper, the Daily Observer, to adopt a pro-Jammeh editorial line. The government retained a firm grip on the broadcast sector, despite the presence of some private commercial and community radio stations. With the December 2004 murder of newspaper editor Deyda Hydara still unsolved and a string of arson attacks on independent media outlets unpunished since 2000, the crackdown confirmed the Gambia as one of Africa’s worst places to be a journalist.
At his first news conference after re-election, Jammeh signaled no letup in his repression of the independent press. “Let me tell you one thing,” Jammeh told selected local and foreign journalists on September 23. “The whole world can go to hell. If I want to ban any newspaper, I will, with good reason.” The BBC and Reuters also quoted him as saying: “If you write Yahya is a thief, you should be ready to prove it in a court of law. If that constitutes lack of press freedom, I don’t care.”
Jammeh denied that government security agents were involved in Hydara’s assassination, telling journalists: “I don’t believe in killing people. I believe in locking you up for the rest of your life. Then maybe at some point we say, ’Oh, he is too old to be fed by the state,’ and we release him and let him become destitute. Then everyone will learn a lesson from him.”
The Independent, one of the country’s leading private newspapers, remained closed after security agents sealed its offices in the capital, Banjul, on March 28. Editor Musa Saidykhan and General Manager Madi Ceesay, who is also president of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), were detained on the same day. Both were held at the government’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) for three weeks amid allegations of abuse, before being released without charge on April 20. Lamin Fatty, a reporter for The Independent, was also detained at the NIA for more than a month without access to legal counsel. He was subsequently put on trial for publishing “false news,” a charge that could bring a jail sentence of at least one year. CPJ honored Ceesay in November with an International Press Freedom Award in recognition of his courage in defending press freedom in the Gambia.
In late May, at least four more journalists, including BBC correspondent Lamin Cham, were jailed in connection with a crackdown on the critical U.S.-based Web site Freedom Newspaper, although the NIA and other government authorities denied ever holding them. Cham, along with Pa Modou Faal of the state broadcasting service GRTS and Musa Sheriff of the private weekly Gambia News & Report, were released after several days; Malick Mboob, a former reporter for the pro-government Daily Observer, based in Banjul, remained in custody for nearly five months before being released without charge, according to CPJ sources. All except Cham figured on a list of purported contributors to Freedom Newspaper, which is run by exiled former GPU Secretary-General Pa Nderry Mbai. The list was published on the private Gambia Post Web site and reprinted in the Daily Observer, which claimed that Mbai had renounced the publication and was joining Jammeh’s ruling APRC party. Mbai promptly issued a denial, saying that the disclosure of the list was the work of computer hackers.
The government seemed to observe a brief respite in its crackdown on the local press during an African Union summit in Banjul in early July, which went ahead despite pleas from human rights and press freedom groups that it be moved because of the Gambia’s appalling record. Less than a week after the summit ended, Daily Observer journalist “Chief” Ebrima B. Manneh went missing. He was believed to be in NIA custody, although authorities said they had no knowledge of his whereabouts.
Toward the end of July, two Banjul-based Nigerian journalists were held for four days before being released without charge. Sam Obi, a veteran radio journalist, and Abdulgafar Oladimeji, a freelance journalist, were arrested by the NIA and held in a cell at the agency’s headquarters in Banjul, Oladimeji told CPJ. They were arrested after Obi launched a new publication, the Daily Express, for which Oladimeji also worked. The inaugural issue of the Daily Express, published on July 1 to coincide with the African Union summit, reprinted a press release from a coalition of civil-society organizations protesting the government’s decision to block a planned freedom of expression forum. On July 5, the Daily Observer printed a letter that accused the Daily Express of seeking to “tarnish the image of this country.”
Although Obi and Oladimeji were released, Sulayman Makalo, who worked briefly for the Daily Express and was once assistant editor at The Independent, went into hiding after NIA officials said they were looking for him, local sources told CPJ. He joined a growing number of Gambian journalists in hiding or in exile because of government threats and fears for their security.