Lamin Fatty of the private bi-weekly The Independent was fined 50,000 dalasi (US$1,850) on charges of publishing false information under Gambia's criminal code, defense lawyer Lamin Camara told CPJ. Fatty would have had to serve a year in prison had he been unable to pay the fine. He was jailed immediately after the ruling, in fact, but was released after the Gambia Press Union (GPU) paid the fine, local journalists said. Fatty has filed an appeal, Camara said.
Fatty was charged a year ago in connection with a March 24, 2006, story incorrectly reporting that former Interior Minister Samba Bah was among more than 20 people detained in the wake of a purported coup attempt. The paper, known for its critical coverage of President Yahya Jammeh's government, subsequently ran Bah's response and its own apology, but intelligence agents sealed off the paper and detained Fatty incommunicado for two months. General Manager Madi Ceesay, who is also GPU president, and Editor Musa Saidykhan were detained for three weeks apiece but later released without charge.
"We condemn the criminal conviction of Lamin Fatty whose case highlights the authorities' pattern of using extrajudicial detention and harsh criminal penalties against the press," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. "We call on the appeals court to overturn Lamin Fatty's conviction and we reiterate our call to the Gambian authorities to lift all restrictions on The Independent."
In April, a military court sentenced 10 army officers to lengthy prison terms in connection with the coup attempt, according to international news reports.
"If a simple reporter who has no say about the final content of an article is held responsible for publishing false news, then, this verdict sets a dangerous precedent in our country," Fatty told CPJ.
Another journalist, political commentator Fatou Jaw Manneh of the U.S.-based opposition Web site All-Gambian was charged with sedition in April in connection with commentary critical of Jammeh that was published in The Independent in 2004.
Last month, CPJ named the Gambia one of the world's worst backsliders on press freedom.