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Newly freed, Gambian columnist describes jail

Sarata Jabbi-Dibba's family rejoices as she returns home. (The Point) On an ordinary Friday, Sarata Jabbi-Dibba, a reporter in the West African nation of Gambia, publishes her weekly column on women’s issues, “She She She,” in the only independent daily newspaper here, The Point. Last Friday however, Dibba was herself a newsmaker—after recovering her freedom.

In fact, until last Thursday evening, Dibba, who is also the first vice president of the press union in this sliver of land off Africa’s western coast, was sharing a large cell with more than 10 common criminals in Gambia’s notorious Mile 2 prison—named for its distance to the sleepy, seaside capital of Banjul. Her crime? Co-signing a press statement from the union reacting to televised remarks of President Yahya Jammeh's about the unsolved 2004 murder of her newspaper’s editor, Deyda Hydara. For this, a judge sentenced her and five other journalists and executives of the union to two years in jail for sedition and criminal defamation. The journalists appealed and CPJ and other organizations spoke out to call for their release. Jammeh finally issued a pardon last week, setting the journalists free.

Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency arrested Dibba on June 15, the day The Point published the union’s statement. Other senior press union members and editors responsible for re-publishing the union’s statement were also picked up and interrogated.

The arrests underscored the limits of freedom of expression—a right guaranteed by the Gambian Constitution, yet continually violated by government repression. Incidentally, this was all taking place in a city that is home to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

For Dibba, a mother of two, including a 10-month old son, going to prison presented special challenges. She spent her first three days in prison with her son, who requires breast feeding, she said. On the third day, however, prison officials took him away. She called her lawyer and together they went to see the prison director. On the sixth day, prison officials authorized family members to bring the baby to her every day for breast-feeding.

Dibba’s five other co-defendants were held a few miles away, in a facility called Old Jeshwang Juvenile Prison, according to local journalists. That’s where Emil Touray, the union's secretary-general and an assistant editor with the private triweekly Foroyaa spent the last two weeks after being transferred from Mile 2 Prison in mid-August. Touray told CPJ he shared a large cell with inmates convicted of petty larceny, but described relatively good treatment from guards and fellow prisoners. He had access to a television but was denied books and newspapers, he said.

Both Touray and Dibba and their co-defendants thanked Jammeh for issuing a pardon. “The Gambian Press Union has nothing against the president or the Gambian government. Instead, we are partners in development,” Dibba said, characterizing the imprisonment as “a misunderstanding” between government and the union. “We really have the interest of this country at heart,” she added.

For now, Dibba said was eager to resume her columns, which address women’s empowerment and forced marriages, among other issues. She started the column with the support and encouragement of the late Hydara. “He encouraged me to go into journalism. He was my mentor. I asked him for a column on women’s issues and he gave it to me,” she said.

Hydara’s killers are on the run now, but the editor’s legacy lives on.

 

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Comments

Its was a great to all peace lovers that Gambian dictator have subdued to the public pressure. This have shown to the Gambians bothhome and abroad that when we are untited we can win any course. So i call on all of you out there to raise voices and demand for the release of Chief Ebrima Manneh. If we do what we have just done in the case of the six journos, with the support from the international communites Yahya Jammeh will not be able to withstand the pressure. He will release Manneh.
I once again welcome the freed six journalists in their reunion with their colleques and families. I also commend the cpj, AIS, IFJ, RSF and all the unions who have tiredlessly supported us in our struggle for liberation of camaradas.
By Yaya Dampha
Freelance journalist
Sweden

What a well presented piece! Sarata and her convicted colleagues must be commended for their bravery.

The encounter with Sarata and Bai Emil Touray is quite touching and send a message of sadness for people like these journalists who are working so hard despite all odds.I want the government of the day to consider calling a Natioanl conference to give a plateform for a frank talk between the Government and the private journalists of the gambia.
sarata and emil both said that they at the GPU are no enemies of the government, so that is a clear indicatiion that the journalists here in the gambia are not seeing government as enemies.
I am convience beyound all doubts that the problem of the journalists of the gambia and the Gambia government is all about misconceptions on the side of thr government. There is a need for a national conference.
the other problem has to do with our media laws , they need to be amended.
Let us heer from the other four, Pa Modu Faal, Sam sarr, papa saine and Ebrima Sawaneh.

Thanks

I'm deeply touched by the courage and fortitute of Sarata and her other male colleagues. But Sarata, given her unique circumstances as a breastfeeding mother, has demonstrated the kind of tenacity and conviction in standing for a cause one could hardly imagine. As a Journalist from a country torn by civil war (Liberia) I urge them to continue pressing on as professionals not to settle scores with any individual but to do what is just and right for ultimate good of the Gambian nation as a whole. That's why I admire their courage to say thanks to President Jammeh for the executive pardon but keeping their commitment to exposing the ills in their society and pursuing their coverage as to who killed colleague Hydara. Yes, let's always bite and blow. Bravo! Yours Frank B. Sainworla, Jr.

It is a rather pathetic situation...It is especially painful, the fact that all these things are happening yet nothing seems to be done about it.
What, for instance is the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples Right doing in Gambia? That country has lost all right to host such an institution...

The release of the Gambia's six journalists comes as no surprise to me or any of my colleagues who are familiar with President Jammeh's 'good cop - bad cop' antiques. He has over the years engaged in the cowardly bullying of innocent civilians only to use such occasion to portray himself as the righteous and forgiving leader. The journalists were sent to prison for simply daring to respond to what was not just an insensitive and arrogant statement by the head of state regarding the demise of a dignified Gambian citizen,but for rightly insisting on the government to investigate and bring to justice those cowards responsible for the murder of Hydara. In my view, the journalists have nothing to thank the president for. Instead, he (the president) is the one who should seek mercy/apology from the Gambian public for failing to apprehend Hydara's killers. No amount of intimidation, threats or otherwise will stop us asking the question - Who killed Deyda? President Jammeh needs to stop being jumpy over the mention of Deyda's name, if his assasination has nothing to do with him or his administration. And Yes, we shall continue to demand the release of Chief Manneh. I salute our colleagues for their courage and resilience, and to urge them to continue the valuable service they have always rendered to the Gambian people. I will also use the opportunity to thank all the international press protection groups, human rights organisations, individuals as well as all who in one way or the other are standing by us in our quest to resist the efforts of this bully who loves to rule but hasn't the guts to allow the free flow of information.