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Jammeh to news media: I set limits on press freedom

No sacrifices to the "altar of freedom of the press," says Jammeh. (AFP)

Last week, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh participated in a rare meeting with select members of the West African nation's press corps. Jammeh spoke in favor of access to public information. He announced that he would allow The Standard newspaper to resume publication, five months after the National Intelligence Agency forced its editor, Sheriff Bojang, to halt production. But the president largely lashed out at the Gambian private press and critics of his repressive media policies in the meeting, a tense session that was broadcast on state television. Jammeh, a former army captain who seized power in a 1994 coup, spoke in a harsh and contemptuous tone as he addressed media owners invited to the State House in the capital, Banjul.

"If anybody thinks that this is a mere public relations stunt, you're mistaken," Jammeh told journalists and a few officials present. "What you perceive as a reality is not reality," he said, chastising journalists for portraying the image that "Yahya Jammeh is a monster, he's a dictator, he's a killer, that Gambia is not a place for journalists.'" He insisted that he was not hostile to the press. "You think I'm stupid? I don't like the press, I don't like the freedom of press and I allow newspapers? I want to tell you that we're not your enemies," he said. "You have to a positive role to play in national development, peace, and stability."

The president was quick to narrow the scope of press freedom. "If you're interested in development, you want peace and stability, then you don't have anything to fear from me." But press freedom has limits, Jammeh said, and it is he who sets those limits. "One freedom I will never give you is the freedom, the liberty to write whatever you want that you know is not true. There is press freedom, but there's no freedom to lie."  

He added: "If I have to close any newspaper because you have violated the laws, I will close it. ... I will not billahi wallahi, sacrifice the interests, the peace and stability and well-being of the Gambian people at the altar of freedom of expression, or freedom of press, or freedom of movement or freedom of whatever."

At times, Jammeh appeared to contradict himself. "Sensationalism in journalism will not be accepted. Tell me one country where there's no law on libel," he said before declaring, "There's no section that criminalizes speech. I don't know where you got that from but as far as I am concerned, there's no law that says that you can be taken to court and charged with a criminal offense for speech." At least two of the journalists present--Pap Seine and Sam Sarr--could attest to the presence and use of such laws: They were jailed on criminal sedition charges in connection with a 2009 press release critical of Jammeh's comments on the unsolved murder of editor Deyda Hydara.

Again last week, Jammeh disputed any government responsibility in the Hydara case, as well as in the case of Ebrima "Chief" Manneh, a reporter who disappeared after being arrested in 2007. "I will not kill anyone outside of the law," he said. "You see, if I have to cut the heads of 10,000 people to save 1 million, I will do so with happiness, but on the condition that they have been sentenced by a court of law." He went on to repeat: "We will not kill anyone clandestinely." 

Yet Jammeh referenced Manneh's case as a "death," and suggested the journalist might have disappeared after attempting to illegally migrate to Europe or America. The statement implied knowledge of Manneh's fate that has not been disclosed publicly and that runs contrary to his administration's repeated public statements. In a letter to Jammeh on Monday, CPJ called on the president to clarify his reference to Manneh's "death" and fully disclose the government's knowledge of the case.

"In all previous public comments, administration officials have consistently denied any knowledge of Manneh's detention, whereabouts, or legal status," CPJ's letter said. "Those comments were made despite sightings of Manneh in government custody after his 2007 arrest. Government denials were also issued in response to a June 2008 ruling by the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, which found sufficient evidence to conclude Gambian authorities had improperly detained Manneh."

Jammeh had some words of warning for the assembled journalists, accusing some of being "mouthpiece of opposition parties." His words apparently chilled initial press coverage of the meeting; all the leading newspapers omitted the president's comments on the Hydara and Manneh cases.

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Comments

Yaya Jammeh is just another Despot in Africa, like Mugabe in Zimbabwe. You don't expect much from him, do you? Very shortly, his time will run out and he will be written about freely bythe press. Then he would have no more teeth to bite the freedom of the press in the Gambia.

the masses need proper education to cut short several remaining bullies who parad as heads in Africa.

The Committee to Protect Journalists have said it all! Cudos to Mohamed Keita! Perhaps President Jammeh has now come to realise that holding your people to ransom, ruling by coercion and inflicting fear on your people shall no longer be watched with a blind eye in today's ever fletching democracy.
The President's meeting with executives of the media fraternity is a most welcomed move. It does not matter what his intensions are But how the media executives handle such meeting. I have carefully listened and analysed what he was saying and the responses of our colleagues. However, i see a lot of flaws in what President Yahya Jammeh had to say. He insinuated that there was so much free flow of information in The Gambia that he even challenged the Gambian press to request for interviews in writing to public officials, and that there was no law barring public officials from talking to members of the press.
Surprise, surprise! We have done all that. One occassion that comes to mind is when i wrote to the Judicial Secretary requesting for an interview over an issue that was of legitimate public interest. It had to do with a querry regarding the Chief Justice being too old to hold his position constitutionally. The reply i got from the judicial secretary was a No No! She emphatically declined to discuss the issue. Rather than requesting for permission to accord me the interview, she instead retorted to a civil service code barring civil servants from talking to members of the press (This under Yahya Jammeh's rule). In her reply,she quoted quoted the 'General Orders,'Paragraph 03103, which states. "No officer, unless authorised by His Head of Department or the Secretary General may communicate, either directly or indirectly to the press, or to any person who does not belong to his department, any information obtained in the course of his official duty." The Judicial Secretary asked me, in her letter (a copy of which i still retain) to "redirect my request for an interview to the Secretary General" (who has no clue, or should have nothing to do with judicial matters). In the end, i was forced to retort to information from credible Gambian legal luminaries who unfortunately could only speak to me on the basis of anonymity. In the end though, the Chief Justice was replaced, and that particular story earned me the title as 'The Best Investigative Reporter of the Year 1999, in The Gambia." Another scenario has been when veteran journalist Pap saine, Brima Ernest and myself were arrested, in March 1995, over a prison unrest that the government denied ever happened. We were arrested and detained ubder very harsh conditions, dragged through the courts for six months, only to be acquitted and discharged by the indomitable and respected Nigerian-born Principal Magisterate Christopher Onyia. "His Worship" Onyia ruled that more than what we wrote happened at the Mile 2 Central Prisons. We were acquitted and discharged but the tyrant like all tyrants would never accept defeat - Ernest was hunted out of the country, and Pap Saine's nationality questioned!
There will be the time when we shall talk about all these But for now, i just want to congratulate Mohamed Keita and the CPJ for taking to task the Gambian 'leader' who knows the fate of our colleague, Ebrima 'Chief' Manneh but through the figment of his own immagination thinks that he is capable of fooling history.
God Bless The Gambia and save us from mercinary journalists from the horn of Africa, God save Ethiopia!

Alieu Badara Sowe March 25, 2011 6:21:09 PM ET

To whom it may concern

What can you say about the media laws in LESOTHO and death squads in ALGERIA, GAMBIA and then give media situation in Africa?

what were the charges against Gambian newspaper?


why was Algerian journalist Pelkacem Saadi killed in 1993?

MY COMMENT

THIS COMMITTEE CAN TEACH MEDIA PRACTITIONERS A PROFESSIONALISM IN MEDIA INDUSTRY THE WILL ALSO HELP THEM TO BROADCAST AND PUBLISH MORE EYHICALLY.

YOUR INFORMATION IS A WEAPON TO SUCCESS. WONDERFUL, KEEP IT UP!

Justice Moroeroe March 26, 2011 6:43:16 AM ET

Yahya Jammeh's meeting with the independent media was just a cosmetic exercise.It is not in his nature to allow freedom of speech.He is simply a dictator.