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Gambia VP touts tourism, downplays human rights issues

Gambian Vice-President Isatou Njie-Saidy (AFP)

The Gambia has an image problem: Dubbed the "Smiling Coast of Africa," it is a tourist destination, but its government has one of the region's worst records of human rights abuses. On Tuesday, at an African tourism promotion event in New York City, Gambian Vice-President Isatou Njie-Saidy headed a delegation working toward improving the negative perceptions of the country.

In a discussion with Njie-Saidy after the event, I mentioned to her that an Internet search of the Gambia yields many results about its human right abuses. In response, she shifted the topic to the United States: "Do they tell you about Guantánamo Bay? Seems like a human rights issue," she said. "And, you know, in the Internet, you have a lot of garbage. ... Don't believe everything you read: You have to look in between." She later accused social media of peddling untruths: "Social media is the problem," she said.

Accordingly, I brought up to the vice-president the well-documented case of a journalist whose detention in government custody for more than five years has left his family, friends, and colleagues in anguish. The case of Ebrimah "Chief" Manneh, a reporter whose whereabouts, legal status, and health have been unknown since Gambian state security agents arrested him in 2006 at his office at the pro-government Daily Observer, was not unfamiliar to the vice-president. In fact, six U.S. senators, UNESCO, and a West African human rights court have called on the Gambia to end its illegal detention of the journalist.

Despite this, the vice-president told me, "The government didn't arrest him. At the same time, people make up stories. Who knows what happened to Manneh? We don't know--I cannot answer, because I don't know." She then suggested that the journalist may have gone missing while attempting to immigrate to Europe. "There are people who die in the desert--anything can happen to anybody," she said.

Njie-Saidy's government has deprived Manneh of his freedom and, more recently, referred to the journalist's death. Still, the vice-president denied any responsibility in accounting for his fate. "That incident, as far I know--I don't know anything about it," she told me. 

CPJ's Dario Reais contributed to this story.

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