Attacks on the Press 1999: The Gambia

While President Yahya Jammeh made progress in appeasing skeptical donor nations–by radically reshuffling the government and stepping up an anti-corruption drive, for example–the Gambia’s independent media remained on shaky ground. Many observers agreed that President Jammeh was intent on quashing all potential challenges to his authority during the run-up to the 2001 presidential election, which he has no guarantee of winning if the vote is free and fair.

The independent Citizen FM radio station in Banjul remained closed after the arrest and brief detention of two staff members in February 1998 and the subsequent forfeiture of its radio equipment to the government. Citizen FM’s proprietor, Baboucar Gaye, who was charged in August 1998 with allegedly operating a radio station without a license, appealed against the forfeiture and fine imposed on him. Although his appeal to the High Court opened on April 30, 1999, it was repeatedly deferred.

Press freedom suffered another blow on June 6, when the U.S.-based proprietor of the Daily Observer, the Gambia’s most respected independent newspaper, sold out to a local businessman with close government ties. Soon after the sale, the Daily Observer‘s new management fired news editor Demba Jawo and deputy managing editor Theophilus George. Although the new managing editor, Sarriang Ceesay, announced that the dismissals merely reflected a corporate “restructuring,” many saw them as censorship.

The private biweekly The Independent hit the newsstands on July 5, and was immediately subjected to official harassment. Although the Ministry of Justice had previously given the newspaper permission to publish, the ministry ordered The Independent to cease publication on July 23 for allegedly failing to register as an incorporated company with the commissioner of tax. On August 1, police arrested editor in chief Baba Galleh Jallow and managing editor Yorro Jallow. They were detained two days after the arrest of another reporter and the entire support staff of The Independent. The newspaper resumed publication at the end of August.

Meanwhile, a wide range of legislative measures continued to stifle the Gambia’s independent media. These included Newspaper Decrees 70 and 71 of 1996, which imposed exorbitant fines for any contravention of the 1994 Newspaper Act. This act imposed criminal penalties on private publications that failed to register annually with the government and increased the registration bond for existing newspapers by 100 percent. State-owned publications are not subject to these decrees, whose clear intent is to eliminate independent media competition.

The government’s draft National Communication and Information Policy did little to guarantee an independent press. And the National Media Commission Bill of November 1999, designed to create an official body with powers to fine or imprison journalists, was highly controversial–not least the provision disallowing any appeal of its decisions. Due to reach parliament before the end of December, the bill was still pending at year’s end.

July 30
Lamin N.B. Daffeh, The Independent IMPRISONED
The Independent CENSORED

National Intelligence Agency officers arrested Daffeh, a reporter for the private biweekly paper The Independent, along with the entire support staff of the newspaper. The other staff members were held for about two hours and then released, with the warning that “if they did not want trouble,” they should not work for the newspaper.

Daffeh was released on August 2, along with two other journalists from the newspaper who had been arrested the previous day.

On July 23, the Ministry of Justice ordered The Independent to cease publication, on the spurious grounds that it had not registered as an incorporated company with the Commissioner of Tax. Yet the newspaper had already been given the go-ahead to start publishing, and had brought out its first edition on July 5.

August 1
Baba Galleh Jallow, The Independent HARASSED
Yorro Jallow, The Independent HARASSED

On the evening of Sunday, August 1, officers of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) arrested Baba Galleh Jallow and Yorro Jallow, editor in chief and managing editor, respectively, of the private biweekly The Independent, at the newspaper’s offices in Banjul.

Even though the two journalists were not charged with any crime, they were held at NIA headquarters in the city until their release the following afternoon. They were told to report to NIA headquarters again on August 3 with all necessary documents pertaining to the registration of the newspaper.

CPJ protested the incident in an August 2 letter to President Yahya A. J .J. Jammeh.

Galleh Jallow and Yorro Jallow maintained they had fulfilled all the legal requirements for registration and that the government was creating invalid administrative obstacles in order to prevent them from publishing the newspaper. Justice Ministry officials subsequently told the two journalists that they could not publish as long as they were “under investigation.”

The Independent resumed publication on August 20, when authorities finally accepted the newspaper’s application to register its business name. Staff members continued to fear, however, that the harassment might resume.

December 27
Yorro Jallow, The Independent HARASSED
Baba Galleh Jallow, The Independent HARASSED
Lamin N. B. Daffeh, The Independent HARASSED

Police arrested Jallow, Galleh Jallow (no relation), and Daffeh, respectively managing editor, editor in chief, and reporter at the private biweekly The Independent, at the paper’s offices in Banjul. Police also had an arrest warrant for a fourth journalist, Jalali Wally, who was absent at the time and managed to evade arrest.

The police raid followed a front-page article in The Independent‘s December 24 edition, reporting that President Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh had divorced his first two wives and secretly married a third woman. The issue had been a source of public gossip in the Gambia for several weeks.

The three journalists were taken to the Serious Crimes Unit at the main police station in Banjul. They were held overnight and charged the next day with “libel against the president.” They were released on bail of 10,000 dalasis (approximately US$1,000) and ordered to report to the police station daily.

Local journalists told CPJ that while the article was provocative, it did not appear to be libelous. The arrests followed several previous attempts to silence the outspoken newspaper.