Attacks on the Press 2000: The Gambia

PRESS FREEDOM STANDARDS DECLINED SHARPLY LAST YEAR, a problem exacerbated by hostile public statements from Gambian government officials. Independent media, already beset by painful licensing procedures and fees, now faced the real threat of closure, as the government of President Yaya Jammeh moved to shore up its power in the wake of bloody student protests on April 10.

In a July 23 statement, Jammeh himself warned that “anybody bent on disturbing the peace and stability of the nation [would] be buried six feet deep.” And on August 2, presidential advisor Fatoumata Jahumpa Cessay added that the government’s brusque treatment of the local press was “suitable” for the Gambia. Cessay charged that independent Gambian journalists were being “spoon-fed” by the opposition and by “human rights organizations in the United States, Germany, and other countries.”

Press freedom took another hit on June 20, when the state filed murder charges against Madi Ceesay of Gambia News and Report, a weekly in the capital, Banjul. Ceesay was arrested following a violent clash between opposition supporters and activists loyal to the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC). Ceesay had been accompanying opposition supporters to a rural rally when APRC members ambushed their vehicle, sparking a brutal melee in which one APRC activist was killed. The murder charges against Ceesay were dropped on October 23.

The most shocking attack on the independent media came in an August 10 arson attack on Radio 1 FM, a private station whose pro-democracy stance has made it immensely popular. Several journalists, including owner George Christensen, were injured in the fire, while the station was forced off the air for two days. The attack was foreshadowed by anonymous threats mailed to Radio 1 employees.

On July 20, Baboucar Gaye, owner of the independent station Citizen FM, won a High Court appeal that restored equipment confiscated by the government in 1998, when the station was forced off the air for reporting the involvement of a senior National Intelligence Agency official in a counterfeiting scandal. On October 8, Citizen FM began broadcasting for the first time since February 1998.

The Newspaper Act of 1994 imposes criminal penalties on private publications that fail to pay a yearly registration fee. Legal protections for the press faced further erosion by the National Media Communication Bill, which at press time was awaiting approval in a Parliament dominated by Jammeh’s APRC. The bill includes provisions that would force journalists to reveal confidential sources to police and the judiciary on demand.

Madi Ceessay, Gambia News and Report
Lamine Dabor, Daily Observer
Augustine Mendy, Daily Observer

Ceessay, a reporter for the weekly Gambia News and Report, was charged with the murder of Alieu Njai, a driver for the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC). Twenty-five supporters of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) were also charged in the murder.

The Banjul-based Ceessay had been assigned to cover UDP activities in other parts of the country. He was traveling from Basse to Kundam with a busload of UDP sympathizers when alleged APRC supporters ambushed them. Njai sustained serious injuries during the melee, and died a day later.

Ceessay and the UDP activists were then arrested on suspicion of murder. Ceessay was released three days later pending further police investigations. Meanwhile, two reporters from the independent Daily Observer were harassed during the ambush. Dabor, the paper’s Basse correspondent, sought refuge at the local police station. Local police asked his colleague Mendy to leave Basse for his own safety.

CPJ protested the murder charge against Ceessay in a July 7 letter to President Yayah Jammeh. On October 23, the charges against Ceessay, along with those against nineteen UDC supporters accused in the murder of Njai, were dropped.

Radio 1 FM

At around 3 a.m. on August 10, seven unidentified men armed with tear gas and gasoline tried to force their way into Radio 1 FM’s compound on Karaiba Avenue. When the station’s night watchman raised an alarm, some of the attackers assaulted him and sprayed him with tear gas. Others doused the compound with gasoline and set it ablaze.

Staff members, including Radio 1 owner George Christensen and presenter Ousman Jallow, sustained serious injuries and burns when they wrestled with the attackers. But they did manage to extinguish the fire before it could reach the broadcast studios. Radio 1 FM remained off the air from August 10 until August 12.

The station had some prior warning of the attack. On August 8, according to Modou Thomas, head of news and current affairs at Radio 1 FM, Christensen had received an anonymous letter warning that he faced severe reprisals for having raised his voice at Fatoumata Jahumpha Cessay, presidential adviser on media relations, during the August 6 edition of the political talk show “Sunday Newshour.”

In an interview published in the August 14 issue of the Banjul weekly The Independent, Christensen said he had indeed been warned that the station faced imminent attack. He said several Radio 1 journalists had recently received threatening letters and telephone calls warning of impending attacks.

CPJ protested the arson attack on Radio 1 FM in an August 15 letter to President Yayah Jammeh.

Seyllou Diallo, Agence France-Presse

Diallo, a Senegalese photographer for Agence France-Presse, was in Banjul to photograph a wrestling match between two heavyweight Senegalese contenders. The match was held under military supervision, in part for the security of the referee. When Diallo tried to take pictures of the referee and his military guard, the soldiers manhandled him.

Police intervened to save Diallo from serious injury. However, the photographer was admitted to a hospital in Banjul after the incident, and did not work for four days thereafter.