Attacks on the Press 2001: The Gambia

Throughout the year, Gambian journalists feared that authoritarian president Yahya Jammeh and his ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) would deal harshly with journalists ahead of the October presidential elections. To the surprise of many, these fears proved misplaced. However, repression resumed soon after President Jammeh won reelection. One journalist was subsequently arrested and tortured.

During the official campaign season, Independent Electoral Commission rules required state radio and television to give five minutes’ airtime per day to each presidential candidate, and to allocate equal coverage to each party’s rallies. In early October, the Gambia Press Union adopted a code of conduct for journalists covering the elections. As a result, the presidential election campaign saw some of the most balanced political coverage in the country’s history.

Yet independent journalists complained that the president and the APRC dominated state media in the months preceding the campaign season, with almost no coverage of opposition activities.

The influence of the APRC went well beyond manipulating state media for its own ends. In June, ten editors from the Daily Observer, the country’s only independent daily, resigned their posts in protest over alleged management interference with the paper’s editorial policies. The journalists, who included editor-in-chief Paschal Eze, claimed their resignation was prompted by a management ban on all stories relating to a prominent opposition politician who was fiercely critical of the APRC.

The Daily Observer‘s managing director, Buba Baldeh, is an active APRC member. The Daily Observer, once respected for its fair and balanced journalism, has been widely criticized for pro-government bias since its purchase by an APRC stalwart in 1999.

Gambian officials often complain that the independent media lacks objectivity and is aligned with opposition parties. In July, apparently believing their own rhetoric and fearful of growing popular support for the opposition before the elections, officials summoned several foreign diplomats and accused them of sponsoring the independent press. When questioned about the meeting, the secretary of state for foreign affairs claimed the APRC was not out to muzzle the press, but was merely reacting to its distorted political coverage.

In July, Jammeh lifted a ban on the opposition party that he had toppled in his 1994 coup. He went on to win elections international observers considered free and fair. After the election, however, the Jammeh government reverted to its repressive tactics. Authorities responded to allegations of electoral fraud by arresting numerous opposition and civil society activists, complaining that the opposition was trying to spoil the happy mood after the president’s victory.

Among the detainees was Alhagie Mbye, a senior reporter for the local newspaper The Independent. Mbye was arrested for filing a story to the London-based West Africa Magazine alleging that thousands of non-citizens had been illegally registered in order to vote for Jammeh. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) detained Mbye for eight days and tortured him in reprisal for his story. (The NIA had previously detained Mbye for three days in August after he published an article about an alleged coup attempt.)

Since Gambian journalists work with scant resources and have meager incomes, independent reporters feared that the government would use burdensome tax arrears to harass its critics during the election. After the election, NIA officials used this pretext to arrest the owners of the only independent radio stations in the Gambia that broadcast news–Baboucar Gaye of Citizen FM and George Christensen of Radio 1 FM. Citizen FM was forced to stop broadcasting after Gaye was unable to pay the station’s back taxes.

Citizen FM, which frequently criticized the APRC, was one of the most popular stations in the country from its inception in 1995, primarily because of the regular newscasts in the local Wollof and Mandinka languages that it broadcast to a largely illiterate population. But the station has suffered unremitting official harassment. Citizen FM was off the air for nearly two years starting in 1998, when the government closed the station’s offices and seized all its equipment after accusing Gaye of operating without a license. Gambian journalists believe the government is determined to silence Citizen FM permanently.

On the bright side, Gambian journalists appeared to have effectively quashed the draconian National Media Commission Bill of 1999. The bill would have established a regulatory commission chaired by a presidential appointee. The commission could have punished offending journalists with heavy fines and prison sentences.

When a copy of the bill was leaked to the press early in the year, journalists and media organizations launched vigorous protests, prompting the government to withdraw it from parliamentary consideration.

March 13

Alieu Badara Ceesay, Daily Observer
Pa Modou Bojang, Daily Observer
Ousman Bah, Independent
Lamarana Jallow, Independent

Ceesay and Bojang, of the independent Daily Observer, and Bah and Jallow, of the Independent, were harassed by police officers on the outskirts of Banjul while trying to cover a protest against fuel price hikes.

The police seized and broke Ceesay’s camera. Bojang’s press card was temporarily confiscated. An officer confiscated Bah’s notebook. Jallow’s camera was opened and his film destroyed.

June 11

Modou Thomas, Radio 1 FM

National Intelligence Agency officers detained radio journalist Thomas in the town of Basse, where he was covering the Fifth National Youth Conference and Festival. The journalist was interrogated for several hours and then released.

Thomas was apparently detained for reporting that the Ministry of Youth and Sports, which sponsored the conference, had not provided sufficient lodging and food for all the participants.

Thomas was detained shortly after Radio 1 FM aired his report from Basse. The officers threatened Thomas, saying they had been “hearing things about him.”

On June 14, Thomas was again briefly detained for questioning by officers in the capital, Banjul.

October 29

Baboucar Gaye, Citizen FM

Gaye, owner of the independent radio station Citizen FM, was arrested by National Intelligence Agency (NIA) officers, who came to the station’s office and demanded to see copies of Citizen’s registration papers.

After looking at the documents, the agents asked for the station’s income tax returns, which Gaye had not yet received from the Income Tax Department. The officers then arrested him and took him to the police station. There, they told the journalist that Citizen owed US$9,000 in taxes, and that the station would not be allowed to broadcast until the arrears had been paid.

When Gaye protested, the NIA agents said he would have to pay half the amount before disputing the arrears. He called the station and told them to stop broadcasting immediately, which they did.

Gaye, who still disputes the sum quoted by the NIA, alleged that the station was targeted for announcing its intention to announce the results of the October 18 presidential election. According to Gambian law, the electoral commission must be the first body to announce election results.

Gaye was held for four hours and then released. By December 31, he had paid off half the amount the government said he owed, but Citizen still remained off the air. At press time, Gaye was awaiting an “assessment” from the Income Tax Department to determine the exact amount he would have to pay before his taxes were officially up to date.

November 21

Alhagie Mbye, The Independent

Mbye, a senior reporter with the private daily The Independent, was arrested at his home by officers of Gambia’s notorious Intelligence Agency (NIA) and taken to NIA headquarters in the capital, Banjul.

The arrest came days after the London-based West Africa Magazine published an article by Mbye about allegedly massive fraud during the October 18 presidential elections, which incumbent president Yahya Jammeh won amid vocal protests and boycotts by opposition and civil society groups.

Mbye’s article charged that thousands of noncitizens, mostly from neighboring Senegal, were given Gambian citizenship for the sole purpose of garnering more votes for President Jammeh.

Although Gambian law allows a maximum 72-hour detention without charge, Mbye had still not been formally accused of any crime four days later.

The journalist, who claimed that NIA agents tortured him during his detention, was released eight days later. He was never formally charged.