Attacks on the Press 2002: The Gambia

The Gambia’s ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) won a landslide victory in mid-January parliamentary elections, capturing 52 of 55 seats in the National Assembly and cementing President Yahya Jammeh’s rule. The main opposition parties boycotted the poll, alleging electoral fraud. Jammeh and the APRC used their renewed power to silence opposition voices and the independent media.

The government has justified its antagonistic relationship with journalists by accusing the independent press of being irresponsible and sensationalistic and of serving as the opposition’s mouthpiece. In a January interview, Jammeh told the Daily Observer–a newspaper generally sympathetic to the APRC–that he was “not against the media,” which he referred to as a “dead and rotten horse.” The president said that the Gambian press was trying to please the international community by criticizing the government and spreading lies about him.

Journalists protest APRC accusations of bias, saying that the biggest obstacle for the independent media is the government’s refusal to grant access to official information. Since ruling-party officials routinely refuse to be interviewed, journalists argue, opposition members receive more coverage. Members of the private media, however, acknowledge their shortcomings, saying that a lack of professional training leads to poor reporting.

At a Gambia Press Union (GPU) symposium in February, independent journalists called for the creation of an ethics regulatory body, composed of media professionals, and the establishment of a journalism school at the country’s university to ensure greater professionalism and better training.

The APRC, however, took advantage of its virtual monopoly in the legislature to pass repressive legislation in late July that imposes a regulatory commission on the media. Jammeh signed the measure in early August. The law creates a commission that will establish a code of conduct for the private media, set standards of content and quality for published and broadcast materials, maintain a registry of all media practitioners and organizations, and adjudicate complaints against journalists and media organizations.

The commission can issue arrest warrants for journalists who ignore summonses and can also force journalists to reveal their sources. The commission will require all journalists and media organizations to obtain one-year renewable licenses, imposing a minimum fine of 5,000 dalasis (US$225) on those who do not. Journalists who fail to pay the fine can be suspended for nine months; media organizations can be suspended for three months.

The commission can also jail journalists for contempt for up to six months. Among the vague offenses listed in the act is the publication or broadcast of “language, caricature, cartoon or depiction, which is derogatory, contemptuous or insulting against any person or authority.” While the government said the law would end sensationalistic journalism in the country, Gambian journalists and media-rights advocates heavily criticized the legislation, saying it was an attempt to muzzle the independent press.

State security forces also harassed journalists during 2002. National Intelligence Agency (NIA) officials arrested BBC correspondent Ebrimah Sillah in early July after he reported on tensions between The Gambia and neighboring Guinea-Bissau. NIA agents detained Pa Ousman Darboe, senior reporter for the private biweekly The Independent, for three days in early August for writing an article about the remarriage of the country’s vice president. And Guy-Patrick Massoloka, a Congolese reporter for the Pan African News Agency, was held incommunicado without charge for nearly two weeks in late July. Authorities accused Massoloka of working with an unlicensed publication.

One of The Gambia’s most popular radio stations, Citizen FM, remained closed throughout 2002. Authorities shuttered the station in 2001 for failing to pay back taxes–a pretext, said local journalists, to punish the broadcaster for airing critical news from independent sources in local languages. This claim was corroborated in 2002, when the station was prevented from opening even after it had paid all its tax arrears.

June 19

Pa Nderry Mbai, The Point

Mbai, a senior reporter for the independent publication The Point, which appears four times a week, was picked up by police detectives in the capital, Banjul, for an article he wrote in the June 19 edition of the paper alleging that police had mismanaged a bank loan, and that senior officers were using the funds to buy luxury items. As a consequence, the bank canceled the loan.

Mbai was taken to the inspector general of police’s office, where he was interrogated for two hours and accused of publishing a biased report. Mbai told the inspector general that he had tried to contact all sides for comment. Gambian sources said that Mbai had contacted the police public relations officer, who confirmed the story but begged the journalist not to publish it because it would embarrass the police.

Mbai was released after Gambia Press Union president Demba A. Jawo vouched for his colleague’s reporting. The inspector general warned Mbai to be careful in his future reports on the police.

August 2

Pa Ousman Darboe, The Independent

Alhaji Yorro Jallow, The Independent

Darboe, senior reporter for the Banjul-based biweekly The Independent, was arrested by National Intelligence Agency (NIA) officers and taken to NIA headquarters.

Darboe’s arrest stemmed from an August 2 Independent article reporting that Gambian vice president Isatou Njie Saidy had married a schoolteacher in May. Saidy’s aides denied the report, as did sources close to the schoolteacher, according to Agence France-Presse. Independent Gambian journalists told CPJ that the report was untrue. Sources in Banjul said the article offended Saidy because it reported that she had remarried less than a year after her previous husband’s death, which violates local custom.

On August 3, Independent managing editor Jallow was called to NIA headquarters for questioning about the same article. He was interrogated for several hours and not allowed to meet with Darboe. Jallow was released that same day.

Darboe was repeatedly interrogated about his article’s sources. On August 5, he was released but was told he would have to report back to NIA headquarters the following day. On August 6, he returned to the NIA and was only released after a relative signed a bail bond for him.