Attacks on the Press 2003: The Gambia

In 2003, President Yahya Jammeh’s ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) maintained a firm grip on power in this tiny West African country, despite signs of political and economic instability. In September and October, the president fired four ministers, including the communications minister, while a fifth, the justice minister, resigned.

Since the APRC swept parliamentary elections in 2002, Jammeh has used his power to silence opposition voices and the independent media. Throughout 2003, the strained relationship between the administration and the private press continued, demonstrated by the government’s frequent arrest and detention of local journalists. In addition, many journalists reported receiving anonymous death threats for critical political coverage.

The government continued its crusade of harassment against The Independent, a private biweekly based in the capital, Banjul. In September, The Independent‘s editor-in-chief, Abdoulie Sey, was abducted and held incommunicado at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency for three days after the paper ran an opinion piece titled “Jammeh Under the Microscope.” The article, written by a Gambian journalist based in the United States, discussed the Gambia’s endemic poverty and corruption and concluded that the president had “failed us all.” In October, three unidentified men assaulted a private security guard in front of the newspaper’s offices, doused the building with gasoline, and set it on fire. The fire damaged the newspaper’s power supply, causing the staff to relocate temporarily. Gambian journalists said the attack, which closely resembled an arson attack in 2000 on the offices of the private Banjul-based Radio 1 FM, may have come in reprisal for The Independent‘s critical reporting on the government.

In March, police officers arrested Pa Nderry M’bai, a reporter for the private newspaper The Point, after he wrote an article alleging that police frequently extorted bribes from black-market moneychangers. M’bai, who was also secretary of the Gambian Press Union, was accused of attempting to undermine the police force. He was released the same day with a warning to avoid similar topics in the future.

The government’s intolerance of criticism has caused self-censorship among journalists and media outlets. For instance, after the arson attack in 2000, Radio 1 FM dropped news and moved to an all-music and entertainment-based format. The closure of Citizen FM in 2001 for alleged nonpayment of taxes left the country with no private news-based radio stations. As a result, Gambians rely on heavily controlled state radio for information. State radio rebroadcasts some Voice of America and BBC programming, although both are subject to frequent government censorship.

Tensions between the Gambia and neighboring Senegal also created problems for journalists. Senegalese politicians have accused the Gambian government of supporting a militant separatist movement in southern Casamance, a region of Senegal largely cut off from the rest of the country by the Gambian border. After Senegal won a June soccer match against the Gambia, angry crowds in Banjul attacked Senegalese nationals and Senegalese-owned businesses. The violence continued for hours before the government imposed a curfew. During the rioting, an angry mob stoned the offices of private radio station Sud FM, which is partly owned by Senegalese citizens and was broadcasting live reports on the anti-Senegalese violence. In addition, intelligence agents arrested and questioned the managing editor of The Independent after the newspaper ran a report on violence at the soccer match.

A media regulatory commission with jurisdiction over complaints against journalists was inaugurated in the summer of 2003 in accordance with the 2002 National Media Commission Act. The act requires journalists and media organizations to register with the commission for one-year renewable licenses. Journalists and media rights activists have heavily criticized the legislation on the grounds that its definitions of press offenses are vague and it grants the commission overly broad powers, including the rights to issue arrest warrants and force journalists to reveal their sources.

Shortly before the commission was inaugurated, the Gambian Press Union (GPU), along with private publications including The Independent, The Point, and News and Reports, filed a suit with the Supreme Court challenging the commission’s constitutionality. When the commission sent letters to private newspapers and radio stations asking them to register, the journalists responded by filing another suit with the High Court, seeking to restrain the commission from registering publications while the Supreme Court case was pending.

The GPU also refused to nominate one of its members to fill a designated seat on the commission, protesting that it would not cooperate with the commission until its charter was amended. The government responded by pushing legislation through Parliament that allows the communications minister to appoint any journalist to the GPU’s seat.

While members of the private press criticize the National Media Commission Act, most think that more training and higher professional standards for Gambian journalists are needed. The GPU hopes to start a journalism school at the University of the Gambia in 2004, in cooperation with UNESCO.

Fear of further economic troubles prompted some Gambians, who depend on revenue from the tourism industry for survival, to criticize the private press for what they perceive as inflammatory reporting that could damage the Gambia’s reputation as a place of relative political stability. In an October letter to The Independent, one resident said the publication risked causing further economic turmoil when it ran an interview with opposition leader Lamin Waa Juwara. The article, titled “Let’s Take to the Streets,” quoted Juwara as calling for a mass protest against the country’s economic situation. Juwara was arrested and detained for more than two weeks in response to the interview.