Attacks on the Press 2004: The Gambia

The Gambia

The December murder of veteran journalist and press freedom activist Deyda Hydara fueled mounting fears among journalists and punctuated a year marked by arson attacks, threats, and repressive legislation aimed at the independent media in this tiny West African country. President Yahya Jammeh and his ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) were slow to condemn the escalating assaults on press freedom and bring those responsible to justice.

Hydara, managing editor and co-owner of the independent newspaper The Point and a leading opponent of the restrictive new legislation, was shot in the head on the night of December 16 by unidentified assailants while he drove home from his office in the capital, Banjul. No one was immediately charged. Hydara, who was also a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP), wrote columns for The Point that frequently criticized the government.

His murder drew condemnation from journalists across Africa and prompted a one-week news blackout by the local independent press. About 300 Gambian journalists— virtually the entire press corps—marched through Banjul in protest. But the killing left the nation’s independent media shaken. The Point was not operating at year’s end. Abdoulie Sey, editor-in-chief of The Independent, a critical biweekly newspaper, resigned because his family feared for his life. Other media owners told CPJ that their staff members were considering doing the same.

The shooting came just two days after the National Assembly passed repressive amendments to the Criminal Code and the Newspaper Act. One Criminal Code amendment sets mandatory prison sentences of six months to three years for owners of media outlets and journalists convicted of publishing defamatory or “seditious” material; another imposes minimum six-month prison terms for publishing or broadcasting false news and allows the state to confiscate any publication deemed “seditious.”

The Newspaper Act amendment increases the bond required of all print media owners and extends the obligation to broadcast media. Owners typically post bond in the form of personal property such as a house, which can be confiscated if they lose a libel lawsuit. The December amendments raise the bond from 100,000 dalasis (US$3,348) to 500,000 dalasis (US$16,740), a prohibitive sum for many in the Gambia.

Facing a lawsuit by independent journalists, the National Assembly repealed the controversial National Media Commission Act on December 13. The 2002 measure required journalists and media organizations to register with the commission for one-year renewable licenses.

However, there was little other good news in 2004. In April, arsonists destroyed The Independent‘s new printing press. Local sources said armed men stormed the building that housed the press in Kanifing, a suburb of Banjul, doused equipment with gasoline, and set it on fire. Three employees were injured. The newspaper resumed publishing with a rented printing press, but the attack was a drain on its finances.

Known for its frequent criticism of the government, The Independent had been targeted before. In October 2003, three unidentified men set fire to the newspaper’s main offices in Banjul, forcing staff to relocate temporarily. Journalists at The Independent accused the police of failing to act on multiple reports of threats against the newspaper.

Arsonists struck again in August, setting fire to BBC correspondent Ebrima Sillah’s house in Jambur, a village several miles outside Banjul. Sillah was inside sleeping when the fire occurred, but he escaped unharmed.

Prior to the attack, threatening letters criticizing independent journalists’ coverage of the Jammeh administration were sent to the BBC and to Demba Jawo, chairman of the Gambian Press Union. In July, the BBC in London received an e-mail from the “Green Boys,” a self-described group of APRC supporters. “We will not sit idly by to see that our president is criticized unnecessarily,” the e-mail warned. “Let your correspondent get a cue from The Independent newspaper. … This is the final warning to him.”

Several days before the attack on Sillah’s house, an anonymous letter was delivered to Demba Jawo’s home criticizing Jawo and the country’s independent press for its political coverage and accusing journalists of bias against the president. “Very soon we will teach one of your journalists a very good lesson,” it threatened.

The “Green Boys” have not been identified, although local sources suspect that their members include soldiers in the Gambian army, as well as youth supporters of the APRC. In January, self-described members of the group sent a threatening letter to the managing editor of The Independent, Yorro Jallow, warning him to stop criticizing Baba Jobe, a powerful APRC member who was later jailed on corruption charges.

By year’s end no one had been prosecuted in connection with any of the arson attacks—including one on the independent Banjul-based Radio 1 FM in 2000—and Jammeh had not publicly distanced himself from those who perpetrated them.