Murder, arson, repression thwart Gambian press

Banjul, Gambia, April 12, 2005—A string of unsolved arson attacks, a series of unchecked threats, and the passage of restrictive new laws have created deep mistrust between the Gambia’s government and its small independent press. Suspicions have been compounded by the December 2004 murder of veteran journalist Deyda Hydara and the government’s failure to bring the perpetrators to justice.

These are the findings of a CPJ delegation that visited the Gambia from April 6 to 12 and presented its conclusions at a press conference today in the capital, Banjul. The delegation met with Gambian journalists from the private and state media, executives of the Gambia Press Union, and senior government officials, including the secretaries of state for justice, information, and the interior.

Members of the delegation also met with the director general of the National Intelligence Agency, which has taken over the investigation into Hydara’s murder. “We saw indications that the NIA is carrying out an investigation in good faith,” CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Julia Crawford said. “However, even the basic facts of the murder have not been firmly established, and we fear that it could be difficult to make significant progress in a climate where journalists and witnesses are unwilling to cooperate with government investigators.”

Hydara, editor of the independent newspaper The Point, was shot dead on the night of December 16, 2004, while returning home from his office. His murder came just two days after the Gambian National Assembly passed two contentious pieces of media legislation that Hydara, along with other local independent journalists, had strongly opposed.

Journalists who met with the CPJ delegation expressed dismay that President Yahya Jammeh secretly signed this legislation only weeks after the murder. One law imposes mandatory prison sentences for journalists found guilty of defamation or publishing false information. A second law increases fivefold the financial guarantee that all media outlets must post in order to register. Media outlets were required to re-register within 14 days after the president signed the measure into law. While authorities have not enforced the Newspaper Act, journalists say that the new laws add to their feeling of insecurity.

Local journalists also expressed deep concern at a series of unsolved arson attacks on independent media, including an April 2004 blaze that destroyed the printing press of The Independent newspaper. Access to government information is extremely limited; the government bars civil servants from speaking with the press without authorization from their bosses.

“A firm commitment to press freedom at the highest level would help create conditions for the private press to operate without fear in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections,” said CPJ board member and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page. “By helping to reduce mistrust, President Jammeh can also create a more favorable environment in which to investigate Hydara’s murder.”

CPJ called on the president and his government to affirm its respect for the role of the press; condemn all threats and violence against journalists; renew investigations into the arson attacks and make the findings public; improve access to government information; repeal the recent repressive amendments to the Criminal Code and the Newspaper Act; and work toward decriminalizing press offenses.

The CPJ delegation included Crawford, Page, and CPJ Deputy Director Joel Simon.

Read the full text of the delegation’s statement to the press conference in Banjul.