Attacks on the Press 2005: The Gambia

THE GAMBIA The tightening of repressive media laws and the failure to solve
the December 2004 murder of veteran journalist Deyda Hydara added to the climate of violence and intimidation faced by private media in 2005. President Yahya Jammeh said that the Gambia allowed “too much freedom of expression,” and local journalists feared that government repression could worsen in the run-up to presidential elections in 2006.

In March, news emerged that Jammeh had secretly signed into law two pieces of repressive media legislation, which both the Gambia Press Union (GPU) and Hydara, managing editor and co-owner of the independent newspaper The Point, had opposed.

One measure, an amendment to the Newspaper Act, raised the bond that print media owners must post to register with the government, from 100,000 dalasis (US$3,480) to 500,000 dalasis (US$17,400). It extended this requirement to broadcast media owners and instructed all media owners to reregister. Local journalists called the sum prohibitive, and said it would hinder media development.

The other measure amended the criminal code, replacing fines with mandatory prison sentences of at least six months for media owners or journalists convicted of publishing defamatory, “seditious,” or false information. It also allowed the state to confiscate without judicial oversight any publication deemed “seditious.”

Under local and international pressure, the government later revised the criminal code a second time. It removed the mandatory prison provision and brought back the option of a fine. But at the same time, it doubled the minimum jail sentence to one year. The GPU slammed the amendment as a step backward and expressed concern over a provision allowing courts to impound presses used to print offending materials.

At the start of the year, it looked as if the country’s small independent press—notably, the leading newspapers The Point and The Independent—might not survive the fallout from Hydara’s murder. The Point had lost its editor and leading light. The Independent‘s then-editor, Abdoulie Sey, fled the country, while Managing Editor Alagi Yorro Jallow decided to remain abroad. Both men had been threatened and feared for their safety.

Despite the loss of senior staff, both The Point and The Independent managed to publish with editorial help from Demba Jawo, who was then the GPU secretary-general. Remarkably, journalists at The Independent also overcame the loss of their newspaper’s printing capability.

In May, The Independent was forced to stop publishing after the pro-government, private Daily Observer abruptly terminated an informal printing arrangement. Independent Editor Musa Saidykhan told CPJ that other Gambian printing and publishing houses refused the paper’s requests for a contract. He said they had been threatened not to print The Independent and feared that their presses could be attacked.

The Independent remained closed for more than a month while it sought to solve the printing problem. Finally, it switched to a different format that relied on photocopying rather than a printing press. Independent journalists suspect the Daily Observer had political motives for terminating its agreement with The Independent. Momodou Sanyang, the Daily Observer‘s managing editor at the time, told CPJ that he made the decision after learning of problems with his paper’s printing facilities, including the need for spare parts and extra printing capacity.

During a mission to the Gambia in April 2005, CPJ observed the deep mistrust between the government and the independent media. CPJ called on Jammeh and his government to take a number of steps to improve the environment, including affirming a commitment to press freedom and journalists’ safety.

Jammeh did the opposite. In July, he said he had provided “too much freedom of expression and media rights,” according to the Media Foundation for West Africa, an independent organization based in Ghana. In an interview with the state broadcaster to mark the 11th anniversary of the July 22 coup that brought him to power, Jammeh said that he had introduced the new press laws because “journalists are only bent on character assassination of people.”

The official investigation into Hydara’s killing stagnated. In June, the government released to the press a “confidential” report compiled by the National Intelligence Agency, which was supposed to investigate the crime. The report failed to detail any forensic evidence or to explore possible links between Hydara’s murder and other unsolved attacks on the independent media. Instead, it alleged that he was a “serial womanizer” who had “recklessly provoked” a large number of people. The report was widely condemned as unprofessional and viewed as a government effort to smear Hydara’s reputation.

Hydara, who also worked as a correspondent for Agence France-Presse and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), was shot in the head and chest by unidentified assailants while he drove home from his office in the capital, Banjul, late on December 16, 2004. Two other staff members of The Point were wounded. Hydara was a frequent critic of the government and a leading campaigner for press freedom. He wrote a column called “Good Morning Mr. President,” in which he criticized Jammeh. Many local journalists suspect that his attackers may have been linked to government security forces.

Journalists said they were also deeply concerned by the government’s failure to solve a series of arson attacks, including a 2000 attack on private broadcaster Radio 1 FM; an August 2004 attack on the home of BBC correspondent Ebrima Sillah; and an October 2003 attack on the offices of The Independent. A second attack on The Independent in April 2004 destroyed the newspaper’s new printing press. Several employees who were in the building at the time barely escaped.