Gambian security forces seal off leading newspaper, arrest staff

New York, March 28, 2006—Plainclothes Gambian security agents today sealed the offices of the twice-weekly newspaper The Independent and arrested staffers found on the premises, local journalists told the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most of the staff members were released after brief questioning, but Editor Musa Saidykhan and General Manager Madi Ceesay remained in custody at the end of the day. Police had arrested Saidykhan at his home overnight. Authorities have given no explanation, CPJ sources said.

“We are deeply troubled by this attack on one of the Gambia’s leading private newspapers,” sasid CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “Gambian authorities should release our colleagues Musa Saidykhan and Madi Ceesay immediately and unconditionally and allow The Independent to resume publishing without fear of reprisal.”

Ceesay, who was recently appointed general manager, is also secretary-general of the Gambia Press Union (GPU). A source at The Independent said Ceesay and Saidykhan had been taken to the headquarters of the Police Intervention Unit in the capital Banjul, and that Saidykhan was later transferred to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). An NIA official contacted by CPJ said he was “not aware” of the detention and could not confirm any information about The Independent.

Former GPU head Demba Jawo told CPJ that he went to the newspaper’s office today and confirmed that the office had been sealed by security agents. He said he had not been able to confirm the whereabouts of Saidykhan or Ceesay or the reason for their arrests. Independent Assistant Editor-in Chief Sulayman Makalo, who was among those detained this morning, told CPJ that security agents asked about his position at the paper and his contact information.

The Independent has long been critical of President Yahya Jammeh’s government, which withstood a purported coup attempt on March 21. Yesterday’s edition contains, for example, a story titled “How Wealthy is Jammeh?” in which it quotes an opposition politician as asking “whether President Jammeh is wealthier than the state.” It also contains an opinion piece by Ceesay in which he points out that Jammeh also took power in a coup and strongly criticizes the president’s record.

At least 27 Gambians, including former army officers and top officials have been arrested in connection with the coup attempt, according to a report today on the BBC Web site. Jammeh, in power since 1994, faces re-election later this year.

Last October, Saidykhan was detained and harassed by the NIA over an article on the unsolved December 2004 murder of prominent Gambian editor Deyda Hydara (see CPJ news alert of October 27, 2005). The Gambian government has also failed to solve a series of arson attacks on private media, including two against The Independent in 2003 and 2004.