May 17, 2006
President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh
c/o Embassy of the Gambia
1155 15th Street, NW, Suite 1000,
Washington, D.C. 20005
Via facsimile: (202) 726-1860
The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by the deterioration of press freedom in the Gambia. Authorities in your country have held a journalist without any official explanation since April 10 and have prevented his newspaper, The Independent, from operating for more than seven weeks.
On May 6, Secretary of State for Justice Sheikh Tijan Hydara delivered a keynote address at the 39th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which is based in the Gambia. During his speech, he claimed that Gambia’s “human rights record, when compared to other countries, is excellent,” according to the pro-government Daily Observer.
CPJ’s research indicates otherwise. The record demonstrates a pattern of repression and harassment meted out to the independent press by security forces and government agencies. In fact, the Gambia’s record on press freedom, a pillar of human rights, stands out as one of the worst in Africa.
Lamin Fatty, a reporter for The Independent, has been detained at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) for more than a month in an arbitrary manner, without due process or access to legal counsel. Your Excellency’s government has given no public explanation for Fatty’s detention, while NIA and police officials contacted by CPJ have not been able to confirm any charges against him. Gambian law requires that detainees be brought before a court within 72 hours, a period that elapsed more than six weeks ago.
The Independent has remained closed since Gambian security agents sealed the newspaper’s offices in the capital, Banjul, on March 28. Editor Musa Saidykhan and General Manager Madi Ceesay were detained on the same day; both were held in NIA custody for three weeks before being released without charge on April 20. No official explanation has been given for the paper’s continued closure, Madi Ceesay, general manager of The Independent, told CPJ today.
The arbitrary closure of The Independent has been marked by secrecy and contradiction. On April 24, senior security officials told staff at The Independent that authorities were lifting their ban on the newspaper, local journalists told CPJ. Yet the following day two vanloads of police officers prevented The Independent from reopening and briefly detained an employee who came to unlock the paper’s offices. Security forces continue to occupy the building, Ceesay said.
In his recent speech, the secretary of state for justice also said that the government’s investigation into the December 2004 assassination of veteran journalist and press freedom advocate Deyda Hydara was ongoing, according to the Daily Observer. However, officials have not announced any information from the investigation since the NIA released a report in June 2005. As CPJ noted at the time, the report bore more resemblance to a smear campaign against Hydara than an objective report by professionals. (See CPJ’s June 16, 2005, letter: http://www.cpj.org/protests/05ltrs/Gambia16june05pl.html.) In October 2005, the NIA detained and questioned Independent Editor Saidykhan over an article in which he wrote that he had discussed the Hydara case with South African President Thabo Mbeki. (See CPJ’s October 27, 2005, letter: http://www.cpj.org/news/2005/Gambia27oct05na.html.)
The Gambian government has also failed to solve a series of arson attacks on private media, including two on The Independent in 2003 and 2004. Journalists in the Gambia face repressive legislation as well as frequent harassment and threats.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues worldwide, we are profoundly concerned about the state of press freedom in your country. We urge Your Excellency to make good on your justice minister’s claims by ensuring that Lamin Fatty is released immediately. At the very minimum, he should be brought before a court of law and any charges against him should be made public, in accordance with Gambian law. In addition, we urge you to ensure that The Independent is allowed to reopen unconditionally; that Deyda Hydara’s murderers are brought to justice; and that all journalists in the Gambia are able to work without fear of reprisals.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.