BBC reporter arrested in widening crackdown

New York, June 1, 2006—Gambian security officers arrested a local journalist working for the BBC on Tuesday, a local source told the Committee to Protect Journalists. A BBC source in London confirmed that Lamin Cham had been detained. His whereabouts are unknown.

His arrest comes amid a government crackdown on a critical U.S.-hosted Web site, Freedom Newspaper. On May 25, police summoned everyone who appeared on a list of alleged contributors to Freedom Newspaper, which was circulated via e-mail and reprinted in the pro-government Daily Observer. Freedom Newspaper’s U.S.-based editor, Pa Nderry M’bai, told CPJ that the list was leaked by someone who hacked into his e-mail account. It identified journalists, local and exiled Gambians, and government employees who allegedly served as sources.

Cham’s name was not on the list, but the BBC source said that Cham was taken for questioning in connection with the crackdown. Cham is a former editor-in-chief of the Daily Observer, who was removed after he oversaw news coverage deemed critical of the government, according to local sources.

An intelligence officer contacted by CPJ referred questions to the police. Police spokesman Aziz Bojang said that Cham was not being held by the police, and said he had no further information on the journalist’s whereabouts or the reasons for his arrest.

“President Yahya Jammeh’s intolerance of dissent has plummeted to new depths, with incommunicado detentions and widespread intimidation of independent voices,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “Our colleague Lamin Cham should be freed immediately and unconditionally.”

At least three Gambian journalists were arrested on Friday and detained at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) headquarters in connection with the crackdown on Freedom Newspaper. Two of them, Pa Modou Faal of the state-owned broadcaster GRTS and Musa Sheriff of the independent magazine Gambia News & Report, were released Tuesday evening without charge. Malick Mboob, a former Daily Observer journalist, is still in custody, a local source told CPJ. For more information on these arrests, see CPJ’s alert.

Another Gambian journalist, Lamin Fatty of the private Banjul-based newspaper The Independent, has been held by the NIA since April 10. Fatty faces at least one criminal charge of publishing false information, local sources have told CPJ. The Independent has not been able to publish since it was shuttered by security forces on March 28. For more information, see CPJ’s May 17 letter.

“Gambia’s brutal and arbitrary repression of the media is shameful, especially for a country which is home to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and which is shortly due to host an African Union summit,” Cooper added. “We urge the African Union to denounce the ongoing abuses in the Gambia and consider moving the summit elsewhere.”