Independent reporter released on bail

New York, June 12, 2006—A court in the Gambia freed a reporter on bail today, more than two months after he was detained by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), local sources told the Committee to Protect Journalists. Lamin Fatty of the Banjul-based The Independent will go on trial June 22 on charges of publishing “false news, ” they said.

Under Gambian law, Fatty should have gone before a court within 72 hours of his arrest but his appearance today was the first since his detention on April 10, according to Madi Ceesay, general manager of The Independent, and secretary-general of the Gambia Press Union.

“The Gambian authorities have treated Lamin Fatty outrageously, detaining him extra-judicially and without access to a lawyer for over two months,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “We welcome his release on bail but he should never have been detained. We call on the authorities to drop all charges against him immediately.”

Fatty is charged under section 181 of the Criminal Code, which was amended in 2004 to strengthen prison sentences for press offenses. He faces a minimum of six months in jail, without the option of a fine, if convicted. He is the first reporter to be prosecuted under the amended law, according to CPJ records.

The charge relates to an article headlined “23 ’Coup Plotters’ Arrested,” which appeared in The Independent on March 24. The story incorrectly reported that former Interior Minister Samba Bah, who is also a former head of the NIA, was among those arrested in the wake of a purported coup attempt. The paper subsequently ran Bah’s response and its own apology. Sixteen people detained for alleged involvement in the coup attempt are currently on trial for treason and conspiracy, according to Amnesty International.

The Independent has not been able to publish since March 28, when Gambian security agents sealed its offices, and detained Madi Ceesay and Editor Musa Saidykhan. Saidykhan and Ceesay were kept in NIA custody for three weeks before being released without charge on April 20.

One journalist remains in detention at the NIA, a local source told CPJ today. Malick Mboob, a former journalist for the pro-government Daily Observer, was arrested on May 26 in connection with a crackdown on the critical U.S.-based Web site Freedom Newspaper.

“We call on Gambian authorities to allow The Independent to publish, and to release Malick Mboob immediately and unconditionally,” Cooper added.