New wave of media repression after African Union summit

New York, July 14, 2006—After a brief respite while hosting the African Union summit, Gambian authorities have resumed a crackdown on the media. One journalist has not been seen since July 7, five days after the summit ended. He is believed to have been arrested, while another has gone into hiding fearing arrest, sources told the Committeee to Protect Journalists.

“The government has waited for international attention surrounding the AU summit to fade before launching a new offensive against the already beleaguered press,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The Gambia has become one of the worst places in Africa to be a journalist.”

Journalists in the Gambia already face some of the harshest working conditions in Africa. One former journalist has been in custody without charge since May; a leading private newspaper was shuttered by security forces in March; and a reporter is on trial for publishing “false news,” a criminal offense under Gambian law.

“Chief” Ebrima B. Manneh, of the pro-government Daily Observer, has been missing since July 7, according to local sources. Saja Taal, managing director of the Daily Observer, confirmed that Manneh had not been to newspaper’s office in a week. One CPJ source and the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa said he had been arrested by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Information Minister Neneh Mcdoll-Gaye told CPJ she had no information about Manneh’s whereabouts.

Sulayman Makalo, former assistant editor at the shuttered Banjul-based newspaper The Independent, has gone into hiding for fear of arrest, according to several local sources. The sources said Makalo was under threat because of his work for a new publication in Banjul, the Daily Express. The newspaper’s first issue, published on July 1 at the start of the AU summit in the capital, reprinted a press release from a coalition of civil society organizations protesting the government’s blocking of a forum on freedom of expression that had been scheduled to take place before the summit. On July 5, the Daily Observer printed a letter accusing the Daily Express of seeking “to tarnish the image of this country.” Makalo has since left his position at the Daily Express.

Lamine Saine, an NIA investigator, denied that the NIA was seeking to arrest Makalo. “We don’t normally threaten [journalists] with arrest,” he told CPJ. “We just call them and tell them come over, we want to discuss something with you.” Saine denied that the NIA had ever detained a journalist.

In fact, four journalists have been imprisoned in NIA detention facilities this year, CPJ has confirmed after extensive research. One of them, Malick Mboob, a former journalist who was arrested on May 26, is still in NIA custody, though the agency has declined to account for his detention.

The Independent’s general manager, Madi Ceesay, and editor Musa Saidykhan were kept incommunicado in NIA custody for three weeks before being released without charge on April 20. Lamin Fatty, a reporter for The Independent, was held for over two months without due process or access to a lawyer. He was released on June 12, but faces trial for publishing “false news.” (For more information on his case, see CPJ’s latest Gambia alert).

The Independent has not been able to publish since its offices were raided by security forces on March 28.

“It is time for Gambian authorities to stop this onslaught against the private press,” Simon added. “Authorities must account for Ebrima B. Manneh’s whereabouts, publicly renounce all threats against the Daily Express, and allow The Independent to resume publishing. The government must release Malick Mboob or explain its reasons for holding him.”