Attacks on the Press 2007: The Gambia

Fewer press-related detentions and attacks were reported in 2007, CPJ
research showed, but local journalists said the decline reflected several years of intense government suppression. One prominent journalist was slain and others have been forced into exile since 2004, leaving a more compliant press that practices widespread self-censorship. A mere handful of publications provide critical coverage, television is state-controlled, and radio news is limited to state-run broadcasts.

The government of President Yahya Jammeh appeared to grow more isolated. Long resistant to international influence, Jammeh seemed to have fraying relations with regional leaders as well. The president failed to turn up for the African Union summit in Ghana in the face of mounting pressure to explain the fates of 40 Ghanaians who disappeared after being picked up by Gambian security in 2005. His government ignored three dates before the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States in Abuja, Nigeria. The court is seeking Gambia’s explanation on the whereabouts of Daily Observer journalist “Chief” Ebrima B. Manneh, who was believed to be in government custody. The Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) had filed a suit with the court, claiming violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, seeking Manneh’s release, and requesting damages for Manneh’s family. Held incommunicado and without charge, Manneh has been seen publicly only twice since he was seized by government agents in 2006.

The administration also showed disdain for the international community. In February, Jammeh ordered U.N. representative Fadzai Gwaradzimba out of the country after she questioned the president’s claim that he could cure HIV/AIDS. And fanned by Jammeh’s rhetoric, state media were relentlessly critical of Western countries, especially former colonial power Britain.

For the press, years of government attacks and harassment have had a cumulative effect. The once-independent daily The Point has taken a more pro-government line since the 2004 murder of its editor, Deyda Hydara. The slaying remains unsolved. The news-heavy Sud FM closed under government pressure in 2005, leaving no private radio station covering news. Madi Ceesay, president of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) and a 2006 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee, told CPJ that self-censorship had reached an unprecedented level. Despite repeated efforts over two years, the GPU was unable to secure even a meeting with the government’s minister of information.

Local press groups put the number of exiled journalists at 23. Their ranks included Daily Observer reporter Momodou Lamin Jaiteh, who fled the country in June after receiving threatening phone calls and visits from security forces. Jaiteh said he was targeted for his work as a correspondent for MFWA. The threats came shortly after the foundation launched its lawsuit in the Manneh disappearance.

In October, Yahya Dampha, a journalist with the opposition newspaper Foroyaa, fled the country after security forces arrested him and two Amnesty International researchers on suspicion of espionage. The three were released without charge two days later, but security agents repeatedly visited Dampha’s home after the arrest, his wife said. Dampha was helping the researchers gain access to prisons in the country’s eastern region.

Jammeh’s administration demonstrated a long memory in 2007. In March, National Intelligence Agency (NIA) officers arrested former Gambian journalist Fatou Jaw Manneh upon her arrival at Banjul International Airport from the United States, where she had been residing for about 10 years. She was charged with sedition for a 2004 interview, published in the now-shuttered Independent newspaper, in which she said Jammeh “is tearing our beloved country in shreds.” Manneh, detained for a week at NIA headquarters in Banjul, was released on bail but barred from leaving the country. Two magistrates, reluctant to preside over the politically charged case, transferred the matter out of their courtrooms, leaving the case in limbo.

The NIA also picked up Daily Express Managing Editor Sam Obi, Sports Editor Abdulgafar Oladimeji, and reporter Modou Njie in March for four days of questioning. They had been accused of taking a printing plate from the government-owned Daily Observer, which had been printing the Daily Express. The accusation was considered spurious, local journalists said, and intended to further harass the year-old publication. The Nigerian-born Obi and Oladimeji had been detained in 2006, after they sought to print a press release from civil-society organizations in their inaugural edition.

In May, a Foroyaa reporter was threatened and harassed by police after covering police dispersal of a student celebration. Fabakary Ceesay said he was detained for four hours at the offices of the Kanifing Police Intervention Unit, where he was beaten, kicked, and forced to surrender his press credentials, tape recorder, and notebook. Ceesay was released the same day but received threatening phone calls in the following weeks. Ceesay said he believed the treatment stemmed in part from an April 2007 story concerning a former Guinea-Bissau refugee, Musa Bah, who died in police custody.

Domestic access to two U.S.-based, exile-run Web sites–Freedom Newspaper and All Gambian–was blocked for a month beginning in June, according to Internet site providers. Journalists for the Web sites, both of which are critical of the Jammeh administration, blamed the government. A government spokesman told CPJ that he was not aware that authorities had taken steps to block the sites.

In June, a court in the capital, Banjul, fined a reporter for the banned Independent in connection with a March 2006 story reporting the arrest of several suspects in the aftermath of a purported coup attempt, according to local journalists and news reports. Lamin Fatty of the private, biweekly Independent was fined 50,000 dalasi (US$2,500) on charges of publishing false information under Gambia’s criminal code, defense lawyer Lamin Camara told CPJ. Fatty filed an appeal, Camara said.

The crackdown on journalists extended to those employed by the government. In September, Assistant State House Press Secretary Mam Sait Ceesay and state radio producer and presenter Malick Jones were arrested by the NIA and held at Mile Two Prison, Banjul, accused of communicating secret information to foreign journalists. The government did not specify the information or the alleged recipients, and a court eventually freed the two men after fining them 200,000 dalasi (US$8,970).

The culture of fear was prevalent within Gambian civil society as a whole. Under Jammeh’s regime, civil servants faced high turnover rates and the ruling party’s tight control over job security. A weak civil society and divided opposition ensured that self-censorship and repressive media laws remained intact. The 2004 amendments to the Criminal Act made “false statements” a criminal offense and established stiff penalties for libel, false publication, and sedition, including fines as high as 250,000 dalasi (US$12,500) and prison sentences of one year or longer. In addition, the 2004 amendment to the colonial-era Newspaper Act made it nearly impossible for a media house to start a new publication within the country, increasing the bond requirement to a prohibitive 500,000 dalasi (US$25,000).

Despite the tight repression, journalists continued to push for change. A new organization, the Network of Human Rights Journalists, held a public symposium in July calling on the secretary of state for the interior and the director general of the National Intelligence Agency to investigate the disappearance of Ebrima Manneh. Exiled freelance journalist Ebrima Sillah and former state radio director Amie Joof-Cole continued their efforts to launch a nationwide independent community radio station, Alternative Voice Radio, in 2008. The station would be based in neighboring Senegal.