Gambia must account for missing journalist Ebrima Manneh

New York, April 14, 2009–Gambian authorities must authoritatively account for the whereabouts, health, and legal status of journalist “Chief” Ebrima Manneh, who was taken into government custody by security agents in July 2006, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Authorities, who have held Manneh in secret locations since the arrest, have provided conflicting and incomplete accounts this month regarding his status.

In a report published today, Agence France-Presse quoted an unnamed senior police source as saying that plainclothes government agents took Manneh from the Mile Two Prison sometime last year. The source, who said agents seized Manneh from the prison in the middle of the night, speculated that the journalist is no longer alive, AFP reported.

Speaking to members of the National Assembly last week, however, Gambian Attorney General and Justice Minister Marie Saine Firdaus said Manneh has not been in government custody. She said the government would seek to overturn a regional court ruling that found Gambian authorities had unlawfully detained Manneh. The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States last year ordered the Gambian government to release Manneh immediately and to pay his family damages of US$100,000. U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin has also sought Manneh’s release.

The Gambian government has consistently refused to respond to questions about the case. The attorney general’s comments are among the government’s few public statements on the matter.

It is time for the Gambian government to account for ‘Chief’ Ebrima Manneh and relieve the distress of his family and colleagues. We hold the government responsible for his arrest, his extrajudicial disappearance, and his treatment in custody,” said CPJ’s deputy director, Robert Mahoney. “We call on authorities to provide full information on this case.”

A reporter for The Daily Observer, Manneh was picked up by state security agents after he tried to republish a BBC report critical of President Yahya Jammeh on the eve of an African Union summit in Banjul. Manneh has been seen only a handful of times since his arrest, which was witnessed by co-workers.

Manneh’s brother Lamin responded to AFP report with a heavy sigh and long silence. “It’s really sad. Honestly, I don’t know which news to believe anymore,” he told CPJ.

In 2007, CPJ named Gambia one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom. A handful of independent media operate in a climate of fear created by the unsolved murder of prominent editor Deyda Hydara, a series of unsolved arsons of media houses, and a pattern government intimidation and prosecution of journalists.