The unlawful detention of seven Gambian journalists since last Monday is serious cause for concern. These respected journalists were detained at the National Intelligence Agency headquarters in Banjul for “interrogation.” They have been denied access by legal representation, family members, friends, or colleagues. On Thursday, they were charged with sedition for criticizing President Yahya Jammeh’s televised comments about the unsolved 2004 murder of editor Deyda Hydara.
The detained journalists are: Pap Saine, co-publisher and managing editor of The Point; Sam Sarr, editor of Foroyaa; Ebrima Sawaneh, news editor of The Point; Sarata Jabbi-Dibba, vice president of the Gambia Press Union; Pa Modou Faal, union treasurer; Emil Touray, union secretary-general; and Abubakr Saidy Kahn, a reporter with Foroyaa. Security forces also arrested Abba Gibba, an editor with The Point, on Thursday, according to the press union.
It is unfortunate that a trend of unlawful arrest, detention, and oppression of Gambian journalists continues. As a Gambian journalist who has been arrested on many occasions–and tortured with electrocution by security forces–I am very worried about what may happen to the arrested journalists.
In 2001, I published a story in the London-based West Africa Magazine alleging that thousands of non-citizens had been illegally registered in order to vote for Jammeh. I was detained for eight days and tortured in reprisal. I still shudder when remembering being locked inside something called “bambadinka” (a crocodile’s hole). The “hole” is a dark room with no ventilation and infested with mosquitoes and human waste. There is no furniture; the only object in the place is an electrical torture device.
During my detention, the justice of the High Court said: “Only the Gestapo of Hitler could come anywhere near so brutal, sinister, and illegal detention since no affidavit was filed before me by the attorney general of the Republic of the Gambia to justify or explain the reason(s) behind the detention of Alhagie Mbye.”
It is important to note that the Gambian constitution says: ”Every person who is charged with a criminal offense shall be presumed innocent until he or she is proved, or has pleaded guilty; shall be informed at the time he or she is charged, in a language which he or she understands and in detail of the nature of the offense charged; shall be given adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his her defense; shall be permitted to defend him self or herself before the court in person or, at his or her own expense, by a legal representative.”
But the journalists in custody now were kept without charges until the last possible moment and then whisked in front of a magistrate to face a spurious sentence with no access to legal consul. Furthermore, Section 207 of the constitution of The Gambia clearly guarantees the right to a free media.
I hope and pray the rule of law will be abided and that no Gambian journalist shall face further persecution for simply doing their job.
Alhagie Mbye was a senior reporter for the Gambian private weekly The Independent and is currently The Point’s United Kingdom correspondent.