Gambian journalists freed on bail in sedition case

New York, June 22, 2009Seven Gambian journalists charged with sedition last week for criticizing the president have been freed on bail, while two other detainees were released without charge, local journalists and the press union told CPJ today.

Magistrate Sainabou Wadda, presiding in Kanifing Court, outside the capital, Banjul, today granted bail of 200,000 dalasi, (US$7,547) apiece to six journalists working for two private newspapers, Foroyaa and The Point, defense lawyer Lamin Camara told CPJ. All were able to post bail. Sarata Jabbi-Dibba, a senior reporter for The Point, posted bail in the same amount late last week.

Arrested on June 15, the journalists were detained at national security offices without charge until their first court appearance three days later. Without access to legal counsel, all were charged with sedition on June 18 and, with the exception of Jabbi-Dibba, all were denied bail. The next hearing in their case is scheduled for July 7.

All seven were arrested after publishing a press union statement that criticized President Yayha Jammeh for “inappropriate” comments made on state television about the unsolved 2004 murder of Point Editor Deyda Hydara. In a June 8 interview on state-run Gambia Radio and Television Service, Jammeh said the government investigation into Hydara’s slaying had stalled and suggested that interested journalists should “ask Deyda Hydara who killed him,” according to media reports.

“We welcome the release on bail of these seven journalists, but the fact remains that the charges against them are spurious,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “Authorities should halt the prosecution immediately.”

Two other journalists arrested late last week have been freed without charge, although each was required to post bail. Halifa Sallah, a Foroyaa executive board member, and Abba Jibba, deputy news editor to The Point, each posted bail of 200,000 dalasi (US$7,547). Jibba reported to the security office headquarters this morning for questioning and is expected to return there on June 25.

All of the journalists charged with sedition had been held at Mile Two Prison, with most of them held in a single room, the journalists said in interviews with CPJ. Security agents ordered the journalists to open their e-mail accounts in an effort to determine who wrote press union statements, sources said. 

According to local journalists, more than 100 people attended today’s bail hearing, including top diplomats from the United Kingdom and the United States. The courtroom was under heavy guard, and several journalists and family members were asked to leave, the press union reported.

Point reporter Augustine Kanja was detained after allegedly taking photos of the police and security agents in the courtroom. He was still in custody as of late Monday.

Veteran journalist Hydara was killed by gunmen in his car on the outskirts of Banjul in December 2004. In the June 8 state television interview, Jammeh denied government involvement in Hydara’s roadside slaying.