Seven Gambian press leaders arrested over Hydara reaction

New York, June 16, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists called today for Gambia’s national security agency to release seven journalists it arrested on Monday. The detainees include leaders of the country’s press union and editors of newspapers that published a union press release criticizing President Yahya Jammeh’s recent comments about the unsolved 2004 murder of editor Deyda Hydara. 

On Monday evening, National Intelligence Agency (NIA) plainclothes agents picked up veteran Managing Editor Sam Sarr, an advisor to the Gambia Press Union, and reporter Abubakr Saidy Khan of Foroyaa at the paper’s offices, according to local journalists. Foroyaa, which comes out three times a week, published the press release in its Friday edition. Saidy Khan was arrested while attempting to take photographs to document the arrest of Sarr, journalists told CPJ.

Earlier, the agency arrested Emil Touray, Foroyaa assistant editor and the union’s secretary general, along with four journalists from the private daily The Point, which published the union’s statement in Monday’s edition, according to local journalists. Managing Editor Pap Saine, News Editor Ebrima Sawaneh, and union Vice President Sarata Jabbie and Treasurer Pa Modou Fall were all being held at the NIA headquarters, according to local journalists.

No official charges have been brought against any of the journalists, according to CPJ interviews with the press union and the NIA. Journalists may only be held for 72 hours before charges must be brought, according to Gambia’s 1997 constitution. NIA investigator Lamin Saine declined to comment on the case to CPJ. 

“The Gambia Press Union has a right to question the government over it failure to investigate the murder of Deyda Hydara, who was formerly the managing editor of The Point,” said Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “It is outrageous that security forces should detain journalists from The Point and Foraya for carrying a press release. All seven journalists should be released immediately.”   

Sources at the union told CPJ security agents originally came to their offices Monday morning looking for union President Ndey Tapha Sosseh, who is currently out of the country. After they failed to apprehend Sosseh, the agents arrested senior press union members and the editors responsible for re-publishing the press release, union members said.

Guards at the NIA headquarters have twice denied the seven detainees visits from union counsel lawyer Lamin Camara and family members. The guards told Camara that any request to see the detainees has to be approved by the director general of the agency, and that the earliest a meeting can be arranged is Wednesday morning, the union reported.

Both publications are continuing to print despite the detentions, local journalists told CPJ. The arrests overshadowed Monday morning’s acquittal of Saine, who was in the Banjul magistrate’s court facing spurious immigration-related charges believed by local journalists to have been lodged in retaliation for a recent political story. Immediately after Saine’s acquittal, security officers escorted him to the NIA headquarters.

Also on Monday, the managing editor of the private daily Today, Abdulhamid Adiamoh, was fined 50,000 dalasis (US$1,885) after pleading guilty to charges of publishing false information. Adiamoh told CPJ his paper had incorrectly reported on June 10 the firing of two officials but published a retraction the following day and sent letters of apology to the officials in question. Andiamoh was arrested June 10 and detained for nearly a week. 

In the Gambia, one of the world’s worst backsliders in press freedom, a handful of independent media operate in a climate of fear and self-censorship, particularly since the unsolved murder of Hydara and the 2006 arrest of journalist “Chief” Ebrima Manneh