Years of brutal repression by President Yahya Jammeh’s administration have gutted Gambia’s once-vibrant independent press and driven numerous journalists into exile. In August, the government forced Taranga FM, the last independent radio station airing news in local languages, to halt its coverage. The move came ahead of an October presidential election in which Jammeh faced no viable opponent and brooked no dissent. Official repression has taken many forms over the years, including arbitrary arrests, censorship, forced closures of media outlets, verbal and physical intimidation, arson attacks, and prosecutions under restrictive legislation. These actions, coupled with impunity in attacks on media houses and journalists, have reduced the domestic news media to a handful of newspapers that operate under intense fear and self-censorship. While marketing the country internationally as an idyllic tourism destination, the government ignored two rulings by a West African human rights court: one ordering the release of reporter “Chief” Ebrima Manneh, who disappeared in state custody after his 2006 arrest, and another compelling the government to pay compensation to a journalist for illegal detention and torture.
Violence and intimidation have driven many of the Gambia's best journalists out of the country. Despite its small size, Gambia is 13th worst among all nations worldwide in the number of journalists who have fled into exile, according to CPJ research.
Manneh disappeared in government custody after he was arrested in his newsroom by agents of the National Intelligence Agency. Despite eyewitness accounts of Manneh’s arrest and subsequent sightings of the journalist in custody, Gambian officials have consistently denied having any knowledge of his whereabouts. That changed in October 2011, however, when Justice Minister Edward Gomez said Manneh was alive. He offered no details.
Timeline in Manneh case:
July 7, 2006: Picked up by National Intelligence Agency agents at the offices of the Daily Observer.
December 2006: Journalist Yahya Dampha spotted Manneh in custody in Fatoto police station.
July 25, 2007: Manneh was seen under guard at a hospital, being treated for high blood pressure.
June 5, 2008: Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States ordered Manneh’s release and directed the government to pay damages to his family.
April 6, 2009: In an address to the National Assembly, Attorney General Marie Saine Firdaus denied Manneh was in custody.
April 22, 2009: Six U.S. senators called on Gambia to release Manneh.
September 2009: U.N. Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for the immediate release of Manneh.
March 16, 2011: Jammeh publicly suggested knowledge of Manneh’s fate with an unprecedented reference to his death: “The government has nothing to do with the death of Chief Manneh.”
October 6, 2011: Justice Minister Gomez declared that Manneh is alive.
With words of contempt and intimidation, Jammeh periodically threatened the media, chilling
journalists into fear and self-censorship,
according to CPJ research and news reports.
Jammeh’s hostile words:
September 2006: “The whole world can go to hell. If I want to ban any newspaper, I will.”
July 2009: “Any journalist who thinks that he or she can write whatever he or she wants and go free is making a big mistake. If anybody is caught, he will be severely dealt with.”
September 2009: “I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it. We are not going to condone people posing as human rights defenders to the detriment of the country.”
March 2011: “If I have to close any newspaper because you have violated the laws, I will close it. ... I will not billahi wallahi, sacrifice the interests, the peace and stability and well-being of the Gambian people at the altar of freedom of expression, or freedom of press, or freedom of movement, or freedom of whatever.”
Impunity in anti-press attacks has been complete over the past decade. No arrests or convictions have been made for arson attacks on media houses, the murder of a prominent journalist, and the shooting death of another.
Murder: Deyda Hydara (December 16, 2004)
Arson attack: Home of journalist Ebrima Sillah (August 15, 2004)
Arson attack: Printing press of The Independent (April 13, 2004)
Arson attack: The Independent (October 2003)
Arson attack: Radio 1 FM (August 2000)
The administration has silenced numerous independent news sources over the years, imposing temporary or permanent bans. Outlets that were allowed to resume operation often eliminated news coverage or began exerting intense self-censorship.
Outlets temporarily or permanently closed:
1998: Citizen FM (Resumed operation without news coverage)
2005: Sud FM (Closed)
2006: The Independent (Closed)
2008: Radio France Internationale (Allowed to resume operations)
2010: The Standard (Resumed operation with self-censorship)
2011:Taranga FM (Resumed operation without news coverage)