Fatou Jaw Manneh
Theme: SINCE 1994, UNDER THE APRC LED GOVERNMENT HAS BROUGHT DRACONIAN LAWS TO MARGINALIZE JOURNALIST AND FREE PRESS. PRACTISING JOURNALISM HAS BECOME THE MOST DANGEROUS TRADE IN PRESENT DAY GAMBIA. UNDER THIS ATMOSPHERE, WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF THE INDEPENDENT PRESS IN THE FIGHT TO RESTORE FREEDOM OF THE PRESS?
Good Afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen:
When I got the request and invitation to present a paper on Gambian journalism, I sent word to Gambian journalists on the ground for input lest I leave out any important details. The information I got from my colleagues on the state of journalism in the last 19 years under President Yahya Jammeh amounted to a booklet. That’s right, I got lots of feedback. I skimmed through it all, and in summary, I am honored today to represent the voices of Gambian journalism and to convey their predicament verbatim.
It would have been ideal for one of my colleagues in The Gambia to come here today and present this paper and explain the tragic story of Gambian journalism under President Jammeh, but all the same, I will attempt, with this presentation, to paint a thorough picture of the state of Gambian journalism and also to relay the plight of my colleagues to the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Without question, no other sector in Gambian civil society has suffered as much as the private press under President Yahya Jammeh. There is too much fear and intimidation. The relationship between the president and the Gambian media has been far from cordial. But how did we get here? I mean, how did the relationship between Jammeh and Gambian journalists get this bad? It was never like this in the beginning.
In 1994, when Jammeh came to power, Gambians were already enjoying some freedom of speech; Gambian voices were vocal and assertive during the transitional period. Many editorials and articles, critical of the new military regime, ran frequently in the newspapers. If you remember, in the early days, Jammeh told the Gambian press, and I quote, “Criticize us anytime we go wrong, we don’t want your praises,” Unquote. Jammeh had an open-door policy towards Gambian journalists: they could visit him at State House and interview him as and when needed. It was that easy and simple. Jammeh made himself readily available to the local press.
Perhaps, he needed us to, at least, help him legitimize his cause to the Gambian people and to the international community. By being “friendly” and “open” to the press, he would be seen as a different kind of a military leader, one who respects and believes in a free and vibrant press.
But as we found out in the years since 1994, the Gambian press has become Jammeh’s punching bag. Why does Jammeh see us as his “enemies”? Why did he change on us? This is not the Jammeh we saw early on, who was always eager to talk to us and who gave the impression that he would respect the rights and freedoms of an independent press. I have no clear understanding of what led to this change in attitude on the part of Jammeh. My only guess is that as he strengthened his grip on power, he felt too “big” for his constituents, including members of the press. This is what arrogance of power can do. It makes you insular and unreceptive. It makes you dictatorial.
As seen in The Gambian and elsewhere, it is hard for a press to operate freely when the system of governance is not democratic but tyrannical; when the judiciary, the final arbiter of justice, is neither free nor independent. For a press to operate freely, there also has to be constitutional order. By this I mean, having in place inviolable laws and regulations, non-interference with judicial independence and decisions, the upholding of the rule of law. These things are missing in The Gambia today. This is part of the predicament facing Gambian journalism.
The Gambia, a former British colony with 1.7 million people, a dictatorship and authoritarian rule but dubbed as an emerging democracy after returning from a brief military rule in 1996. The military ruler, Yahya Jammeh, was later democratically elected as the country went through two successive presidential elections in 1996 and 2001 respectively, which were deemed free and fair by international observers.
The media of this small West Africa country is, however, under constant pressure: Unnamed thugs attack journalists and burn down media houses, and investigations do not lead to any arrests. On the contrary, journalists may find themselves arrested on different occasions, they are threatened and intimidated, and in the recent years, they have been facing a dangerous rise in government control of the media, directly as wells as through restrictive, punitive actions.
Another obstacle facing the Gambia media is the poor access to official information. Most civil servants and Government officials are unwilling to talk to journalists. The situation is aggravated by the lack of public relations personnel (spokesperson) in Government departments. So for most times, journalists find it 'tough' to get official confirmation.
In addition, the media are poor in terms of both earnings and investments, the reporters have no formal journalism education and the media are asking for more professionalism on the editorial, the financial and the technological sides. The private media lack the capacity to expand, they earn only a little from advertisement, the print media lack a proper printing press and even newsprint. Most often, the media have to buy their newsprint in Senegal.
Radio is the major media in a country where the adult illiteracy is 52% and where only the few can afford to buy newspapers and magazines.
The dominant radio station is the national broadcaster Gambia Radio and Television Services, GRTS, which can be heard throughout the country. The urban area has a growing number of private commercial and community radio stations.
These private stations rarely disseminate local news bulletins. They learned their lesson from Citizen FM, a private radio station, which in 1998 was closed down by the government. The station’s problems started, when it began to broadcast its own news bulletins, quoting the opposition’s points of views, and reviewing the English-language newspapers in the major local languages. After a legal battle the station was finally closed in October 2001.
Gambia has only one TV-broadcaster, GRTS, and with a very small range it is mainly an urban phenomenon.
All the newspapers are in English. In principle anyone can run a newspaper in the Gambia, as long as the paper is registered and the material is not “offensive”. With the Newspaper Act passed in December 2004, increases the cost of registering a newspaper or a broadcasting station from 100,000.00 Gambian dalasi to 500,000.00 dalasi (about 17, 000 dollars).
All the papers are private-owned newspapers, apart from the governmental Gambia Daily. However, the Daily Observer is in fact controlled by the government. The paper was taken over by a businessman close to President Yahya Jammeh, after the former owner, a Liberian, was expelled from the Gambia. Today the Daily Observer prioritizes front page news stories about the president, because “the president deserves prominence” as once put by its editors.
Journalists are generally perceived negative in government circles; they are seen as adversaries rather than partners in national development. The reason the private media is often considered anti-government, it is, according to the GPU, because they tend to balance the pro-government views by taking the opposite stand.
The quality of the reporting is generally considered low by all parties. Reports are often opinionated or speculative, they tend to lack facts, sources and research, the reporters tend “to publish a scoop rather than to develop it.”
Situation of the media in The Gambia
The situation of freedom of expression and journalists in The Gambia is increasingly worrisome, as the state continues to entertain draconian media laws and harassment of journalists. Freedom of expression has been under attack since 1994, and each year the space in which the media can operate becomes smaller and more dangerous.
Journalists and other members of the media are routinely subjected to human rights violations, such as unlawful arrests and detentions, torture, unfair trials, harassment, assaults, death threats and closures of media houses, making it extremely difficult to do our work.
This negation of free expression and intimidation of journalists show no sign of abating even though President Yahya Jammeh has won a controversial fourth term in office, which he began without filling the position of Minister of Information. This has made The Gambia the only country in Africa without an information minister.
Colonial laws which gives supreme powers to the president continue to be the embodiment of the criminal code; libel is as criminal as sedition and over the years the country has seen increasing number of citizens including journalists been prosecuted for given false information to a public official for merely petitioning the president to express their dissatisfaction on matters of public interest.
In addition, the state has enacted an Official Secret Act, a law which criminalizes giving certain state information to the public, thus further making it extremely difficult for journalists to execute their job.
We lost two journalists to bullets and one is still missing. After seven years, there is still no justice for slain journalist Deyda Hydara, who was murdered in cold blood on the night of December 16th 2004 and no proper investigation has been conducted on the disappearance of journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh, a senior reporter of the Daily Observer Newspaper who went missing since 2006.
Recently, a local community radio station, Tarenga FM was subjected to harassment and forced to abandon news review under the disguise of protecting national security.
Cognizant that Chapter IV Article 25 of The Gambian Constitution provides for freedom of speech, expression, the press and other media. Article 19 of the ICCPR ensures that everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference. Further it states that: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.”
This right includes the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media. And The African Charter (Article 9) provides that every individual shall have the right to receive information and every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.
The government of The Gambia being signatory to these international statues, must realize the urgency to act in accordance with the dictates of these statues and as well honor the principles of democracy as sanctioned by humanity.
Legal restrictions of press freedom
On the other hand the government sees many in the private media as irresponsible and unprofessional, disseminating too much defamatory information. On this reason the parliament passed in December 2004 an amendment to the Criminal Code, making it a criminal offence to publish or broadcast false, “seditious” or defamatory information, carrying a minimum sentence of six months, without the option of a fine
The Newspaper Act and the amendment to the Criminal Code was passed when the government had to abolish the very restrictive National Media Commission Act in October 2004 – after pressure from national and international civil society.
The story of the National Media Commission gives a picture of the media environment in the Gambia. Two years earlier the Government had enacted an Act of Parliament establishing the National Media Commission with a chairman appointed by the head of state. Gambia Press Union saw the commission as a government watchdog intended to limit the freedom of expression and the role of the private press, gaining unjustified powers over the media such as fining and imprisoning journalists. The commission was also providing a code of conduct for media practitioners and setting standards for the contents and quality of the media. Furthermore the commission could force journalists to reveal their sources.
As GPU found that the act violated the Gambian constitution, which guarantees the freedom of expression, the organization launched the Justice Initiative in cooperation with Open Society and Article 19 challenging the law for the Supreme Court.
Although the National Media Commission Act was defeated, GPU found that the two following media laws, The Newspaper Act and the amendment to the Criminal Code, left Gambian journalists “in deeper trouble that they would have been under the National Media Commission”.
Attacks on the media and the press freedom
December 16, 2004
The editor and co-founder of The Point Newspaper, Deyda Hydara was on the night of december 16, 2004 shot to dead by three bullets at the wheel of his car just few meters away from a police station. Hydara’s killing coincided with the 13th anniversary of the founding of The Point. The two other staffers of The Point who were inside Hydara’s car at the time of the incident – Nyansarang Jobe and Ida Jagne – also sustained serious injuries. Nyansarang was shot on the leg while Ida sustained severe bruises. Deyda Hydara, the managing editor of the independent newspaper, was a veteran of the Gambia press and an outspoken journalist. He was 58 and left a wife and four children.
The murder of Deyda Hydara was the first killing of a journalist in two decades in the region. It is, however, symptomatic for the Gambian media environment, which has become more and more brutal the last few years:
As a result of the brutal onslaught on the media, most journalists have been forced to go into exile or to abandon the profession due to family pressure, while a number of newspapers and radio stations have been indefinitely closed by the government. To date the attacks on the media have intensified.
It was only as recent as in 2013 that many journalists including Baboucarr Ceesay were harassed by the NIA and almost kidnapped. Ceesay was detained for a while together with Babucarr Saidykhan of Foroyaa newspaper who lately had to flee the country to Senegal. The two suffered simply for carrying out their duties as journalists. Another very senior reporter of Foroyaa in the person of Fa-Bakary Ceesay an investigative journalist and court reporter was also forced to leave the country for Senegal fear of his life.
In October of 2012, the parents of Pa Nderry Mbai, the editor of the most popular online Gambian newspaper Freedom, were paraded on National TV and forced to disown their son living in America.
Mr. Mbai’s crime was that he had gone undercover on the Gambian Vice President Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy, deceiving her into thinking that she was being interviewed by someone with an axe to grind with the Freedom editor. The information Mr. Mbai was able to squeeze out of Vice President Saidy during a trip to New York was nothing defamatory.
In August and September of 2012, three main media houses were shut down without any reasons given by the State. These are: Daily News, Standard and Teranga Radio – all privately-owned.
June 30, 2009
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court, hearing the case of torture brought by Gambian journalist, Musa Saidykhan against operatives of the Gambia's notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA), dismissed preliminary objections raised by the Gambian Government, the defendant in the case.
In November 2007, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) brought the suit on behalf of Saidykhan to seek justice for him and bring relief to many other Gambian journalists who had suffered similar fates and had escaped into exile for fear of repression.
June 15, 2009
Seven journalists were arrested and questioned by the NIA in relation to a statement the GPU issued, criticizing President Jammeh utterances on murdered journalist, Deyda Hydara. The Seven, include the Vice- President of the GPU, Sarata Jabbi Dibba were charged with Seditious publication and defamation. Those arrested include; Bai Emil Touray and Pa Modou Faal, both executive members of the GPU; Ebrima Sawaneh and Pap Saine of The Point Newspaper and Sam Sarr and Abubacarr SaidyKnah of the Foroyaa Newspaper.
The Editor-in-Chief of Today Newspaper, Abdulhamid Adiamoh, and Sub-editor Edward Carayol were arrested after an article in the paper's Wednesday edition reported "that the country's Attorney General and Minister of Justice Marie Saine-Firdaus and other senior government officials had been fired. Mr Carayol was release on bail; while Mr Adiamoh remained under detention for three days. He was then charged for publishing false and broadcasting information and subsequently sentence to a fine D50,000 (USD2,174) in default to serve one year in jail:
Mr. Pap Saine, editor of the Point newspaper, was rearrested on Monday interrogated by the Serious Crime Unit of the Gambia Police Force about his nationality.
February 9, 2009
Officials of the Gambia Police Force arrested Pap Saine, managing editor of the Banjul-based The Point newspaper, subjected him to several hours of interrogation and charged him with another offence of "false publication and broadcasting" at the serious crime unit.
Ousman Kagbo Editor-in- Chief of Business Digest was arrested and questioned by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). He was later released with no charges were preferred against him.
Abdul Hamid Adiamoh Editor -in-Chief of the Today newspaper was arrested; charged and sentenced to a fine D20;000 (USD865) in default to serve 6 months in jail for his failure to pay income and sales tax.
Buya Jammeh a reporter working with the Daily Observer was sacked by the management of the Daily Observer few days after being elected as a co-opted member of the Gambia Press Union (GPU). Buba was cautioned by the Managing Director and Editor- in- Chief, Dida Halake,to resign from his position from the GPU or quit the Observer. Buba however decided to quit the Daily Observer instead.
Assistant State House Press Secretary, Mam Sait Ceesay and state radio producer and presenter, Malick Jones were arrested by the NIA and held at the Mile Two Prisons in Banjul and accused of spreading “false information” They were both eventually dismissed from their respective jobs, but Malick Jones was eventually reinstated at the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS).
March 28, 2007
I left the US for The Gambia to pay tribute to my father who had earlier passed away. But I was arrested by agents of the National Intelligence Agency upon arrival at the Banjul International Airport. I was charged with sedition for an interview I had with the defunct Independent newspaper in 2004, and also for my general commentaries on malfeasance about Yahya Jammeh and the current authoritarian administration. I was found guilty and sentenced to a fine of D250; 000 (about USD 11, 000) or to serve 4 yrs in jail with hard labor. I am a former reporter with the Gambian Daily Observer newspaper and currently the publisher of Maafanta
December 12, 2006,
Baron Eloagu of the Daily Express, a privately owned newspaper was attacked and beaten. This followed the severe beating up of Abdougafar Olademinji, also of the Daily Express.
Dodou Sanneh, a reporter with the Gambia Radio and Television Services GRTS who was covering the campaign of the UDP led opposition coalition was recalled from his assignment and arrested when he reported for work, for what was termed as “favourable reporting for the opposition”. He was released on Monday, 27 September 2006 and sacked on the same day without reasons being given. He was reinstated but later sacked again.
Njameh Bah, a reporter of The Point was attacked in Bakoteh, about 18km from the capital, Banjul and severely beaten by her attackers.
Ebrima B. Manneh, a reporter with the Daily Observer was declared missing by his family. Manneh was last seen on July 7 by his colleagues. He is also believed to be in the hands of the NIA. Sulayman Makalo, another reporter with the Independent Newspaper is also declared missing.
A number of journalists and civilians were arrested and detained after being accused by the authorities of being the “informants” of an online Gambian Newspaper based in the United States. This was highly refuted by editor of the paper, who indicated that those whose names were published by the Daily Observer newspaper in Banjul and arrested by the NIA, were just mere subscribes to the paper.
However, journalist Malick Mboob, a former reporter of the Daily Observer and Communications officer of the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital is still languishing in detention at the NIA headquarters. Musa Sheriff, a Liberian journalist who was also arrested in relation to the publication of the subscribers names on the pro -government paper was severely tortured by the officials of the NIA whilst in detention. Omar Bah, former editor of the Daily Observer has been declared WANTED by the Inspector General of Police. His whereabouts are not known.
April 10, 2006
Lamin Fatty, a reporter with the Independent Newspaper was arrested and detained at the headquarters of the NIA. Fatty spent almost two months in detention before he was finally charged for “false publication”. He is presently standing trial at the Magistrate’s Court and there are fears that if found guilty he would be jailed for at least six months.
March 27/28, 2006
Another crackdown on The Independent newspaper. Editor-in-chief, Musa Saidykhan, was arrested on March 27th by the security forces. The editor’s arrest was followed by the arrest of the entire staff of the company, including its newly appointed manager, Madi Ceesay. Security officers also sealed off the paper’s office complex. After weeks in solitary confinement punctuated with systematic and physical torture, the duo who double as president and vice president of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), were released on bail 22 days later.
Their arrest was linked to the publication of a list of the March 21 attempted foiled coup suspects. Editor Saidykhan had since fled the country.
In the spring 2005 a TV reporter gave and interview with representative from Article 19, who questioned the investigation of the murder of Deyda Hydara. As a consequence the reporter was intimidated by her seniors.
• In October 2005 the government closed Sud FM Radio Station in Banjul. It was accused of threatening the national security because of its analysis of a border-issue between the Gambia and Senegal.
• Although less outspoken The Point is still a target for attacks. On November 26 2005 a young reporter, Ms. Njameh Bah, was beaten up by unnamed thugs. They came to her home in the evening, asking her to come with them to cover a story. Instead they took her to a remote place and beat her up; she was so severely injured that she had to be hospitalized. She was just a trainee at the paper; she did not work on any particular story, her only crime was that she worked on the Point
As a protest against violence on the media and to commemorate the day Deyda Hydara was killed, GPU invited national, regional and international media organizations for a conference in Banjul 15-16 December 2005. The conference was organized in collaboration with Action Aid and Gambian civil society NGOs and brought together media practitioners, human rights defenders and development practitioners it aims to bring about a conducive environment for democracy and development.
Amongst the international invitees were RSF, CPJ, IFJ, MFWA, All African Editors’ Forum and West African Union of Journalists.
To be heard and get its message across the media, Gambia Press Union is working on enhancing its international portfolio and publicity campaigns.
In January 2004 the managing editor of The Independent, Alagi Yerro Jallow, received a letter from a group calling themselves the “Green Boys” threatening to “eliminate” him.
• In April 2004 The Independent again was the target when gunmen set its printing presses afire, wounding some of the employees. The culprits were never found.
• In August 2004 GPU President Demba Jawo was threatened in as anonymous letter accusing him and others of being biased.
• In August 2004 the home of the Banjul BBC correspondent, Ebrima Sillah, was set alight while he was sleeping inside. He escaped through a window. The culprits were never found.
In September 2003 the private bi-weekly newspaper The Independent was attacked by arsonists. The culprits were never found.
In July 2002 a Congolese journalist with the African News Agency (Pana), Guy Patrick, was arrested by the Gambian secret service. He was held incommunicado from July 19 to August 1 at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency.
• In August 2002 the Gambian secret service arrested - and later released - journalist Pa Ousman Darboe in connection with an article published in the Banjul bi-weekly, The Independent, reporting that Vice President Isatou Njie-Saidy had remarried a retired schoolteacher
• In August 2001 arsonists attacked the premises of Radio 1 FM, and its owner George Christensen was hospitalized with serious burns. The culprits were never found. After the attack the station skipped its critical current affairs program, Sunday News Hour.
Annex 1ATTACKS ON THE PRESS 2012 Journalist harassed for reporting farmers' complaints
A plainclothes police officer picked up reporter Momodou S. Jallow of the private Daily News on Friday 6th January 2012 while he was covering a public meeting of a local rice growers' cooperative in Brikamaba village in central Gambia. Jallow was detained for five hours in Bansang police station and accused of "inciting violence" on a January 4 story based on interviews with local farmers who accuse a local official, Chief Mamadou Lamin Baldeh, of mismanaging public assets.
Jallow reported back to the police station on Monday 9th January 2012 and was told to report back again the following Monday but was never charged. The Daily News on Monday quoted Gambian National Police Spokesman Yerro Mballow as saying Jallow would be taken to court and charged with one count of libel, a criminal offense.
In Jallow's story in the Daily News, a rice farmer accused Chief Baldeh of misallocating a hajj ticket sponsored by President Yahya Jammeh to travel to the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The article also cited farmers raising questions about Baldeh's management of the finances of a local cooperative.Abdoul Hamid Adiamoh detained
Abdulhamid Adiamoh, the managing editor of Today newspaper, was arrested Wednesday 20th June 2012 in connection with an opinion article captioned, "Counsel sidesteps issues in cross-examination of [vice chancellor of the University of The Gambia ] Professor Kah," in which he criticized a defense lawyer in the criminal trial of a former lecturer at the university.
Judge Taiwo Alagbe Ade of the Banjul magistrate's court in the Gambia capital ordered Adiamoh's arrest on accusations of misreporting the defense counsel's cross-examination of a witness and ordered that he be brought to court on June 28.
Adiamoh has on several times in the past been detained by the police in connection with his reporting.
Lamin Njie remanded
The deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Daily News spent last weekend in remand at the country’s Central Prison, Mile 2, at the outskirts of Banjul, the capital.
Lamin Njie, who doubles as assistant Secretary General of GPU was arrested Friday 22 July 2012 at the premises of the High Court in Banjul, in the wake of an arrest warrant issued against him by Justice Emmanuel Nkea.
The Daily News understands that the Cameroonian-born judge was displeased with what he called ‘a false story’ authored by Editor Njie on the bail of ex-officials of the Gambia Revenue Authority charged with economic crime.
Justice Nkea was not detailed about what was false in the story, though Njie appeared in court on July 25 to explain, as the judge demands: “Why he should not be charged with contempt of court?”Adiamoh fined on contempt charge
Journalist Abdulhamid Adiamoh was found liable on a contempt-of-court charge on June 28, 2012, and was ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 dalasi (US$3,100) or serve six months in jail with hard labor.Another journalist detained for contempt of court charges
A Gambian judge ordered the arrest of a journalist Tuesday July 10, 2012 on contempt of court charges, the third instance of a journalist being detained on such charges in as many weeks.
Police arrested Sidiq Asemota, the legal affairs correspondent of the Daily Observer, while he was on assignment at the High Court in Banjul, the capital. Justice Emmanuel Nkea of the Special Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant for Asemota on Monday July 9.
Asemota told Pa Malick Faye, the managing editor of the Daily Observer, over the phone that security agents were arresting him because of his June 9 story headlined "Two sentenced for forgery." The story was about two Gambian citizens who Nkea convicted of "economic crime and forgery of official documents." Faye said that no complaint had been lodged about the story and that he was unaware of the cause of the arrest, according to the paper.
Asemota was being held at Mile 2 State Central Prison outside Banjul and he is appeared in court on July 13.Tarenga FM shut down
Officials of the NIA summarily shut Tarenga FM, an independent radio station early Tuesday morning August 14 2012 without providing an explanation. Authorities had in the past censored Taranga FM at least twice before in retaliation to its exclusive news review program.
Officers of the Gambian National Intelligence Agency took the station's license as well as the contact information of its board members. The officers told the station staff only that they had received "directives from above,
In January 2011, ahead of the presidential elections, the National Intelligence Agency ordered the station to halt its news review program, which broadcasts news in local languages from independent English-language newspapers. And in July 2011, the government again ordered the station to drop the program. The station's broadcasts had generated a lot of attention from the mainly illiterate public.
The Gambia orders BBC journalist to leave country
Gambian authorities detained Thomas Fessy, the West Africa correspondent of BBC World News, for several hours at the capital's international airport on September 5, 2012, and ordered him to leave the country within 48 hours. Fessy returned to Senegal on September 7, 2012.
Fessy had obtained a single-entry one-month visa from the Gambian High Commission in Senegal before coming to the Gambia from Senegal. His trip to Gambia came days after President Yahya Jammeh's execute nine death row inmates.Amid execution debate, newspapers censored
State security agents in the Gambia on Friday 14 September 2012 ordered two independent newspapers to cease publication immediately but provided no explanation.
Agents from the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) in the capital, Banjul, visited the offices of the daily The Standard and the Daily News, which publishes three times a week, and told them that the president had ordered both papers to be shut down immediately. The agents told the staff that they could seek an explanation from the president's office, which oversees the operations of the NIA. The officials did not specify how long the suspension would last.
Both The Standard and Daily News covered the controversy surrounding President Yahya Jammeh's announcement to execute every prisoner on death row in September, resuming a practice not carried out since 1985. The execution of nine inmates on death row last month drew international condemnation as human rights groups contended that many of the inmates on death row were convicted on politically motivated charges or unfair trials. Following international appeals, Jammeh agreed to temporarily suspend the executions of 38 other inmates.
The Standard covered both sides of the controversy, including publishing interviews, letters from readers, and public statements opposing and supporting the executions. The Daily News has extensively covered opposition to the executions.
Journalist barred from covering case in Gambian court
State security agents barred journalist Binta Bah of Daily News from covering an October 15, 2012, hearing of a Supreme Court case of seven prisoners on death row.
A security agent at the court in Banjul, the capital, told Binta Bah, a blogger and senior court journalist with The Daily News, to leave the premises on orders from the office of the president. Bah had identified herself as a journalist working from the Daily News to the security officer who told her that he has received orders from the presidency that personnel from the Daily News and Standard Newspapers should not be allowed to enter the court.
Bah was covering the court case of Lang Tombong Tamba, Gambia's former chief of defense staff, as well as six others who were convicted of treason and sentenced to death for allegedly plotting a coup in 2009.
According to Binta Bah, the security officer told her that Modou Saidy, press director of President Yahya Jammeh, had given the order because her newspaper had been shut down and her blog, Women's Bantabaa, was not registered. Saidy denied ever giving the order.Gambian journalist threatened after writing on executions
Abubacarr Saidykhan, a freelancer who contributes to several news websites reported on the 15 November 2012 that four unknown people on Tuesday threatened him at his Ebo Town residence in Kanifing Municipality, some seven miles (11 kilometers) from the capital Banjul. Saidykhan said he was near his compound gate with his brother when the men drove up in an unmarked vehicle with tinted windows and threatened to kill him next time they see him. One of the men called him "a very stubborn journalist" before they drove off.
Tuesday's threat came three weeks after Saidykhan and Baboucarr Ceesay, a regular contributor to Africa Review received an anonymous death threat via email on October 25 that they forwarded to GPU. The sender accused both men of wanting to "destroy the image of the APRC Government [ruling political party] and our affectionate President Yahya Jammeh." It is not clear whether that threat was in relation to their journalism or to an attempt by Saidykhan and Ceesay in September to organize a demonstration against the executions.Two journalists arrested over ‘protest permit’
Baboucarr Ceesay, first vice president of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), also working with The Daily News newspaper, and Abubacarr Saidykhan, a freelance journalist, were arrested on Friday September 14.
The two were arrested after “seeking from the Inspector General of Police, a permit to hold a peaceful demonstration from Arch 22 to State House in Banjul.”
The Union personnel visited police headquarters in Banjul on that Friday afternoon, but were denied access to the detained journalists.
Abdoulie John arrested
Abdoulie John, Banjul editor of Jollof News Online was on December 9 arrested and released on bail the following morning by the NIA. Mr John was granted bail by officers of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) in a sum of D50, 000 and asked to surrender his travel documents. He is also asked to report back to the agency.
Mr John, who is the only Gambian based online newspaper journalist, was picked up on Sunday in Tambakunda village, near the Senegalese province of Casamance by Gambian soldiers while trying to cover the handing over ceremony of eight Senegalese soldiers who were taken hostage by a faction of MFDC rebels loyal to Salif Sadio.
The soldiers were captured on December 13, 2011 after their patrol car was ambushed at the Casamance village of Kabeum by separatists fighting for independence of the southern region.
John’s troubles started after he had an argument with State House chief photographer, Sulayman Gassama, who demanded to know who invited him to cover the occasion.
John was later reported to the director of the Gambia’s intelligence agency, who ordered for his immediate arrest. He was taken to Sibanor Police Station in Foni before being transferred to the NIA headquarters in Banjul where he spent the night. He was released the following day.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
As you can see, the picture painted of the Gambian press in the last 19 years under Jammeh is not a splendid one. I am sorry that I inundated you with lots of details about arrests, detentions, arson attacks and death. But that’s the reality the Gambian media and virtually all sectors of Gambian civil society live in. For us, the future remains bleak.
But just to be reflective and to think long-term on the prospects for a vibrant press in The Gambia, what is the way forward? What should we do to ensure a free and vibrant press in The Gambia?
Much of what needs to be done and of impact is really out of our reach. By that I mean, for there to be some serious changes for a better and a freer Gambian press, we need an attitudinal change from President Jammeh and his government towards the press – that they consider and affirm that the Fourth Estate is an important part of civil society; that journalists should be allowed to operate as freely as possible; that true democracy requires an informed citizenry and there can be no informed citizenry when the information flow is restricted.
It requires a wholesale change in understanding and in perspectives from Jammeh. That, we cannot force into existence. You cannot force someone to believe. On our part, we can only hope that down the line, Jammeh will rethink his attitude towards the local press – that we are not the “illegitimate sons and daughters of Africa,” as he once described us; and that we are also partners in development. Ironically NO ONE KNOWS HIS FATHER
But there are certain things we can do to help the cause of a free press. Those things are within our reach.
The most important is professional development and improvement: Learning to report as accurately as fairly. The best line of defense for a beleaguered press against a dictatorship such as in The Gambia, is good and thorough reporting: getting it straight and covering all the tracks.
Yet I know it is oftentimes hard to get it straight for Gambian reporters because those with the information don’t want to talk. This situation requires us to make do with the best we have, on offer. You have to deal with the hand you are given.
We also need to continue speaking up each time one of our own is arrested, detained or jailed. For example, the recent publicity campaigns on behalf of journalists Abubakarr Saidykhan and Abdoulie John were helpful, at least, in alerting the public and fraternal media organizations about their ordeals. The advocacy that comes from such campaigns helps to highlight the plight of the press in The Gambia. It urges others to take note: the more international awareness of our plight the better for the cause of a free and vibrant press in The Gambia.
Despite the state terror meted out to them, Gambian journalists do the heavy lifting for Gambians. We are the last line of defense against the excesses of a dictatorial president in Yahya Jammeh. We are the last hope for Gambians in an authoritarian environment.
Remember, we are vigilantes for the abducted, the jailed and the killed. It is to Gambian journalists that all the victims of the state run to for help in, say, reporting their plight, finding about their lost family members, and being the voice of the voiceless in an authoritarian environment. Gambian journalists are always available for the rescue.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Gambian journalists, those on the ground in The Gambia and those abroad running online publications, do deserve your support. Help them out. Support them morally and financially. A free and strong press is vital to participatory democracy and to the overall well-being of our communities. And in case you need reminding: the pen is still mightier than the sword.
THANK YOU ALL for your attention.