True to their tradition, the Gambian intelligence agencies again arrested several journalists in 2003, without any explanation. Many subjects were still off-limits.
As in past years, the secret police targeted the press again in 2003. Several journalists were detained or threatened by members of the powerful National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which operates with complete impunity, without having to account to anyone, officially at least.
The media commission that was set up by the government in June 2003 got a poor reception. Almost all the privately-owned newspapers and the main journalists’ union questioned its legitimacy and representativeness. They felt the government’s presence on the commission was excessive, and that it had too much power to control and punish press offences.
A journalist imprisoned
Abdoulie Sey, the editor of the biweekly The Independent, was detained on 19 September 2003 by three plain-clothes men from the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). He was held in an undisclosed location, interrogated about an article that was very critical of the president, and was finally released on 23 September without being charged. NIA agents threatened to kill him if he continued to publish articles criticising the government.
Two journalists detained
Alhaji Yorro Jallow, The Independent’s managing editor, was arrested by two NIA agents on 13 June 2003 and interrogated about a report saying two Gambians were killed in violence on the Senegalese border following a football match between the two countries. He was freed after several hours.
Jallow was detained again 10 days later and interrogated at NIA headquarters along with his editor Abdoulie Sey. This time they were questioned about an article on the arrest of Lt. Darboe, the chief of the presidential guard in Kanilai (the president’s birthplace), for allegedly embezzling a large sum of money. One of the NIA chiefs threatened them with imprisonment. The two journalists also complained of receiving death threats since January. The police advised them to install caller ID on their phones.
Two journalists physically attacked
Bruce Asemota, a Nigerian journalist working for the Daily Observer, was roughed up in Brikama (40 km west of Banjul) in early June 2003 by the police chief and his men when he went to the police station to enquire about a detainee.
Buya Jammeh, a reporter with the biweekly The Independent and a presenter for Radio One, was manhandled on 9 August by two policemen who accosted him on the street and insisted on searching his belongings.
Harassment and obstruction
When the communication minister installed a media commission on 23 June 2003, two of its 12 members were absent because the organisations they represented - the Gambia Press Union (GPU) and the Banjul bar association - refused to take part. The GPU, a journalists’ association, was very critical of the commission and asked a lawyers’ collective to look at the possibility of having it declared unconstitutional. The government’s declared aim in creating the commission was to strengthen the independence and professionalism of the news media. But its far-reaching powers to control and sanction the press were widely criticised.
The media commission’s vice president, Ramzia Diab, on 11 September ordered news media and journalists to register at once with the commission or risk being fined 10,000 dalasis (about 300 euros). The supreme court on 23 September rejected the GPU’s motion that it should suspend the commission’s activities pending the outcome of legal proceedings to determine the commission’s constitutionality.
The premises of the biweekly The Independent were set on fire on the evening of 17 October but damage was limited thanks to a quick response by firemen. Acting editor Sidi Bojang said three individuals started the fire after knocking out the caretaker.
One day in early November, members of the Banjul municipal council belonging to the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) destroyed the tape-recording of that day’s council meeting made by Pa Malick Secka of the biweekly The Independent. The councillors feared that the debates made a senior city hall official appear incompetent.