Reporters Without Borders today called on African Union heads of state and government to tackle Gambian President Yahya Jammeh about the murder of journalist Deyda Hydara during the AU summit in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on 30-31 January.
In a letter to AU commission chairman Alpha Oumar Konare and the current AU chairman, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Reporters Without Borders called on the African Union to "publicly condemn" Hydara’s murder, "an event of extreme gravity for journalists all over the world and a terrifying threat coming from Gambia to all African journalists."
The press freedom organisation also urged them to ask President Jammeh to get the Banjul police to carry out an investigation that seriously considers the hypothesis that the murder was politically motivated, as all independent observers believe.
"The investigation is going nowhere," Reporters Without Borders said. "The only persons to have been detained had nothing to do with the murder. We are worried by the suspicious attitude of the police towards Hydara’s partner and the time being lost threatening foreign citizens. The police are basing their investigation on ridiculous assumptions."
Gunmen killed Hydara at the wheel of his car on the night of 16 December 2004, as he was taking two of his newspaper’s employees home. He had been Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent since 1994 and was one of Gambia’s most respected journalists. Co-founder and co-editor of The Point, a newspaper that appears three times a week, he was also the Agence France-Presse correspondent. He was one of the most outspoken critics of two laws drastically curtailing press freedom that were approved by the national assembly two days before his murder.
Since his murder, the Gambian police have held two persons for questioning who had nothing to do with it. The first, arrested on 24 December, was a Banjul resident who had publicly criticised Hydara and his partner, Pap Saine, over an article about a conflict between imams in the capital. He was released five days later without being charged.
The second was a Senegalese doctor who was detained by a plain-clothes policeman on 30 December as he was crossing Gambia to go from the north to the south of Senegal. A witness said he was arrested after publicly saying he thought the Jammeh government was "responsible for Deyda Hydara’s death." He was held for six days and then released without being charged.
A Banjul-based journalist of Nigerian origin, Sam Obi, has also been questioned for reasons indirectly related to the case. A presenter on the privately-owned radio station, City Limits, Obi was detained and questioned for six hours by the Serekunda district police after speaking on Radio France Internationale (RFI) about a march by journalists in Banjul on 22 December to protest against Hydara’s death. The police confiscated a recording of his interview and his passport, and then released him without bringing any charges.
No serious consideration has been given to the probability that the murder was politically motivated, as Reporters Without Borders argued in its report of 6 January. On the contrary, four members of The Point’s staff, including Saine, have been questioned as witnesses in connection with a theory that the murder was contracted by a disgruntled supplier of the newspaper, supposedly a Nigerian businessman. A cleaning woman is said to have overheard Hydara having an agitated phone conversation with someone on the day of the murder.
The police kept Saine an entire morning at the police station and pressed him to provide them with copies of the newspaper’s bank statements, but he refused. "I told them it was a murder investigation, not a tax audit, said Saine, who pointed out that The Point’s supplier was anyway a Gambian, not a Nigerian.
In the report of its fact-finding visit, Reporters Without Borders stressed the "strong similarities in method of operation" between Hydara’s murder and a number of other unsolved cases in the past two years.
Just before issuing its report, Reporters Without Borders requested a meeting with President Jammeh with the aim of presenting its conclusions and recommendation. The organisation has still not received any response.