Area: 11,300 sq.km.
Head of state: President Yahya Jammeh
With one journalist murdered, two arson attacks, death threats against reporters, tension between the press and the authorities, and a series of other attacks on the media all left unpunished, press freedom took an exceptional drubbing in 2004 in this small west African country.
Gambians were stunned and horrified by the murder on the night of 16 December 2004 of Deyda Hydara, 58, the co-owner of The Point, a tabloid that appears three times a week, and Banjul correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reporters Without Borders. A new threshold had been crossed in violence against journalists in this small, poor country that is an enclave within Senegal. Gambians saw the government’s hand behind his death although the authorities denied any responsibility.
The hostility between Gambia’s independent journalists and the government led by Col. Yahya Jammeh is long-standing. There have been many press freedom violations since the 2001 presidential elections that confirmed Jammeh in the post he seized as a young army colonel in a 1994 coup. Whether making threatening phone calls or carrying out arbitrary arrests, government agents, especially those working for the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), have become the nemeses of the press corps.
Gag laws for a critical press
Before Hydara’s murder, 2004 had been marked by a political and legal battle between the government and journalists’ union. For several years, the Gambia Press Union (GPU) had been using legal measures and awareness campaigns to resist a media commission that was closely controlled by the government. The commission had the power to grant or refuse publishing permits, to issue rulings in conflicts involving journalists, and to impose a range of sanctions on journalists ranging from the suspension of press passes to prison sentences.
This struggle between the authorities and the press had given rise to many heated exchanges and even offensive remarks by President Jammeh, who told journalists to either register with the commission or "go to hell." Parliament finally disbanded the commission on 13 December but the next day adopted two very harsh laws for the independent press. The first made all press offences punishable by imprisonment. The second introduced a prohibitive increase in the cost of a licence to publish a newspaper.
Meanwhile two arson attacks had targeted the press during the year, fuelling journalists’ mistrust. The printing press of The Independent, a privately-owned biweekly that is particularly critical of the government, was set on fire on the night of 13 April by unidentified individuals. One the newspaper’s journalists who was present threw gasoline over the intruders, forcing them to flee. During a visit to Gambia in December, Reporters Without Borders met a witness who claimed to have seen "a man in uniform" leaving the premises of the printing press in a hurry on the night of the arson attack. Opposition parliamentarian Hamat Bah told the national assembly on 23 July that two members of the national guard, whom he named, received treatment for burns afterwards at the home of the presidential guard commander. The second arson attack was on the home of BBC stringer Ebrahima Sillah, which was set alight in the early hours of 15 August. Both of these attacks were announced in advance in anonymous letters.
A shock for Gambians
It was two days after parliament passed its two gag laws that Hydara, the "dean" of Gambia’s journalists, was murdered. His death drew protests throughout western Africa. The Gambian police promised to do everything possible to find out who was responsible. But so many crimes have gone unpunished, including the two arson attacks in 2004 and the attempted murder of a lawyer in December 2003 in circumstances akin to Hydara’s murder, that the government’s good faith was questioned. As soon as it learned of his death, Reporters Without Borders went to Banjul to carry out an initial investigation.
Hydara was killed at the wheel of his car in a dark street shortly after 10 p.m. by two pistol shots fired at almost point-blank range from a taxi with no number plate. Two members of his newspaper’s staff who were with him in the car were also wounded. The gunmen drove off immediately.
Reporters Without Borders found that critical journalists like Hydara had been the object of specific threats. The president of the journalists’ union received an anonymous letter in July threatening to "teach a very good lesson" to anyone criticising President Jammeh. It was similar in style to one send several months earlier to The Independent’s managing editor threatening him because of his coverage of the trial of a leading member of the ruling party. It was signed by the "Green Boys," an officially disbanded group consisting of young activists from the ruling party’s most radical wing.
Hydara’s murder seemed to culminate a series of violent acts. His killers used a method of operation identical to the one employed in the attempted murder a year before, in December 2003, of leading Gambian lawyer Ousman Sillah, who narrowly survived being shot several times by unidentified gunmen in a car with no number plate. A few months before that, The Independent’s editor was abducted for several days by NIA agents using a 4WD vehicle that also had no number plate.
In short, prior events and circumstantial evidence suggested that the group of Jammeh supporters known as the "Green Boys" may have been involved in the murder of Gambia’s most respected journalist. Most of the key witnesses were convinced of the government’s involvement and, in the ensuing climate of extreme tension, were unwilling to talk about it. At the end of the report on its fact-finding visit, Reporters Without Borders therefore called for the creation of an independent commission of enquiry to shed light on the circumstances of its correspondent’s murder.
1 journalist was killed
1 was physically attacked
3 were threatened
and 1 news media was physically attacked
"I have to go on, I owe it to my country"
Pap Saine, the co-founder and co-proprietor of The Point, was Deyda Hydara’s friend and partner. After Hydara was murdered, he decided to continue publishing the newspaper, despite the pressure on him to stop.
We were three journalists, Baboucar Gueye, Deyda Hydara and myself. We met in 1979 at Radio Syd, Africa’s first privately-owned radio stations. During the attempt to create a confederation of Senegal and Gambia in the 1980s, we tried our luck with the Senegambia Sun, a daily newspaper financed by Dakar. But we were arrested in 1985.
When we decided to launch The Point in 1991, there were no newspapers in Gambia, just a few newsletters, more or less home-made and badly printed. We decided to launch a tabloid-format newspaper, a professional one at last, produced by Gambians for Gambians. We launched it on 16 December, Deyda’s wife’s birthday. Our leading watchword was independence. We wanted to give equal space to all points of view, both the ruling party’s and that of the opposition parties. We wanted to be balanced and fair. As soon as it came out, Gambians expressed their gratitude for at last having their own newspaper. Our success was above all to have taught people to read the newspaper every day. The news on the radio and TV is nothing but government statements. As a result, even those who are illiterate ask their children to read them The Point’s news.
Six months after our first issue, the Daily Observer came out. Baboucar Gueye resigned in April 1992 but Deyda and I, we stayed at the head of the newspaper.
Today, I am extremely sad. My family is putting a lot of pressure on me to stop The Point on the grounds that it is too dangerous, that it is not worth the trouble. And it is true, journalism in Gambia is a high-risk profession. They can kill you or set fire to you house. They can ruin you by levying all sorts of taxes on salaries, rent, income and assets. But I must go on, I owe it to my country.
If I had the chance to talk to Deyda’s murderers, I would tell them this: "Deyda Hydara was a great asset for our country. He was a faithful indicator of the state of society. You have killed the news and from now on you will have an enormous debt towards Gambia."