Reporters Without Borders voiced new concern about government tactics as the National Assembly amended libel and sedition laws bringing in crippling fines against newspapers or increased prison terms for journalists.
It appealed to the international community and in particular Britain, which takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union on 1 July, to make the defence of freedoms in The Gambia one its major diplomatic initiatives.
The changes to the criminal code come six months after the still unpunished murder on 16 December 2004 of Deyda Hydara, co-founder and editor of the tri-weekly The Point and correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reporters Without Borders, and while the government, rather than hunting his killers, has launched a campaign to discredit him.
The organisation said that while The Gambia’s government had never made use of its anti-freedom legislation, it interpreted the adoption of these amendments as a sign that it had decided to go on the offensive against the independent press.
"These apparently innocent changes appear intended for immediate use, the moment President Yahya Jammeh promulgates them," it said. "The international community must react before independent journalists are thrown in prison for being unable to pay fines or newspapers close to save their journalists from prison."
According to local sources, the National Assembly on 23 June adopted an amendment to the criminal code establishing the "option of a fine" as an alternative to prison, from 50,000 dalasis (1,460 euros) to 250,000 dalasis (7,300 euros) for "defamation" and "sedition". In addition it hiked the minimum prison sentence from six months to one year.
Against this background, Reporters Without Borders restated its "unshakeable commitment" to the Hydara family and journalists working in The Gambia’s privately-owned press.