Reporters Without Borders voiced anger today at the “frightening and humiliating” treatment which Musa Saidykhan, the editor of the privately-owned biweekly The Independent, received yesterday from intelligence officers because he asked South African President Thabo Mbeki to press the Gambian authorities to shed light on the unsolved murder of fellow journalist Deyda Hydara.
The editor of the privately-owned The Point newspaper and Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent in Gambia, Hydara was gunned down on 16 December 2004.
“The impunity still enjoyed by our correspondent’s murderers increases the fear in which Gambian journalists live every day,” the press freedom organisation said. “Arresting a citizen and forcing him to fill out his own police file because he requested the help of South Africa’s president is frightening and humiliating.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “What is the international community waiting for to put pressure on President Yahya Jammeh? We add our voice to Saidykhan’s and we formally appeal to Mbeki to put pressure on Jammeh to finally accede to the request for the creation of an independent commission of enquiry into Hydara’s murder.”
At the same time, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard today addressed an “anxious appeal” to the South African president on behalf of Gambia’s journalists. In a letter to Mbeki accompanied by copies of the reports of its two fact-finding missions and 14 press releases in 2004 and 2005 on the state of press freedom in Gambia, Reporters Without Borders expressed its “growing concern about the safety of journalists working for Gambia’s independent press.”
Saidykhan’s ordeal began at midday yesterday when he received a phone call from an officer with the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) “inviting” him to report for questioning at NIA headquarters, located 100 metres from the presidential palace in Banjul.
When he refused, he was told: “You know full well what will happen.” Four NIA plain-clothes officers arrived at the offices of The Independent at 2:30 p.m., identified themselves as members of the president’s staff, arrested him and took him to NIA headquarters.
There he was photographed and questioned for more than three hours by an officer identified as “Capt. Saine” in the presence of two other officers. Saine asked him why he was disparaging Gambia abroad and whether he had chosen to be a journalist “for the glory and the celebrity.” The NIA agents also asked him to fill out a 3-page form that included questions about his family, habits and opinions. He was finally released at about 6 p.m. and “invited” to return at 10 a.m. today.
In the 24 October issue of The Independent, Saidykhan ran a story headlined “African Editors Remember Deyda” about his visit to Johannesburg on 15 October for a conference of African newspapers editors. He reported that he publicly asked President Mbeki, who attended the opening, to help the Gambian press obtain justice in the Hydara case. Mbeki replied that he had not been aware of the case but promised to raise it with the Gambian authorities.
This encounter was also reported in a story headlined “South Africa’s President ’Resolved to Solve’ Deyda’s Murder Mystery” in the 26 October edition of The Point, the newspaper which Hydara co-founded and which appears four times a week.
The co-founder and editor of The Point, and the correspondent of Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reporters Without Borders, Hydara was gunned down behind the wheel of his car as he was driving two employees home late at night on 16 December. He was an outspoken critic of two laws curbing press freedom that were passed by the national assembly on the eve of his murder.
Reporters Without Borders made two fact-finding visits to The Gambia, in December 2004 and April 2005, partly to support his family and his newspaper, but also in attempt to advance an investigation that was going nowhere. The organisation was able to reconstruct how Hydara spent his last day and it identified a number of leads and hypotheses which any serious investigators ought to have pursued.
In particular, the organisation discovered that his murder, which was carried out by professionals, followed the pattern of a series of attacks against journalists and other figures who had upset the authorities. The circumstances, the method of operation, the recurring use of cars with no licence plates and preceding death threats were similar in every case. Hydara’s murder matches the pattern of many press freedom violations in recent years in Gambia and in all of these cases, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) has been identified as the perpetrator or leading suspect.
By piecing together information in the accounts provided by different sources, Reporters Without Borders also discovered that Hydara was under surveillance by the security services and was still being watched just minutes before he was murdered a few hundred metres from a police barracks.