Reporters Without Borders wrote today to US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice expressing its “deep concern about the steady disintegration of democracy in Gambia and, in particular, about the unacceptable abuses being endured by its journalists,” already hard hit by the unsolved murder of a leading newspaper editor at the end of 2004.
The letter stressed that the climate of hostility has got worse since the still unpunished murder on 16 December 2004 of Deyda Hydara, who was the joint founder and editor of The Point newspaper as well as being the Banjul correspondent of Agence France-Presse and of Reporters Without Borders, and who was regarded as Gambia’s leading journalist.
“We would above all like to draw your attention to the disturbing ordeal undergone by Gambia’s journalists in the past week, compounding their grief about Hydara on the first anniversary of his execution-style killing,” the letter said
“Acting with contempt and violence, the Gambian government displays behaviour that is unworthy of a would-be democracy,” the letter continued. “President Yahya Jammeh’s hostility towards the independent press is all the more appalling as he enjoys political impunity, despite his outrageous comments in recent years and the many press freedom violations that have taken place in his country. The close ties which the United States maintains with Gambia should not continue to serve as protection for a government that is becoming more repressive by the month.”
Reporters Without Borders pointed out in its letter that, together with Hydara’s colleagues and family, it had several times called on the Gambian government to set up an independent commission of enquiry in order to redress the incapacity of the Gambian police and intelligence services to carry out an effective investigation.
“Under the indifferent eyes of the international community,” the letter said, “Gambia has set a dangerous example to the African continent since last year. It sends a signal to African democrats and independent journalists that disagreeing with one’s government means risking one’s freedom or even one’s life and that this scandalous situation will elicit no protests from the democracies. We must stress, nonetheless, the courage and steadfastness of Gambia’s journalists, who have always been faithful to the path of dialogue and legality despite the violence they have often suffered.”
The Reporters Without Borders letter pointed out that three developments highlighted the Gambian government’s hostility to press freedom during the week of 12 to 16 December.
The participants in a conference on press freedom organised by the Gambia Press Union (GPU) on 15-16 December in Banjul in homage to Hydara had planned to go to the scene of the murder on Sankung Sillah Street, in an industrial part of the district of Kanifing, on 16 December in order to mark the end of a year of mourning. However, the delegation found their access to this dirt street blocked at 4 p.m. by a unit of armed anti-riot police, who said they had “received orders to prevent entry into the sector.” When photographer Ramatoulie Charreh of the privately-owned Daily Observer took a photo of the scene, she was beaten unconscious and had to be hospitalised.
Previously, Gambian information minister Neneh Macdouall-Gaye had agreed to make a statement at the opening session of the GPU conference on the morning of 15 December, but she never turned up. The only officials who came were a police officer and a member of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).
And by being obstructive, Gambian officials prevented the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk from travelling to Banjul on 12 December to attend the GPU conference. There has been no official explanation for the government’s failure to provide a visa in time, although Reporters Without Borders filed a visa request on 24 November. French citizens requesting a visa to go to Gambia are normally given one within 48 hours.