Reporters Without Borders today called on the Gambian government to release The Independent’s managing director, Madi Ceesay, who has been held since a police raid on the biweekly’s offices yesterday, and its editor, Musa Saidykhan, who was arrested the previous night.
Gambia Press Union coordinator Demba Ali Jawo told Reporters Without Borders at noon today that “the two men spent the night in the Major Crimes Unit at Banjul police station and are still being held there.” While Jawo has been able to confirm where they are being detained, he has not been able to visit them. They have not so far been charged.
“Gambian journalists are once again paying dearly for the contempt in which they are held by President Yahya Jammeh,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Expressing a critical opinion or publishing irritating reports are viewed as crimes of lèse-majesté in Gambia. Despite the promises it gave to the privately-owned press, Jammeh’s government continues to act in the way to which we are accustomed, with brutal repression.”
The press freedom organisation added: “It is time the African Union, the European Union and the United States made President Jammeh understand that such practices are unacceptable.”
Police from the Criminal Investigation Department and the elite Police Intervention Unit raided and sealed off The Independent’s offices yesterday morning, arresting all the employees who were there. Everyone was let go later in the day except Ceesay, who recently took over as managing director and who is also the Gambia Press Union’s president, and Saidykhan, who had been arrested at his home at around midnight the night before.
The newspaper’s staff think the raid and arrests were prompted by a report in the 27 March issue quoting Halifa Sallah, the leader of the opposition National Alliance for Democracy and Development (NADD), as saying Jammeh was “wealthier than the Gambia” and by a column by Ceesay criticising coups, both an alleged coup plot on 21 March and the coup that brought Jammeh to power in 1994.
Secretary of state for communication and information Neneh Macdouall Gaye assured the Gambian press on 14 February that, in the run-up an African Union summit due to be held in Banjul in July, the government was determined to usher in a “new era” in its relations with the privately-owned media. But at the same time, she asked journalists to “give a positive image” of Gambia.
Saidykhan was previously arrested on 27 October for publicly calling on South African president Thabo Mbeki to press the Gambian government for progress in the investigation into the December 2004 murder of journalist Deyda Hydara, which is still unsolved.
The Independent was the target of repeated operations by Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) in 2003 and 2004 and its owners, fearing for their safety, live abroad. Its former editor, Abdoulie Sey, was arrested and detained illegally for several days, while the newspaper’s press was set on fire, probably by members of the presidential guard.
Hydara was gunned down at the wheel of his car on the night of 16 December 2004 as he was driving two employees home. He was the co-founder and editor of The Point, a newspaper published three times a week, as well as being the Banjul correspondent of Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reporters Without Borders.
He had often been threatened for publicly criticising the government, and was under surveillance by the NIA on the night of his murder, Reporters Without Borders established in the course of two investigative visits to Banjul.