Reporters Without Borders today called on the African Union to send a mediator to Banjul to assess whether it would be appropriate to postpone the AU summit due to take place there on 1-2 July in view of the fact that the Gambian authorities have been illegally holding two newspaper executives for the part two weeks.
Madi Ceesay, the managing director of the biweekly newspaper The Independent, and Musa Saidykhan, its editor, were arrested in the course of raids carried out in the wake of an alleged abortive coup on 21 March.
In a letter to Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the AU’s current chairperson, Reporters Without Borders said: “Gambia is one of the African countries where it is hardest to practice journalism in a free and untroubled manner. The contempt and hostility shown to the privately-owned press for years by the Gambian government, especially President Yahya Jammeh, have created a climate of apprehension and self-censorship.”
The letter continued: “The tension was compounded in 2003 and 2004 by several arbitrary arrests of journalists by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), by arson attacks that were never solved and by draconian new laws. All this culminated in the still unpunished murder on 16 December 2004 of Deyda Hydara, editor of The Point and Banjul correspondent of Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reporters Without Borders. Since then, journalists have lived in fear.”
Reporters Without Borders said it found it “anomalous that Banjul was chosen as the headquarters of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) without the Gambian authorities being obliged to comply with its guiding principles,” and pointed out that it had already voiced “astonishment” when Gambia was chosen to host the AU summit.
The letter concluded: “Our organisation stands ready to document the cases of press freedom violations in Gambia for the AU, participate in an evaluation of the current situation and help seek a solution to the crisis.”
Ceesay and Saidykhan were arrested at the same time as many other members of the newspaper’s staff in a Criminal Investigation Department operation on 28 March. The other staff members were released the same day but The Independent’s offices have been closed ever since and the newspaper has not reappeared. The Gambia Press Union (which is headed by Ceesay and is the country’s main journalists’ union) has not been able to find out the reasons for their detention.