Reporters Without Borders voiced outrage today at an attempt to smear exiled Gambian journalist Pa Nderry Mbai, the editor of the online Freedom Newspaper (http://www.freedomnewspaper.com), by hacking into his website and posting a false statement of allegiance to an associate of the president together with the names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of all its subscribers, describing them as “informers.”
The false declaration of allegiance and the names and details of the subscribers were subsequently published in Gambia in the pro-government Daily Observer, and were immediately followed by an announcement ordering all these “informers” to report to the police.
“This case of hacking is serious and revolting,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Not only was the reputation of a journalist besmirched but a large number of Internet users have been put in danger. And it is absolutely astounding that the Daily Observer became an accomplice by publishing the list of these so-called informers and describing them as ‘subversive’.”
The press freedom organisation added: “The climate in which Gambian journalists work is totally poisonous. The instigators and perpetrators of this plot must be identified and punished. We reserve the right to be co-plaintiffs in any actions which Pa Nderry Mbai may bring before the British or US courts.”
The person who hacked into the Freedom Newspaper site on the night of 22 May was a British Telecom client using the IP address of an Internet user based in the British city of Southampton. The hacker erased all of its content and replaced the welcome page with a message purportedly signed by Mbai.
The message said: “I have decided to stop producing the Freedom Newspaper as I have pledged an allegiance with my brother Ebou Jallow to join the APRC election campaign.” A former army captain, Jallow used to be the spokesman of President Yahya Jammeh’s military junta, which took power in a July 1994 coup. The APRC is the president’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction.
The message added: “This is a list of the people that were supplying me with information.” It was followed by the names and details of all those who had set up user accounts for the site. With help from the US company that hosts the site and from Reporters Without Borders, Mbai managed to regain control of the site the next day and post a denial. His e-mail address was also hacked.
Freedom Newspaper was launched by Mbai at the start of this year. It is very critical of President Jammeh, especially in a column with the byline Bulfaleeh (“Doesn’t Matter” in Wolof), who is portrayed as an anonymous source within the president’s office.
Mbai used to work for the tri-weekly newspaper The Point. He was also the Voice of America’s correspondent in Gambia. He went into self-imposed exile in the United States after being arrested several times by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). He was a good friend of The Point co-editor Deyda Hydara, the Agence France-Presse and Reporters Without Borders correspondent who was gunned down on 16 December 2004.
The privately-owned Daily Observer published Mbai’s photo on its front page on 24 May under the headline, “Freedom Newspaper informers exposed.” Calling Mbai the editor of a “subversive” newspaper, it said he had “made a startling revelation of people passing him information against the government, while shifting allegiance to the ruling APRC and shutting down the paper.” The next day it published Mbai’s US address and phone number along with the names and details of all of his subscribers under the headline “Freedom Newspaper Informers list published.”
The same day, the Gambian police ordered all those “who continually supplied him with information which he used to castigate and vilify the democratically elected government of His Excellency President Alhaji Yahya Jammeh” to report to the nearest police station within 24 hours or face immediate arrest.
Owned by Amadou Samba, a businessman who supports the president, the Daily Observer has been run since October 2005 by Saja Taal, who is its managing director, and Mam Sait Ceesay, its editor. Taal used to be permanent secretary at the education ministry. Ceesay was the president’s press officer. They replaced Modou Sanyang and Lamin Cham, who were fired because of their coverage of the crisis between Gambia and Senegal over customs duties.
When contacted by Reporters Without Borders, Taal refused to make any comment, saying the matter came under his editor’s responsibility. Reached by telephone, Ceesay did not want to answer Reporters Without Borders’ questions.
A few days before his site was hacked, Mbai received a message from Jallow, the former junta spokesman. It said: “If you think that you can do whatsoever you want whilst away from the Gambia, then you better think twice... because the impending reaction in the Gambia is going to be very nasty. This is a warning from a brother.”
Jallow also forwarded to Mbai a message he had received from someone called William Glass Junior who claimed he was capable of hacking Mbai’s site and posting a message on it “to destroy his reputation.” Jallow still has not replied to the message Reporters Without Borders sent him on 26 May.
Create your blog with Reporters without borders: www.rsfblog.org