Reporters Without Borders wrote today to Salamata Sawadogo, the chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), voicing “extreme concern about free expression” in Gambia and suggesting the time has come for the commission to consider transferring its headquarters from Gambia “until the civil and political liberties of Gambians, including freedom of expression, are respected.”
After thanking Sawadogo for taking advantage of a news conference on 29 May to mention The Point co-editor Deyda Hydara, the Agence France-Presse and Reporters Without Borders correspondent who was gunned down on 16 December 2004, the organisation voiced its “disgust at the behaviour of the Gambian authorities” in this still unpunished murder.
“Nearly 18 months have gone by since the murder of one of West Africa’s most respected journalists without any real progress in the case to give the family hope that justice will one day be done,” the letter said. “What is known about the circumstances surrounding Hydara’s murder, including the modus operandi, the repeated prior threats against him and the political context, have not been used by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).”
The letter continued: “The likelihood that it was a political murder linked to the victim’s work as a journalist has not been explored. Forensic analyses of evidence found at the murder scene, including ballistic reports, have not been released. The autopsy report, which the family needs to claim Hydara’s life insurance benefit, has never been made available, despite repeated requests. Even more disturbing is the fact that our investigations revealed that Hydara had been threatened by the NIA and was still under its surveillance just a few minutes before the murder.”
In its letter, Reporters Without Borders spoke of its “extreme concern about the unacceptable treatment that press freedom has received in Gambia for several years,” adding that: “The deterioration in the situation, which has been particularly marked in recent weeks, is all the more appalling as Gambia is supposed to host a summit of African Union leaders next month and hold a presidential election in October.”
At least three journalists are currently detained in Gambia in violation of all legal procedures and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights that was adopted by the ACHPR. Articles 6, 7, 8 and 9 of this charter, which Gambia signed, provide for protection against arbitrary arrest, the right to a free trial, freedom of opinion and the right to news and information. “All these provisions have recently been flouted by the Gambian authorities, who show no hesitation in arresting people arbitrarily.”
Musa Sheriff, a journalist with the privately-owned weekly Gambia News & Report, and Malick Mboob, a former journalist with the privately-owned Daily Observer, were arrested on 26 May and were thereafter held at NIA headquarters in Banjul. They were picked up after their names appeared on a list of subscribers to the online opposition Freedom Newspaper, whose website had been hacked a few days before.
Pa Modou Faal, a journalist with the state-owned Gambian Radio Television Service (GRTS), was arrested at the same time and was freed along with Sheriff on 30 May. Mboob is still being held. None of them was charged or saw a lawyer within the 72-hour deadline set by the law. Lamin Cham, a BBC correspondent and former editor of the Daily Observer, was arrested yesterday, while Daily Observer news editor Omar Bah went into hiding to avoid arrest by the NIA.
Lamin Fatty, a journalist with the privately-owned bi-weekly The Independent, was arrested at his home by police on 12 April and was held for more than a month without being allowed to see a lawyer. He was charged on 24 May with “publishing false news” under a draconian law providing for heavy prison sentences that was adopted despite the protests of local and international press freedom groups on the eve of Hydara’s murder.
The Independent’s general manager, Madi Ceesay, who is also president of the Gambia Press Union, and his editor, Musa Saidykhan, were held secretly for nearly three weeks, from 28 March to 20 April, in violation of all legal procedures. The premises of their newspaper were closed and sealed and have since been illegally prevented from reopening, despite the NIA’s promises.