As the campaign for the 22 September presidential election got under way today in Gambia, Reporters Without Borders said repeated attacks on the press and free expression meant the polling would be neither free nor fair.
“On the one hand, you have journalists with their hands tied because they fear the intelligence services,” the organisation said. “On the other, you have a government that controls the public media and cracks down hard on the independent media, despite the laws and treaties it has signed. This is why we already know these elections will not be fair.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “There is no need to cite the persecution of opposition party members. The situation of press freedom and public access to information is so catastrophic that it alone suffices to disqualify these elections. There is no way the international community will be able to say that the 22 September elections were democratic.”
Gambia’s privately-owned media have been hit hard during President Yahya Jammeh’s two terms and are now in the grip of fear. Death threats, surveillance, nighttime arrests, arbitrary detention and mistreatment constitute the daily lot of journalists who do not sing the government’s praises.
Any journalists or their relatives who dare to complain about this situation to international organisations find themselves the target of intimidation by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Under these circumstances, more and more Gambian journalists are going into exile.
Before and after the recent African Union summit in Banjul on 1-2 July, for example, at least nine journalists were arrested and held illegally for several days. The short-lived editor of the new privately-owned Daily Express newspaper, Sulaymane Makato, has been on the run since 14 July after getting two anonymous SMS text messages.
The first, received at 6:24 pm, said: “Good day Mr editor your guys at Daily Express are with NIA beware of strange calls or invitations from even your colleagues becos they are after u to arrest u.” The second, received at 6:40 pm, said: “Last warning get out before late.” That same night, the Daily Express’s managing editor, Sam Obi, and one of its journalists, Adbul Gafari, were arrested and taken to NIA headquarters, where they spent the next four days. This was just two week’s after the new newspaper’s launch.
Another newspaper, The Independent, has been regularly targeted by the authorities. This privately-owned biweekly’s printing press was set on fire in 2004 by men who were identified by an opposition parliamentarian as being members of the National Guard. Its headquarters have been sealed and it has been illegally prevented from publishing since 28 March of this year. One of its journalists, Lamin Fatty, was held for more than a month without seeing a lawyer and is now being tried under a draconian press law that provides for prison sentences.
The Independent’s general manager Madi Ceesay, who is also president of the Gambia Press Union, and the newspaper’s editor, Musa Saidykhan, were themselves detained in a completely illegal manner for nearly three weeks, from 28 March to 20 Avril. Since then, Saidykhan has been in hiding.
Denial of justice is also the rule in cases of serious press freedom violations. A tragic event stunned Gambia’s journalistic community at the end of 2004. Deyda Hydara, the joint editor of the privately-owned The Point and Banjul correspondent of Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reporters Without Borders, was shot dead at the wheel of his car on the evening of 16 December of that year.
He had previously received threats from the NIA, which had him under surveillance a few minutes before he was gunned down. No serious attempt was made to identify either the perpetrators or instigators of his murder. The only official statement from the Gambian officials responsible for the investigation came six months later. Referring to Hydara as “provocative,” it absurdly suggested that the murder could have been linked to his sex life.
The state-owned radio, TV and print media are under the government’s tight control. It is the government that determines the content of the news broadcast by the Gambia Radio Television Services’ public radio and TV stations. Aside from international events, the TV news programmes limit themselves to covering the statements and activities of government ministers and other senior officials. Prime time is often taken up with long video sequences of the president’s activities accompanied by traditional music.
Meanwhile, in October 2005, new people were brought in to run the Daily Observer, a newspaper owned by one of the president’s supporters, businessman Amadou Samba. Its new managing director, Saja Taal, used to be permanent secretary at the education ministry. Mam Sait Ceesay, its new editor, is the former presidential press officer.
They replaced Modou Sanyang and Lamin Cham, who were fired for their coverage of a crisis with Gambia over customs duties. Ever since the shakeup, the newspaper has acted as the government’s mouthpiece, going so far as to publish reports libelling exiled journalists and editorials accusing the privately-owned press of besmirching Gambia’s image.