Ten journalists arrested, one missing, many others in exile, countless unsolved murders for which supporters of the president are suspected of responsibility or complicity, the memory of a murdered journalist besmirched by the government and a permanent climate of fear: this is the terrible track record of President Yahya Jammeh’s as far as press freedom is concerned.
President Jammeh held a lavish investiture ceremony on 15 and 16 December 2006 to celebrate his re-election for a new five-year term. Many heads of state and government, including the prime minister of the very generous Republic of Taiwan, attended what the one-time coup leader, re-elected in dubious circumstances with 67.4% of the vote in September 2006, called a "big victory celebration and an opportunity for Gambia’s youth to develop its musical talents”.
This major “musical” festival was perhaps intended to mask another more dreadful event: the commemoration of the murder of one of the country’s greatest journalists two years earlier. Deyda Hydara, co-founder and editor of the privately-owned daily The Point, correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reporters Without Borders in Banjul, was gunned down on 16 December 2004, while he was driving two employees home in his car. He had previously been threatened by the intelligence services, who had him under surveillance minutes before the killing, carried out in a street running alongside a police barracks, as shown by two investigative missions carried out by Reporters Without Borders. No serious investigation was held to identify the killers or the instigators. The only official statement made by the Gambian investigators, six months after the murder, produced the trumped-up suggestion that Hydara, who was referred to as a “provocateur”, could have been killed because of some kind of sex case. But in a country like Gambia, where the president boasts of his contempt for journalists and human rights activists, one could hardly expect anything else.
Area without rule of law
Questioned about the killing in September, Yahya Jammeh replied: “I do not believe in murder. I believe in imprisonment for the rest of your life. Then perhaps, at some point, we will say, ‘Oh he is too old to be fed by the state’. We release him and leave him to sink into a decline. Then everyone will learn a lesson from it.” To a journalist who challenged him about the frequent unfair arrests of journalists and the closure of the privately-owned bi-weekly The Independent by an elite police unit, Yahya Jammeh replied: “Everyone should get lost. If I have good reasons to close a newspaper’s offices, I will do it.”
The Independent, which had its printing press torched in 2004 by men identified by an opposition parliamentarian as members of the National Guard, has been sealed off and illegally prevented from appearing since 28 March 2006. An interminable trial has been started against one of its journalists, Lamin Fatty, who has been held for more than a month by the intelligence services with no access to a lawyer, just a few hundred metres from the luxury tourist complexes on Banjul beach. He is being tried under a draconian law providing for heavy prison sentences, adopted by parliament two days before the murder of Deyda Hydara. The managing director of the newspaper, Madi Ceesay, who is also president of the journalists’ union, Gambia Press Union (GPU), and his editor Musa Saidykhan were secretly held for nearly three weeks between 28 March and 20 April, in defiance of all legal procedure. Like them at least ten journalists were arrested during 2006 and detained in similar conditions. “Chief” Ebrima Manneh, of the private pro-government Daily Observer has been missing since 7 July. Reporters Without Borders learned in early 2007 that he had been held in a provincial police station since that date, but no charges had been made against him.
This appalling record has not prevented the African Union (AU), the continental organisation, presided over by former Malian head of state Alpha Oumar Konaré, from continuing to offer unconditional support for the government. The annual heads of state and government summit was held in Banjul and the Gambian capital is the headquarters of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. This body also avoids discussing the actions of its hosts on this issue.