The Gambian press does its best to survive in a climate in which an authoritarian president believes Aids can be cured with ointments and by reading the Koran, where intelligence services are dreaded for the brutality of their methods, the murder of the doyen of the journalists remains unpunished and there is an absolute intolerance of any form of criticism.
Swaying palms, immaculate beaches, a refreshing sea breeze and clear nights... Gambia, a former British colony surrounded by Senegal, is a tourist paradise whose sea coast is dotted with luxury hotels and holiday villages. But the country headed by the young president Yahya Jammeh is also the realm of an often irrational military regime, that tortures and terrorises those who dare to stand up to the head of state or his friends. The murder of the country’s most renowned journalist, Deyda Hydara, on the night of 16 December 2004, brought to an the era in which a well-organised, rigorous, privately-run press could still stand its ground against a government which did not conceal its hostility towards it. Since that date, almost all those who were an annoyance to the president have fallen into line through force or free will, or have left the country.
Murder with impunity
Deyda Hydara, editor of the privately-owned daily The Point, correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reporters Without Borders, was shot dead as he drove staff on his paper home. He had previously received regular threats from the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) which was watching him minutes before his murder, in a street housing a police barracks. Two Reporters Without Borders’ investigations in Gambia have highlighted aspects casting strong suspicion on the NIA and a small militia group answering to President Yahya Jammeh. But no serious investigation has been carried out to identify the killers or those who instigated the killing. The only official statement made by the Gambian investigators, six months after the murder, suggested in a clearly trumped up accusation that Deyda Hydara, whom they termed a “provocateur”, was killed in a sexual case. At an interview marking the New Year in January 2007, Yahya Jammeh said Hydara’s murder had been carried out by “enemies of Gambia”. He added that those responsible wanted to prevent him from being elected president of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) but he did not elaborate.
Very disturbing reports come out of Gambia, although it is often difficult to check them because of bad faith and obstruction on the part of the authorities. This was the case, on 12 January, when the opposition weekly Foroyaa revealed that “Chief” Ebrima Manneh, journalist on the privately-owned Daily Observer, had been held for three months and three weeks at a police station in Fatoto, a small town 400 km east of the capital after being taken to various police stations since his arrest by the intelligence services, on 7 July 2006. The authorities have always denied holding the journalist, who has no charges pending against him. He was arrested for unknown reasons shortly after the closure of the African Union (AU) summit held in Banjul when there were a number of arrests within the independent press, accused of having disrupted the event. In autumn 2007, several international press freedom organisations, including Reporters Without Borders, obtained an account from a former political prisoner who said he had been held with “Chief” Ebrima Manneh and that he had “definitively disappeared” after being taken away at night for interrogation by the NIA.
Police on the prowl
Having used unfairness and brutality to gag the country’s journalists, the authorities now take on anyone else who comes within range. Gambian journalist, Fatou Jaw Manneh, a US resident for around ten years, was arrested on 28 March as she got off the plane on a visit to Gambia for the funeral of her father. She was arrested by NIA agents after she was denounced by another passenger and taken to the HQ of the intelligence services on the sea front at Banjul. A former journalist on the privately-owned Daily Observer, Fatou Jaw Manneh is a pro-democracy activist and contributor to several websites and the opposition movement, "Save The Gambia Democracy Project". She published an article in 2003 in a daily which has since been illegally closed, The Independent, which prompted the arrest and unfair detention for three days of its editor, Abdoulie Sey. From then on she contributed to the website AllGambian.net, and was prosecuted for an article, in October 2005, in which she accused President Yahya Jammeh of “tearing our beloved country to shreds” and describing the head of state as “a bundle of terror”. She was charged with “intention to commit sedition”, “publication of seditious words” and “publication of false news intended to create public fear and alarm” and faces three years in prison. Throughout 2007, her trial lurched from one adjournment to another leaving her with a constant threat hanging over her.
Never ending trials are one of the specialities of the government to force awkward journalists to live in permanent insecurity. In this way, a young journalist on The Independent, Lamin Fatty, endured a process lasting more than a year before being sentenced to one year in prison or the option of a fine of 1,850 dollars (about 1,375 Euros). He had already spent two months in prison in 2006, along with the publication director and the editor, Madi Ceesay and Musa Saidykhan, for publishing a false report, which had been corrected in the next edition alongside an apology. Thanks to the solidarity of his colleagues, who contributed to a collection to pay the fine, the journalist was able to avoid going back to prison.
But it is not always opposition figures or critical investigators who fall victim to the intolerance of the president. Crackdowns are also inflicted on the ranks of the faithful. Malick Jones, chief producer on the state-run Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) and Mam Sait Ceesay, communications director of the Gambian presidency, were arrested on 9 September for having informed the pro-government Daily Observer of the supposed sacking of the president’s press and public relations director, which turned out to be false. The two were also accused of sending information to the US-based opposition website, Freedom Newspaper, which goes in for virulent criticism of the Gambian government and claims to have sources within the presidency. Mam Sait Ceesay was released from Mile Two prison, in Banjul, on 19 September, after paying bail of 200,000 Dalasis (about 6,730 Euros). Malick Jones was only released on 22 September 2007, after finding the same amount of bail.
Hydara’s newspaper The Point continues to appear against this background of permanent surveillance, paranoia and brutality. It is headed by Pap Saine, who is also correspondent for Reuters in Gambia. The editorial staff knows that each edition is examined, taken apart and discussed high up and that the least pretext can serve to send the dreaded NIA against the journalists or to ransack the premises of the country’s last independent daily.