As in past years, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) routinely targeted journalists with complete impunity. Its agents did not hesitate to search newspapers and place journalists under arrest.
In the second half of 2002, concern focused on a new law establishing a national media commission with unprecedented powers to impose sanctions. From the moment it was set up, the commission was to have the authority to shut down news media or withdraw their licences and issue arrests warrants against journalists.
On 3 May, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, about a hundred Gambian journalists took to the streets to condemn this law’s adoption by the national assembly. Journalists’ associations used every possible legal recourse to delay the creation of this commission, and even sued the government.
A journalist imprisoned
Guy-Patrick Massoloka, the Congolese correspondent of the Pan-African News Agency (PANA) in Banjul, was arrested by NIA agents on 19 July 2002 for allegedly publishing an unregistered weekly in Gambia. The Gambia Press Union (GPU), a journalists’ association, said it had no evidence of his being involved in any publication in Gambia. When he was released on 1 August, he said the immigration authorities had given him a week to settle his affairs before leaving Gambia. Massoloka later returned to Gambia on a new visa.
Five journalists arrested
Demba Sambou, a journalist with the Daily Observer, was arrested by NIA agents on 18 March 2002 in Bansang, in the east of the country, and was questioned about the source of a report he had written about the death of a NIA officer in a motorcycle accident. Sambou said he had been in touch with one of the survivors of the accident. He was released later in the day.
Pa Nderry M’Bai, a reporter with the newspaper The Point and stringer for Voice of America, was arrested by two policeman on 19 June because of a report about divisions within the police over the cancellation of a bank loan for the equivalent of about 100,000 euros. He was released the same day.
BBC stringer Ebrima Sillah was detained by an NIA officer on 3 July over a report raising questions about the delay in an official response from President Jammeh to accusations by his counterpart in Guinea-Bissau that Gambia was harbouring and training conspirators against the Bissau government. He was released on the evening of the same day.
Pa Ousman Darboe, a reporter with the biweekly The Independent, was arrested in Banjul on 2 August by NIA agents for misreporting that the vice-president had remarried and for mentioning in the same report that the vice-president’s late husband was once ordered by a commission of enquiry to reimburse travel expenses. The newspaper’s editor, Alhaji Yoro Jallow, was detained on 3 August but was released the same day. Darboe was not released until 5 August. He was not charged.
Pressure and obstruction
Saloum Sheriff Janko, a journalist with the Daily Observer, was declared persona non grata in late February 2002 by the chiefs of the western village of Kafuta, where he was born, because he reported that some 220,000 dalasis (about 10,000 euros) were embezzled from a local charity. The charity had threatened to cut off the aid it provided to some of the village’s inhabitants if they did not take action against Janko, so the village issued a ban on visits by the journalist. Janko said he had received threats of dire consequences if he tried to return.
The national assembly passed a law on 2 May creating a national media commission with the job of hearing complaints against journalists and news media and imposing sanctions, and with the power to issue arrests warrant against journalists and force them to reveal their sources. From the moment the law was to take effect, no media would be able to operate without a licence issued yearly by the commission, which would be able to suspend or withdraw these licences and shut down media. The president of the commission was to be named by the Gambian president. The Gambia Press Union (GPU) immediately challenged the law’s constitutionality in the courts, thereby preventing it from taking effect. On 25 July, the national assembly passed a new version of the law with one small change. It was now the supreme court president, not the Gambian president, who named the media commission’s president. The GPU’s president, Demba Jawo, announced on 12 October that his union would again take the government to court over the law, which was designed to "gag the independent press," he said. It had still not taken effect at the end of 2002.