By Alieu B. Ceesay
The Gambia achieved independence 18th February 1965. On April 24th 1970 the country became a republic, following a referendum ending British rule.
The country was lead by Sir Dawda Jawara until 1994 when the military overthrow a democratically elected government. The Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), lead by Lt. Yaya Jammeh, since 1994 have waged a war on the country’s media and journalists.
The AFPRC uses summary arrest, detention, interrogation and beatings to intimidate and silence journalists who dare to criticize or publish sensitive articles.
Despite the return of the country to a civilian rule in 1996, following elections, harassment and intimidation of journalists continue unabated. During this period journalists have been tortured, harassed and restricted. As if this is not enough for journalists in the country, the government, through its majority in parliament, enacted repressive media laws to silence journalists and independent media in the country.
These include Newspaper Decrees 70 and 71 of 1996. These decrees impose criminal penalties on private publications that fail to register annually with the government and increased the registration bond for existing newspapers by 100 percent.
The law also created a commission that would establish a code of conduct for the private media, set standard for content and quality for print and broadcasting materials, maintain registry of all media practitioners and organizations and adjudicate complaints against journalists and media organizations. The commission was given the power to issue arrest warrants for journalists who ignore decrees and could force journalists to reveal their sources. The commission was to require all journalists and media organizations to obtain a one year renewable license and a heavy fine for those who refused to comply.
The commission was also given the power to jail journalists for up to six months for contempt. Among the offences listed in the Act were the publication and broadcasting of language, cartoon or deprecatory caricature which is insulting to any person or authority. Despite a court challenge by the Gambia Press Union (GPU) about the constitutional validity of the commission, the body was inaugurated in 2003.
The Gambia Press Union’s refusal to nominate a member onto the commission prompted the government to push more legislation through the parliament to allow the Communication Minister to appoint any journalist to the GPU seat.
In 2006, the Gambian parliament passed two repressive laws – the Newspaper Amendment Act and the Criminal Code Amendment Act 2004, respectively. The Newspaper Amendment Act nullified all existing registrations of media groups and required that all print and broadcasting owners registered and signed a bond indicating they had enough money or assets to provide any payment for any penalties that might be imposed on them by the courts.
The Criminal Code Amendment Act set mandatory prison sentence from six months to three years for owners of media outlets and journalists convicted of publishing defamatory or seditious materials. Another imposes a minimum of six months prison term for publishing or broadcasting false news and allows the state to confiscate any publications deemed seditious. The penalties of the Criminal Code Amendment Act 2004 where again amended in 2005. The amended penalties include a fine of not less than fifty thousand dalasis and not more than two hundred and fifty thousand dalasis or imprisonment for a term no less than one year, or both such fine and imprisonment.
The government still continues its policy of not allowing public and civil servants to talk to the media and this has given room to rumor mongering in the country and makes it difficult for the media to investigate corruption and other crimes in the country.
Many journalists have been harassed, threatened with death and been unlawfully arrested and detained if suspected of passing information to on-line newspapers that are critical of the government.
In the Gambia today, journalists have become the subject of enforced disappearances. The case of Ebrima Chief Manneh, a colleague of mine, was arrested by personnel of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), in July 2006 and has not been heard of since. He was arrested for reprinting a BBC article that was critical of the Jammeh government prior to the Africa Union Summit. Despite an international outcry and landmark ruling by the Community Court of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), the Gambia government still refuses to release him. No one knows if he is still alive.
On December 16, 2004, the co-owner and publisher of The Point newspaper, Deyda Hydara, was shot three times on his way home following the paper’s thirteenth anniversary. Prior to his assassination, Hydara was under surveillance by the government for his stance on national issues. His famous weekly column, Mr President, addresses the president directly about issues of national importance. Two of his staff were injured in the attack. The attack took place a couple of days after the controversial media legislation had been passed, which Hydara and the rest of the country’s media had been stating their opposition to. Hydaras’ murder is unresolved and the government has no plans to conduct any serious investigation into the incident.
Journalists have also been subjected to unfair trials in the Gambia. In June 2009 eight journalists were arrested and detained at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) headquarters without charge. Before their first appearance in court, one was released but seven were charged with sedition. They were arrested for criticizing a statement by the president about the unresolved murder of Deyda Hydara.
In August, seven of them were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of $10,000 American dollars. The president of the Gambia Press Union, Ndey Tapha Sosseh, was barred from coming back to the country as she was attending a conference in the Malian capital, Bamako. Late 2009, Sosseh’s home was entered and searched by personnel of the NIA.
Following international pressure, the government released the seven journalists but Miss Sosseh is still barred from returning home.
In August 2009 in Glasgow, Alieu Ceesay was joined by local journalists, members of the National Union of Journalists, politicians and a cross section of the community in holding a demonstration against the arrest and trial on charges of sedition of the seven journalists. (see pictures attached).
Once in detention, people are at risk of a range of human rights violations contrary to what is stipulated in the country’s constitution. The police, army, NIA are all involved in either the arrest and torture of journalists and the carrying out of arson attacks on media houses. The Independent newspaper had its printing press burnt and the paper was subsequently closed down by government without a court order. Citizen FM radio and New Citizen newspaper were also closed down in a similar manner. The law requires the arresting authorities to issue an arrest warrant before arresting anyone but warrants are hardly ever issued and charges are never brought before the 72 hours as stipulated in the constitution.
The independence of the judiciary has been compromised due to the frequent sacking and hiring of judges by the president without consultation with the Judicial Service Commission. Such action contravenes section 138 and 141 of the constitution.
Journalists are still witnessing the trend since the days of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council and now the Alliance For Patriotic Re-orientation and Construction government, and there is no sign of abatement. The regime has no plan to change its style against journalists as the security services continue to wage war on the media. This has given room to self censorship in the country.
These red eyed (wild) men became enforcers of disappearance of journalists and Deyda Hyadara, Ebrima Chief Maaneh and Omar Barrow did not survive to tell their tales. In reality, there is no hope and absolutely no pathway for the Gambia to enjoy freedom of the press and speech.
The Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, has now joined the exclusive class of the infamous presidents in the world as a predator of the media and journalists. The government’s hatred of the media and journalists should not result in taking a life, torture and disappearance. It is just not worth it. Killing someone because you own a gun, and the other person does not, does not make you strong, it makes you weak.
In winding up, I would like to appeal to unions for help to maintain the pressure on the Gambian government to de-criminalize all existing media laws and put an end to physical violence against journalists. The laws are an impediment to press freedom.
The author of this piece, Aleiu B Ceesay, is a former journalist with the Daily Observer newspaper in Gambia, and a present member of the National Union of Journalists in Scotland. He presented this piece to the Glasgow Branch of the National Union of Journalists at their annual general meeting on Thursday 11 February, as part effort by the Union to raise awareness about the media situation in the Gambia.
Photo: Taken at the vigil in Glasgow in July 2009 p7200240 shows from left: Grace Franklin, Editor, LOCAL NEWS GLASGOW; Alieu B. Ceesay Gambian journalist; Jim McNally, official of the National Union of Journalists, Elyas Hussain, journalist; Anas Sarwar, Labour candidate for Glasgow Central; Martin Graham, journalist; Austin Sheridan, Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament.
IMG_ 5468 The Glasgow journalists and friends hold the pictures of the Gambian journalists whose trial on sedition charges started that day.