Wednesday, January 1, 2014

THE GAMBIA: State of Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression 2013

One unresolved murder, one disappeared, two media houses reopened, one remain closed, several arrests and detentions, four exiled, two on trial and more draconian media laws

The West African country have passed laws that carry up to 15 years of jail term or a fine of three million Dalasi (around 63,250 Euros) or both - for whoever spreads “false news” about the government or public officials on the internet.
Press freedom and freedom of expression, fundamental human rights, remains a challenge in The Gambia. At year’s end (2013) the situation is increasingly becoming worrisome not only because of the usual arrest, detention and closure of media houses but also the enactment of new stiff laws that observers say furthers the crackdown on journalists and also muzzle free expression.

As usual, 2013 also ended on a year low, topped by the yet-to-be-resolve murder of journalist Deyda Hydara. Again, The Gambia Press Union demanded from the government an investigation into his killing. “Failure to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to book will only entrench a culture of impunity in our society, which is inimical to democracy,” the GPU said on Dec 16, nine years since the killing. Deyda, a co-proprietor and managing editor of the privately-owned The Point Newspaper, was killed in a drive-by shooting by unknown gunmen on Dec 16, 2004. While his killers are yet to be apprehended, the GPU described his assassination as “gruesome and nefarious.”

On December 31, the ban on Taranga FM and The Standard newspaper was lifted by President Yahya Jammeh who ordered for their closure in August and September 2012. However, The Daily News which was shut along with the two remains closed. 

On November 14, a messenger of the Foroyaa newspaper, Mass Kah, was detained at the Serekunda police station and moved to Kotu police station for allegedly 'insulting' President Jammeh. Initial news reports quoted the Spokesperson of the Police, Assistant Superintendent David Kujabi as saying: "People should be mindful of their utterances because of the laws in place. No one is an exception as far as these laws are in place."  The police have since brought a charge of sedition against Mr Kah, which he denied.

In October, Broadcast journalist and host of the popular TV talk show ‘Fatu Show’ Fatou Camara was released from detention after 25 days. She was held incommunicado from September 15 on allegations of sedition. She was subsequently charged with "spreading false news on the internet” and accused of trying to tarnish the president’s image. Ms Camara, who was likely to face a 15-year jail term upon conviction under the new internet law, fled the country after she was granted bail and now lives in the United States.

As of August and September 2013, three media houses remained closed. On August 12, 2012 the NIA arbitrarily shutdown Taranga FM, a privately-owned community radio at Sinchu Alhagi, Kombo North District. The FM was broadcasting in the local languages Xibari Besbi (news of the day) to majority of uneducated Gambians. On September 14, 2012 privately-owned newspapers, The Daily News and The Standard were ordered to close-down after they provided independent and divergent news coverage of the execution of nine death row prisoners in August that year.

On August 12, Senegalese authorities “threatened” to expel Gambian freelance journalist Abubacarr Saidykhan. The authorities threatened to expel Mr Saidykhan, if he continues to be opposed to the Gambian regime, according to reports. Saidykhan has been living in Dakar in self-imposed exile since fleeing The Gambia in October 2012 over reported “death threats” levelled against him by unidentified men believed to be state security agents.

On July 7, the European Union (EU) Delegation to The Gambia called for a swift enquiry into the disappearance of Gambian journalist, Ebrima B. Manneh “Chief”, who went missing seven years ago. The whereabouts of Manneh, a reporter of the Daily Observer newspaper, remained unknown since 2006. “His disappearance has now transcended press freedom matters, it is both a national and a universal human right concern,” the EU said.

On July 4, the Young Journalists Association of The Gambia (YJAG) called on The Government of The Gambia, whose mandate it is to protect lives and properties of all citizens, to try to launch an investigation into the whereabouts of missing journalist Assan Sallah. YJAG said it was deeply concerned over the safety and security of its former President who was also a News Editor at the Daily Observer Newspaper. Mr Sallah, who reportedly went missing on June 26, is now believed to be living in Senegal. His abrupt fleeing of the country has been linked to his job at the Observer, however, nothing have been heard of him since.
"... YJAG is also calling on his employer the Daily Observer Company Ltd (where he was last seen by his colleagues) to endeavour to bring to light Sallah’s ordeal, and to clarify reports of his purported ‘imminent sacking’”, it added

On July 3, the National Assembly passed the Information and Communication (amendment) Act 2013. The Act criminalises whoever spreads “false news” about the government or public officials on the internet, caricatures or makes derogatory statements against public officials, and incites dissatisfaction or instigates violence against the government. The offences are punishable by a 15-year jail term or a fine of three million Dalasi (around 63,250 Euros) or both.
Rights groups said the ‘new Internet law’ which was presided over by former Information Minister Nana Grey-Johnson, a veteran journalist, furthers crackdown on free expression and forms part of a pattern of intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and government critics.

On May 10, after more than five months in detention, Imam Baba Leigh was released by the State. The activist Imam, who was held incommunicado, was picked up by the country’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), on December 3, 2012.
The government had earlier denied holding Imam Leigh whose ordeal emanated from criticising the government over the killing by firing squad of nine death row prisoners in August 2012. He later went on to win the maiden pan-African Human Rights Defenders Award in October 2013.

On world press freedom day, May 3, Mr Grey-Johnson accused Gambian media of “reporting negatively” about the country, which according to him is driving away investors. He told journalists “it is safe to speak, [but] it is not to misspeak” while speaking on the topic “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media.”

On April 19, The Gambia’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, PURA, banned companies and individual Internet Cafe operators from “offering dating services and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services as a commercially available service” to Gambians.
“PURA wishes to make it abundantly clear that the offering of “International and National Calling Services” within Internet Cafes using VoIP services (Viber, Skype, etc) is strictly prohibited,” it said. ARTICLE 19 described the ban as a “new attack” on free expression and called for its immediate repeal.

On April 16, the National Assembly adopted amendments to several provisions of the country’s Criminal Code, including, section 114 which prohibits “giving false information to public servants”. The amendment allow courts to impose a prison sentence of up to five years or a fine of up to 50,000 Gambian Dalasi (about US $1,650) for an offence that was previously punishable with 6 months imprisonment or 500 Dalasi (about USD17). Section 167 which prohibits disturbing “the peace by quarrelling or attempting to quarrel or by using any insolent, scurrilous or abusive term of reproach” was amended and now offenders face either a fine of up to 25,000 Dalasi or a five year jail sentence or both.

On April 11, Commissioner Adv. Pansy Tlakula, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, revealed that on March 28, she transmitted a letter of Appeal to President Jammeh addressing allegations on violations of the right to free expression and access to information of three journalists: Abdoulie John, Baboucar Ceeay and Fabakary Ceesay. Mr John and Baboucarr Ceesay were arrested and detained in the course of carrying out their duties as journalists, and their travel documents confiscated, she said. While Fabakary Ceesay who investigated disappearances and detention without trial fled the country over reports of his imminent arrest.

On March 11, the NIA released journalist, Baboucarr Ceesay who was arrested and detained for the second time in six months on March 8. Ceesay, a first vice president of the GPU, has not been charged but his passport is still held.

On February 8, Alagie Jobe, a deputy editor-in-chief of the pro-government Daily Observer, was arrested and detained. He was charged with multiple counts including sedition on March 12. He has since denied all charges and has been denied bail three times. He alleges that he was tortured while under detention at the NIA, allegations dismissed by the court. The charges emanated from a purported story about an alleged fugitive soldier. His trial is still going on.

On January 14, Associated Press stringer Abdoulie John was released after been illegally detained beyond the legal limit of 72 hours by the NIA. Mr. John was detained at NIA headquarters in Banjul from Jan. 7-10 after he reported to the agency as part of a weekly routine that began on Dec. 10, 2012. John was first arrested on Sunday 9 December 2012 and detained overnight after a confrontation with President Jammeh's personal photographer Sulayman Gassama. His laptop computer was seized and later returned. No charges have been brought against him.

On Jan 3, Daily Observer managing director Pa Malick Faye was sacked. Media reports linked Faye’s sacking to a story captioned The Execution was hypocritically blown out of proportion”, a story published on the midweek edition (Jan. 2) of the Daily Observer based on a New Year’s Eve message of President Jammeh.

Compiled and written by Modou S. Joof & Mafugi Ceesay for the Serekunda-based privately-owned The Voice newspaper where a version of this report first appeared on December 30, 2013

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