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Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, shown in 2006 after his election to a third five-year term. (AP photo)

One editor slain, others dealt with harshly in Gambia

COMMENTARY | April 06, 2007

Alagi Jallow, now a Nieman fellow, recounts how President Yahya Jammeh took power in a 1994 coup and has stifled the press ever since. Jammeh, who claims he can cure HIV/AIDS, says he can ban any newspaper whenever he wants ‘with good reason.’

This essay first appeared in the online publication Global Journalist.

By Alagi Yorro Jallow

The Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, 41, is a former wrestler and soldier - a tough man to deal with, as the Gambian news business has discovered.

Journalists are still reeling from the murder of managing editor and co-owner of The Point, Deyda Hydara, who was shot by unidentified assailants while driving co-workers home Dec. 16, 2004. Hydara previously had been threatened by the Gambia's National Intelligence Agency and was under surveillance by the organization just a few minutes before his death.

A statement from the Gambian officials came six months later. The statement called Hydara "provocative," and suggested the journalist's death was a result of his sex life.

When Jammeh was asked about Hydara's death in September, he denied involvement, saying:

"I don't believe in killing people. I believe in locking you up for the rest of your life. Then maybe at some point we say, 'Oh, he is too old to be fed by the state,' and we release him and let him become destitute."

Since Jammeh took control in a military coup in 1994, he has been a self-declared enemy of press freedom. He has shown contempt of human rights and assumes a monopoly on truth and knowledge, which makes him particularly hostile to contrary views.

"If I want to ban any newspaper, I will with good reason," he said in response to questions concerning press closures and arrests. "This is Africa and this is Gambia, a country where we have very strong African moral values.....If you write, 'Yahya Jammeh is a thief,' you should be ready to prove it in a court of law. If that constitutes lack of press freedom, then I don't care."

Following the 1994 coup, there was considerable negative reaction… and [foreign] aid was curtailed. Jammeh and his party, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, needed to find new allies and made overtures to Libya, Taiwan, Cuba, Nigeria, Iran, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Kuwait. This formed the basis of foreign relations for the Gambia under Jammeh's rule.

In 1994, external donors, particularly Western nations and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, were fostering democracy, human rights and "good governance." In line with their rules against military regimes, most of the Gambia's traditional donors cut off aid. Apart from the cessation of aid, however, the international community remained fairly mute. The Gambia's lack of economic resources meant that, internationally, it lacked political influence and importance. By July 3, 1995, the economy had deteriorated to such an extent that, during his budget speech, the Finance Minister expressed fears that the Gambian economy was on the brink of collapse.

According to Dr. Ebrima Ceesay, a social science researcher, from 1994 to 1995 the gross domestic product declined by 3.5 percent, mainly as a result of the dismal performance of the tourism sector. Real GDP growth averaged only 1.2 percent. A government surplus of 1.3 percent GDP in both 1992 and 1993 had become a deficit of 6.3 percent in 1995, which rose to 10 percent in 1996. Gross national income also fell from $350 in 1992 and 1993 to $340 in 1995 and 1996.

Yet, despite the failure of the military regime to bring about economic and social prosperity, the Gambian people were afraid to protest against the junta for fear of violence. The junta issued draconian decrees that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms, suspended the constitution and warned of dire consequences for any attempt to challenge the new order.

In November 1994, full diplomatic relations with Libya were restored after 15 years of hostile relations between ousted President Dawda Jawara and Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi, and the Gambians received an immediate grant of $15 million. On July 13, 1995, full diplomatic ties with Taiwan were also established, and in 1996, they opened an embassy in the Gambia. In August 1995, Taiwan made a no-interest loan of $35 million, a grant of $5 million and initiated a series of rice production projects. In addition, Taiwan donated 5,000 sets of military uniforms and boots to the Gambian Army.

With continued financial support from Taiwan and Libya, the economy showed signs of limited resurgence. Jammeh and his AFPRC then engaged in a number of developmental projects, in a bid as he put it, to improve the socioeconomic conditions of Gambians.

From the beginning, human rights abuse was one area where the military junta was criticized, both locally and internationally. As soon as it assumed power, the military suspended the constitution, dissolved all democratic structures in the country and started ruling by decree. Freedom of expression was the first target of the military authorities; the expression of political views was outlawed and the freedom of association was severely circumscribed.

The Constitution of the Second Republic of the Gambia, which went into effect in January 1997, provides for the protection of citizens against arbitrary arrest and detention. After the coup, police and security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained a number of Gambians. All secretaries of state, senior civil servants and senior military officers in the ousted People's Progressive Party were arrested. Periods of detention ranged from a few hours to months, and there have been some accusations detainees were subjected to physical and psychological torture. Due to the junta's lack of transparency and accountability, the private press could not access the exact number of Gambians held.

Another example of authoritarianism is the relationship between the junta and the press. Upon assuming power, Jammeh assured the Gambians that he welcomed ideas, and he challenged the press to "criticize us where we are wrong and contribute where you can contribute." Ironically, Jammeh announced Decree Number 4 on August 4, 1994. This decree denied the people the rights to discuss their political views or to express themselves collectively as members of political parties.

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press. In practice, the government has significantly limited the full exercise of these freedoms through intimidation, police pressure, regulatory scrutiny and laws that inhibit the independent media. The government also used arrest, detention, dismissal, arson attacks, killings and interrogation to intimidate journalists and newspapers that published articles that the junta considered inaccurate or sensitive. As a result, journalists practiced a significant degree of self-censorship.

Decrees 70 and 71 inhibit free reportage by requiring newspapers to post a substantial financial bond. State owned or controlled publications were not subject to either decree. Despite government harassment and intimidation, the independent press maintained a critical stance against the government.

The Gambia under President Jammeh continues to be mired in gross rights violations. Since the coup, Gambians and journalists, in particular, have had to contend with arrests, beatings, detentions, lawsuits, self-exile and deportations. The president has virtually succeeded in breaking the backbone of the independent media by either closing down the media houses that were critical of the regime or reducing them to mere praise singers.

Other newspapers have been transformed into mouthpieces for APRC or have been subjected to heavy censorship. For example, reports on Gambia Radio and Television Services focus on Jammeh's "achievements" and on such things as his farming skills and his so-called treatment of HIV/AIDS, all while ignoring the most newsworthy happenings in the country.

President Jammeh, whose hostility to the independent media is well-known, has not held a press conference since 1994. He normally talks only to hand-picked representatives of friendly media houses. Most members of the independent press are routinely left out of state functions and other newsworthy events.

In June 2006, reacting to documented violations of press freedom and human rights and a skyrocketing corruption index, the board of directors of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a United States government corporation designed to work with some of the poorest countries in the world, suspended the Gambia's eligibility for Millennium Challenge Account assistance. In its press release announcing the suspension, the MCC noted:

"A 2004 law forced media outlets to reapply for their licenses and established harsh sentences for all press offenses, while changes in the criminal code enable the state to confiscate any publication deemed seditious without judicial oversight. Since then, there have been multiple documented cases of unexplained arrest and detention of journalists, as well as threats, arson attacks or official raids on independent media sources. There are also increased reports of arbitrary arrests and torture by security forces."

List of attacks on the free press in The Gambia

In March 2006, The Independent's top staff were arrested and detained for more than three weeks. The offices remain sealed an under armed guard. Under The Gambian law, no private property may be impounded by authorities without the provision of a court order. No such order was produced to justify the closure of The Independent's offices.

On April 10, 2006, Lamin Fatty, a reporter for The Independent, was arrested and detained. He was held incommunicado for almost 62 days and is currently on trial for publishing false news, a criminal offense under The Gambian law.

Omar Bah of the Daily Observer has been missing since May 2006, a few days before the Gambian government issued a note declaring him wanted for his contribution to a critical online publication, Freedom Newspaper. He fled into exile in Ghana.

On May 25, 2006, three journalists were arrested and detained by the National Intelligence Agency for allegedly supplying damaging reports about President Jammeh's administration to Freedom Newspaper. They are Pa Modou Faal, an employee of the national broadcaster and Gambia Radio and Television Services, Musa Sheriff of the Gambia News & Report Magazine and Lamin Cham, a stringer of the BBC.

Ebrima Chief Manneh, a reporter with the pro-government Daily Observer, has been missing since July 7, 2006, and is said to be held by the National Intelligence Agency. The agency has repeatedly denied holding him.

Sam Obi and Abdul Gafari, two Nigerian journalists based in the Gambia and editors of the Daily Express, were arrested and detained by the National Intelligence Agency on July 16, 2006, for articles allegedly critical of the government. Amie Sillah, a female journalist working with the biweekly paper, was arrested and subsequently detained for five hours by the Intelligence Agency on August 29, 2006.

On March 28 U.S.-based Gambian journalist Fatou Jaw Menneh was arrested by the National Intelligence Agency of Gambia on March 28 as she arrived at Banjul international airport in Gambia to visit her family. She was taken to NIA headquarters for questioning. She has not been charged and the reasons for her arrest are not known. Manneh, who has lived in the United States for the past 10 years, is a frequent political commentator with the U.S.-based All-Gambia.net and an outspoken critic of President Jemmeh. She was formerly a reporter for the Daily Observer in Gambia.

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