Gambian Journalists Being Arrested

Monday, July 31, 2006

By HEIDI VOGT, Associated Press Writer

BANJUL, Gambia — Scores of reporters jailed, some emerging with tales of police beatings. Newspapers shuttered. A journalist forced into hiding.

Gambia _ a sliver of a nation on the West African coast _ bills itself to foreigners as a cheerful beach resort, but critics say the country shelters a corrupt regime that is arresting reporters and closing down papers to silence opponents ahead of September presidential elections.

The situation has deteriorated since Gambia hosted the profile-raising African Union summit in late June, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Since then, a reporter for a pro-government paper has gone missing, a nascent publication has been shut down after one issue and its Nigerian founder arrested, and a reporter for a shuttered publication has gone into hiding, CPJ said.

"Gambia has become one of the worst places in Africa to be a journalist,"said CPJ executive director Joel Simon.

Though less than half of Gambia's 1.6 million people are literate and most of the country's newspapers circulate only around 2,000 copies, the papers have been some of the few entities to openly criticize President Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a 1994 coup and has stayed in power by winning elections the opposition claimed were rigged.

Information Minister Neneh MacDouall said charges of a media crackdown were unfounded.

"We have granted licenses to more newspapers and more private radio stations than ever before,"MacDouall said, explaining it was much harder to get such approval before Jammeh came to power.

But Gambian journalists tell of unexplained arrests, increasing self-censorship and police beatings.

"We are seen as enemies. You see it with the constant things that they do, the repressive laws that they pass,"said Sam Sarr, editor of the opposition Foroyaa newspaper.

"We are always worried to write about certain things _ things concerning human rights and security,"said reporter Bubacarr Sowe.

Police closed the leading opposition paper, The Independent, in March after it published an article that incorrectly named a former interior minister among 23 people arrested for plotting a coup attempt. The paper printed a front-page retraction the next day, but the story ran up against a harsh new law that mandates prison sentences of at least six months for printing falsehoods.

Four days after the article ran, police stormed the newspaper's offices, arresting everyone in the building and barring the doors, said Madi Ceesay, the paper's general manager and president of the Gambia Press Union.

The Independent hasn't published since.

The reporter who wrote the article _ Lamin Fatty _ said he was jailed for 63 days before being charged and released on bail. Fatty appeared in court Thursday, and after several hours of testimony from prosecution witnesses the hearing was adjourned until Aug. 3.

It's against Gambian law to hold a suspect more than 72 hours without filing charges, and while Fatty is the first journalist to go to trial under the new law, scores have been arrested and detained.

"They did not interrogate me,"said Fatty."They took me straight to the cell without telling me what I have done wrong."

MacDouall said the government has the right to keep reporters from writing specious articles with charges of corruption as a gambit to get asylum abroad.

"Some people try to provoke by writing a story,"MacDouall said."So that if they get arrested they get a free ticket to the United Kingdom or another country ... maybe get a free way to the United States."

The U.S. recently suspended Gambia's eligibility for its Millennium Challenge fund _ which gives aid to the poorest countries in the world _ citing increased restrictions on civil liberties and press freedom, along with documented evidence of human rights abuses.

A former assistant editor for The Independent went into hiding earlier this month after receiving threats related to his work on a new publication that accused the government of blocking press freedoms, CPJ said. The paper, The Daily Express, was shut down after its premiere issue.

Musa Sheriff, a reporter for a weekly Gambian magazine, said he just expected to be questioned when he saw his name on the list of people accused of passing information to Freedom Newspaper, an opposition Web site run by a Gambian living in the United States. Instead, Sheriff was thrown in jail for eight days and beaten when he didn't supply any useful information.

Sheriff said he, and the dozens of others arrested, were only subscribers.

"There's a special place they take you where they beat for 10 or 15 minutes,"Sheriff said."Hitting you, kicking you. ... Seven or six people were on me and beating me."He said others in his cell were also beaten, including a 14-year-old who subscribed to the site.

At the African Union summit, a Gambian reporter talked guardedly and said the venue was full of plainclothes security agents monitoring journalists. Such wariness was typical of reporters at the event. Many said rumors of press crackdowns weren't new, noting continuing suspicion surrounding the murder of a journalist two years ago.

Deyda Hydara, a reporter for Gambian daily The Point, was shot and killed in December 2004 by unidentified gunmen. The slaying has never been solved. Before Hydara's killing, fires destroyed both the previous offices of The Independent newspaper and the home of a British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent.

Sarr said that as of late July, 14 journalists were still detained in Gambian jails, but police spokesman Aziz Bojang said he was unsure if any were still being held. MacDouall did not return calls to confirm the information.

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