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Attacks on the Press in 2004 - The Gambia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - The Gambia, February 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566d8c.html [accessed 29 November 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The December murder of veteran journalist and press freedom activist Deyda Hydara fueled mounting fears among journalists and punctuated a year marked by arson attacks, threats, and repressive legislation aimed at the independent media in this tiny West African country. President Yahya Jammeh and his ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) were slow to condemn the escalating assaults on press freedom and bring those responsible to justice.

Hydara, managing editor and co-owner of the independent newspaper The Point and a leading opponent of the restrictive new legislation, was shot in the head on the night of December 16 by unidentified assailants while he drove home from his office in the capital, Banjul. No one was immediately charged. Hydara, who was also a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP), wrote columns for The Point that frequently criticized the government.

His murder drew condemnation from journalists across Africa and prompted a one-week news blackout by the local independent press. About 300 Gambian journalists – virtually the entire press corps – marched through Banjul in protest. But the killing left the nation's independent media shaken. The Point was not operating at year's end. Abdoulie Sey, editor-in-chief of The Independent, a critical biweekly newspaper, resigned because his family feared for his life. Other media owners told CPJ that their staff members were considering doing the same.

The shooting came just two days after the National Assembly passed repressive amendments to the Criminal Code and the Newspaper Act. One Criminal Code amendment sets mandatory prison sentences of six months to three years for owners of media outlets and journalists convicted of publishing defamatory or "seditious" material; another imposes minimum six-month prison terms for publishing or broadcasting false news and allows the state to confiscate any publication deemed "seditious."

The Newspaper Act amendment increases the bond required of all print media owners and extends the obligation to broadcast media. Owners typically post bond in the form of personal property such as a house, which can be confiscated if they lose a libel lawsuit. The December amendments raise the bond from 100,000 dalasis (US$3,348) to 500,000 dalasis (US$16,740), a prohibitive sum for many in the Gambia.

Facing a lawsuit by independent journalists, the National Assembly repealed the controversial National Media Commission Act on December 13. The 2002 measure required journalists and media organizations to register with the commission for one-year renewable licenses.

However, there was little other good news in 2004. In April, arsonists destroyed The Independent's new printing press. Local sources said armed men stormed the building that housed the press in Kanifing, a suburb of Banjul, doused equipment with gasoline, and set it on fire. Three employees were injured. The newspaper resumed publishing with a rented printing press, but the attack was a drain on its finances.

Known for its frequent criticism of the government, The Independent had been targeted before. In October 2003, three unidentified men set fire to the newspaper's main offices in Banjul, forcing staff to relocate temporarily. Journalists at The Independent accused the police of failing to act on multiple reports of threats against the newspaper.

Arsonists struck again in August, setting fire to BBC correspondent Ebrima Sillah's house in Jambur, a village several miles outside Banjul. Sillah was inside sleeping when the fire occurred, but he escaped unharmed.

Prior to the attack, threatening letters criticizing independent journalists' coverage of the Jammeh administration were sent to the BBC and to Demba Jawo, chairman of the Gambian Press Union. In July, the BBC in London received an e-mail from the "Green Boys," a self-described group of APRC supporters. "We will not sit idly by to see that our president is criticized unnecessarily," the e-mail warned. "Let your correspondent get a cue from The Independent newspaper.... This is the final warning to him."

Several days before the attack on Sillah's house, an anonymous letter was delivered to Demba Jawo's home criticizing Jawo and the country's independent press for its political coverage and accusing journalists of bias against the president. "Very soon we will teach one of your journalists a very good lesson," it threatened.

The "Green Boys" have not been identified, although local sources suspect that their members include soldiers in the Gambian army, as well as youth supporters of the APRC. In January, self-described members of the group sent a threatening letter to the managing editor of The Independent, Yorro Jallow, warning him to stop criticizing Baba Jobe, a powerful APRC member who was later jailed on corruption charges.

By year's end no one had been prosecuted in connection with any of the arson attacks – including one on the independent Banjul-based Radio 1 FM in 2000 – and Jammeh had not publicly distanced himself from those who perpetrated them.


2004 Documented Cases – The Gambia

APRIL 13, 2004
Posted: April 14, 2004

The Independent
ATTACKED

The printing press of the private, Banjul-based biweekly The Independent was attacked at around 3 a.m. According to local sources, six armed men stormed the building housing The Independent's printing press in Kanifing, a suburb of the capital, Banjul. The men fired shots inside the building before dousing equipment with gasoline and setting it ablaze.

Journalists who arrived on the scene shortly after the incident said the assailants had attempted to lock employees inside the burning building, but that all staff members escaped. Three were injured when they struggled to free themselves.

The Independent's printing press had only been operating for three months. All of the newspaper's printing equipment, and all copies of today's edition, were destroyed in the attack.

This is not the first time The Independent, known for its feisty criticism of the government, has come under attack. In October 2003, three unidentified men set fire to the newspaper's main offices, forcing staff to relocate temporarily. The Independent Editor-in-Chief Abdoulie Sey said that the newspaper's management decided to separate their printing press from their main office after the October attack.

Despite promises of a police investigation into the October fire, The Independent has received no word from authorities about progress in the case.

Sey told CPJ that the latest attack would not keep the newspaper from publishing or affect its editorial stance. Journalists at the paper are currently working on Friday's edition, which they hope to publish with the help of other media houses.

Sey also said that Gambian Interior Minister Sulayman Masanneh Ceesay visited the newspaper's office today to assure employees that a thorough investigation will be conducted. The editor also told CPJ that the inspector general of police had contacted The Independent by phone to reiterate this assurance.

Both attacks on The Independent closely resemble an August 2000 arson attack on the offices of the independent station Radio 1 FM that injured several journalists and forced the station off the air for two days. Sources at Radio 1 told CPJ that, almost four years later, there has been no movement on the investigation into the incident.

AUGUST 7, 2004
Posted: August 23, 2004

Demba Jawo, Gambia Press Union
Independent Journalists
THREATENED

An anonymous threatening letter dated August 7 was delivered to the home of Demba Jawo, president of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), several days before an arson attack on the home of Gambian journalist and BBC correspondent Ebrima Sillah. Sillah was able to escape from the fire unharmed, but the attack caused extensive damage to the journalist's house.

The letter criticized Jawo and the independent press in Gambia for their coverage of Gambian politics, accusing Jawo and other journalists of being biased against President Yahya Jammeh. "Very soon we will teach one of your journalists a very good lesson," the letter threatened. It was signed, "In defence [sic] of the revolution," an apparent reference to the coup – referred to in the Gambia as a "revolution" – that brought Jammeh to power in July 1994.

Sillah's coverage for the BBC of the coup's ten-year anniversary was criticized in a separate threatening letter, sent in July to the BBC in London and signed "The Green Boys." The letter accused Sillah's reporting of being biased against Jammeh, and threatened an attack on the journalist.

AUGUST 15, 2004
Updated: August 20, 2004

Ebrima Sillah, BBC
ATTACKED

Sillah's home outside the capital, Banjul, was the target an arson attack. About 3 a.m., attackers broke through the windows of his house, poured gasoline, and set fire to the building, causing extensive damage.

Sillah was inside sleeping when the attack took place, but he was able to escape without injury. No one else was inside the house at the time. Sillah told CPJ that neighbors helped extinguish the blaze, which burned for more than two hours.

Several days before the attack, Demba Jawo, president of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), received an anonymous threatening letter at his home. The letter criticized Jawo and the independent press in Gambia for their coverage of President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh and the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party. "Very soon we will teach one of your journalists a very good lesson," the letter threatened.

In July, the BBC in London received a letter signed "The Green Boys," which criticized Sillah's coverage for the BBC of the 10-year anniversary of the July 22 coup that brought Jammeh to power in 1994. The letter accused Sillah's reporting of being biased against Jammeh, and threatened an attack on the journalist.

Sillah told CPJ that he gave a copy of the letter to the local police, who promised to investigate its source. Police did not announce any information from that investigation. On August 19, a police spokesman said the police would arrest those responsible for the attack.

This attack was the latest in a series of arson assaults on independent media in the Gambia. They include two attacks against the private biweekly newspaper, The Independent.

DECEMBER 16, 2004
Updated: March 24, 2005

Deyda Hydara, The Point
KILLED – CONFIRMED

The Point
ATTACKED

Hydara, managing editor and co-owner of the independent newspaper The Point, as well as a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reporters without Borders (RSF), was shot in the head and chest by unidentified assailants while he drove home from his office in the capital, Banjul, late that night. Two other staff members of The Point, Ida Jagne-Joof and Nyang Jobe, were in the car with Hydara and were wounded in the attack.

The shooting occurred two days after the Gambian National Assembly passed two contentious pieces of media legislation that Hydara, along with other local independent journalists, had strongly opposed. One of the new laws imposes lengthy jail terms for reporters convicted of defamation or sedition. Both laws await President Yahya Jammeh's signature.

Hydara also wrote two columns for The Point that frequently criticized the government, according to local journalists.

In recent years, Gambian journalists and media outlets have been targeted in successive arson attacks, for which no one has been prosecuted. The most recent attack occurred in August, when the home of BBC correspondent Ebrima Sillah was burned down following a threatening letter sent to the BBC accusing Sillah's reporting of being biased against President Jammeh.

In the last two years, unidentified assailants have twice set fire to property belonging to the private, Banjul-based Independent, which is known for its critical stance toward the government. These attacks resembled an August 2000 arson attack on the offices of the independent Banjul-based station Radio 1 FM.

DECEMBER 30, 2004

Sam Obi, Radio France Internationale (RFI)
HARASSED

Police detained Obi, a local correspondent for RFI, for several hours after RFI aired his report on a march organized by the Gambia Press Union to protest the December 16 murder of Gambian journalist Deyda Hydara. According to local sources, the police questioned him about the report and then confiscated the tape on which it was recorded.

The police also seized Obi's residence permits (the journalist is a Nigerian national) and passport. They were returned the following day.

Hydara, managing editor and co-owner of the independent newspaper The Point, as well as a correspondent for Agence France-Presse and Reporters without Borders, was shot in the head and chest by unidentified assailants. The assassination occurred two days after the Gambian National Assembly passed two contentious pieces of media legislation that Hydara, along with other local independent journalists, had strongly opposed.

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