JOURNALISTS AS TARGETS OF UNLAWFUL
ARRESTS, DETENTION, AND TORTURE
Several journalists have been harassed, threatened, received death threats, and been detained and unlawfully arrested if suspected of providing information to online news sources or foreign journalists or publications. In May 2006, just two months after the March 2006 suspected coup plot, following what Amnesty International fears are signs of an increased crackdown on the media and limitations on freedom of expression, the internet based Freedom Newspaper had its website hacked into. A list of what were said to be “informers” was subsequently published in the pro-government paper The Daily Observer and many people on that list were arrested, questioned, detained for several days to several weeks, and some were subjected to torture while in detention. Following this, the government blocked the newspaper’s IP address, stating that the website was affecting security issues between Gambia and Senegal. This was the second time in two years that the government had blocked the address.
Journalists arrested by the NIA and brought to Mile 2 included Lamin Cham, the BBC Banjul correspondent. He was allegedly tortured for three days and threatened with death but was finally released on 6 June 2006. After his release he left the country. Malick Mboob, journalist and communications officer at the RVTH, was also arrested and held incommunicado for 139 days. He was reportedly tortured until his release on 9 October 2006. Mboob is still in the country and reporting. Pa Modou Faal, a journalist with the Gambia Radio and Television Service (GRTS) and Liberian Musa Sheriff, of theNews and Report and now editor of The Voice, were also arrested, reportedly subjected to torture for several days and later released.
Human rights violations against journalists have continued in the post-coup period and continued in 2008. Since the March 2006 coup there have been several cases of journalists falling prey to the restrictive media laws and being required to pay hefty fines to avoid imprisonment. Following the March 2006 coup, along with editor Musa Saidykhan and managing editor Madi Ceesay of The Independent,26 reporter Lamin Fatty was arrested on 6 April 2006. His arrest was reportedly for incorrectly reporting that former Interior Minister Samba Bah was among more than 20 people detained in the wake of a purported coup attempt. He was held incommunicado, tortured with electric shocks and had no access to a lawyer. Finally, after being held for almost two months without charge, on 14 May 2006 he was charged with publishing false information according to Section 181A(1) of the Criminal Code Amendment Act of 2004. However he was neither taken to court that day nor allowed to contact a lawyer.
Initially he found it difficult to find a lawyer willing to take his case. Finally, in June 2006, he obtained the services of a lawyer and the trial started. Over one year later, on 7 June 2007, Lamin Fatty was found guilty of publishing false information and was offered a choice of being sentenced to one year in prison or paying a fine of 50,000 dalais (US$1,850)This fine was paid by the Gambian Press Union, enabling Fatty to avoid imprisonment. Six months after his release from detention, after receiving death threats, Fatty fled the country on 14 January 2008. He is currently in hiding.
In February 2008 he filed an appeal through his lawyer. However the appeal trial has suffered significant delays, initially due to mistakes in the actual judgement presented.
Further delays are predicted as the judge assigned to the case was Naceesay Sallah Waddah, who was removed from her position on 11 September 2008. The next trial date for Fatty’s appeal case was set for 17 October 2008, provided a new judge is assigned to the case. On 17 October the case was adjourned until the new year.
On 29 March 2007 Fatou Jaw Manneh, formerly a reporter with the state-owned Daily Observer, but currently a Gambian with residential status in the United States, was arrested on her arrival at Banjul airport for allegedly writing articles that were considered critical of the government. The charges were linked to a June 2004 interview given to the now-defunct private bi-weekly, The Independent, in which Manneh severely criticized Jammeh and his government, according to research carried out by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In the article, Manneh wrote: “Jammeh is tearing our beloved country in shreds … He is a bundle of terror … Gambians are desperately in need of an alternative to this egoistic frosty imam…” She was detained for six days, in violation of her due process rights, before being charged on four different counts of sedition. At the time that she was charged in April 2007, the CPJ called on the government to drop the charges, stating that the charges criminalized a commentator for expressing her views on issues of public interest.27 Throughout the course of the trial, there was a lack of clarity as to which court had jurisdiction over her case, since she was being charged with writing an article for an online newspaper whilst living in the United States. This caused significant delays to the trial. Finally, more than a year and half later, on 18 August 2008, she was found guilty on all four charges and sentenced to pay a fine of 250,000 dalais (US$12,000) or four years imprisonment with hard labour. The Gambia Press Union and her family paid the fine and she plans to return to the United States.
The Nigerian publisher and editor of Today, a Banjul-based newspaper, Abdulhamid Adiamoh, was arrested and detained at the policce station three times in 2008, on 18 July, 21 July and then again on 16 August, charged with allegedly publishing articles with “seditious intentions”. He was released on bail each time. On 18 September 2008, Adiamoh was convicted and fined US$5,000 for failing to pay tax. Adiamoh lost his case and has been ordered to stop publishing. He is still fighting the sedition charges.
In a Voice of America article published in August 2008, the president of The Gambian Press Union, Ndey Tapha Sosseh, said that Manneh and Adiamoh’s cases are examples of the ongoing intimidation of journalists in the region. The African head of Reporters Without Borders also said that the Gambian justice system is cracking down on reporters and that:
“Fatou Jaw Manneh’s case is just one more case of harassment and personal revenge of President Yahya Jammeh based on the police and the justice system of The Gambia, which is completely in his hands,”
Amnesty International is concerned that the repressive legislation, combined with the executive’s history of interference in the judiciary and the police is a contributing factor for the lack of freedom of expression in Gambia.