The Gambia Press Union (GPU) is deeply concerned by the continuing restrictions and violations with impunity the right to freedom of expression, especially press freedom in The Gambia.
While previous cases of heinous atrocities on media, such as the murder of editor and publisher Deyda Hydara, the disappearance of journalist Chief Manneh, arson attacks on Independent newspaper and Radio One FM remain unresolved, media practitioners continue to face abduction, arbitrary arrests and detention, undue prosecution, harassment and thereby loss of businesses.
One of the most recent cases involve Mr Abdoulie Ceesay, a radio manager, whose radio station had been arbitrarily shut down three times in under four years. He is currently undergoing trial on charges of sedition and false news. Prior to the charges, he was taken away by plain clothes state security agents and detained incommunicado for 29 days, between July 2 and August 4, during which he was allegedly tortured.
The state accused him of downloading on his mobile telephone a caricature showing the president at gun point, and sent it to his girlfriend.
This case is before the courts. However, the GPU would like to bring to the attention of the commission its grave concerns about
1) the way state security handled the matter; and
2) the slow pace of the trial.
Abdoulie Ceesay was apparently abducted, detained way beyond the 72 hours limits stipulated in section 19 of the constitution and mistreated by security officers. He was picked up twice, both times at night – precisely 8pm on July 2nd and 11pm on July 17.
Secondly, as the matter proceeds in court, he applied for bail three times but was denied on all occasions. The matter will resume on Wednesday 11 November. We call on the commission to urge for his release.
Another recent case involves a senior reporter with private-owned newspaper, The Voice, Mr Mafuji Ceesay, who was on June 2 rough-handled by men in military uniform. The reporter was executing an editorial assignment to cover one of the president’s public meetings. He was simply taking notes when men in military uniform held him by neck and dragged him out of the crowd. He was detained for the entire period of the meeting. His notebook, press card and voice recorder were seized. They claimed he did not have authority to cover the meeting, which in fact was held in the middle of the village and anyone who has interest or was strong enough could attend it.
The GPU had made efforts to meet with the army spokesman to address the matter but to no avail. We issued a statement calling for the matter to be investigated. Instead of investigating the matter, the journalist was investigated. Five of his newspaper’s staff, including the editor and publisher, were invited for questioning and in the process were thoroughly screened by the National Intelligence Agency.
On July 22, 2015, the president while celebrating 21 years of his coup has pardoned nearly three hundred prisoners and detainees. He has also declared an amnesty for Gambians living in exile. May I hasten to inform you that studies have confirmed that at least 20 percent of Gambian journalists, amongst them, the most experienced ones have gone into exile. The GPU therefore, welcomes the presidential amnesty. However, given the current atmosphere of continued repression and fear, those living abroad have no security guarantee to come back. The conditions that made them fled are still alive and well.
In summary, the unfavourabe legal, political and economic conditions under which media practitioners operate do not allow journalists to effectively contribute to public debate or hold leaders to account.
In this regard, the GPU calls on the African Commission to engage the government with a view to conducting a comprehensive media reforms. In fact, the government had made a pledge several times that they’re open to media reforms.
The GPU calls on the ACHPR to urge the Gambian Government to:
• Enact freedom of information law
• Repeal and decriminalise defamation, insult laws;
• Repeal False News and amend the Sedition laws in line with the ACHPR standards
• Review the tax regime applicable to printing materials as these have a stifling effect on the operations of media houses.
• Lift the ban on media houses that have been shut down unduly
• Create safer environment for journalists, free from physical abuse
• Put an end to impunity by investigating previous cases of media rights violations, especially cases of murder, disappearance, arson attacks, and torture.
• Allow the ACHPR to conduct a fact finding mission
• Submit its overdue reports
I thank you
Delivered by Saikou Jammeh, Secretary General of GPU