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Gambia: Defending Press Freedom

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jun 27, 2006 (060627)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The Gambian government has blocked a non-governmental forum of freedom of expression scheduled to take place in Banjul on June 19 and 30, prior to the African Union summit in the Gambian capital. But media freedom groups will still be focusing on threats to free expression in Gambia and demanding an investigation of the murder of Gambian journalist Deyda Heydara, which took place 18 months ago.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a press release from the Media Foundation for West Africa, additional statements from Reporters Without Borders, and a background article from the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks.

For additional links on Gambia, visit
http://www.africafocus.org/country/gambia.php.

For current news and commentary on Gambia, see
http://allafrica.com/gambia and http://allgambian.net.

For reports on civil society activities around the African Union summit, visit http://www.pambazuka.org/aumonitor.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Free Expression and Journalist Organisations Prevented from Holding Forum on Freedom of Expression

Media Foundation for West Africa (Accra)
http://www.mfwaonline.org

Press Release

June 23, 2006

Dakar

The Coordinating Committee set up by the Government of The Gambia to oversee the African Union (AU) Summit has barred civil society organizations on the continent from holding a forum on freedom of expression in the country. The forum was scheduled to take place in Banjul, the capital, on June 29 and 30, prior to the Summit.

In a letter sent on June 19, 2006 to "The Association of Non-Governmental Organisations" (TANGO) and copied to the Kombo Beach Hotel, which had been booked as venue for the Forum, the General Coordinator of the Summit, Mr. Bolong Sonko, who is also a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of The Gambia, told the hotel management to suspend the freedom of expression forum until government approves it. The Gambian government therefore effectively stopped the NGOs from holding the forum.

We view the Gambian government's action is a declaration of its hostility to human rights. It is also a violation of the Constitutive Act of the African Union. It is unacceptable for the Gambian authorities to attempt to subject an NGO forum, particularly one aimed at discussing an issue as fundamental as the right to freedom of expression, to governmental approval.

The freedom expression forum was singled out for obstruction by the Gambian authorities. Other civil society meetings focused on less "sensitive" issues have been given the green light to proceed. This action indicates clearly that the "topic" of the forum which is "Freedom of Expression in Africa" poses a major threat to the Gambian government whose preoccupation appears to be how to polish up its image with the African Union Summit. It is a clear testimony that President Yahya Jammeh's government is afraid of the possibility of NGOs using the AU Summit to criticise his regime's widespread violations of human rights.

In recent months, since the government announced the foiling of an alleged attempted coup d'état, President Jammeh's much-dreaded security agents have arrested scores of Gambian citizens, including journalists, lawyers, members of his own government and army, and even the speaker of the Gambian Parliament.

The state of fear imposed on the people of Gambia is such that citizens are afraid to have any conversation whatsoever about public affairs. The regime has closed down several newspapers and radio stations, and has frightened and gagged most of the newspapers not yet closed down.

It is for this reason that the Network of African Freedom Expression Organisations (NAFEO) has declared President Jammeh's government "the most violent violator of press freedom in West Africa" today, and the Gambia one of the six "hotspots" of freedom of expression violations in Africa.

The African Union offers a new framework for good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law. It is therefore unacceptable and intolerable that despite being the host of the African Union Summit, the Gambia government persists in silencing free speech and trampling on the basic rights of Gambians.

Demands:

Accordingly, the signatories to this Statement hereby:

  1. denounce and protest the Gambian government's high-handed action and violent repression of human rights in the Gambia;
  2. call on the leaders of democratic governments attending the Banjul Summit to reject the Gambia government's action against the planned freedom of expression forum;
  3. demand that the AU makes it obligatory on any host government to permit civil society organisations to organise their forums during all AU-authorised events, including summits;
  4. demand from leaders of democratic governments attending the Banjul Summit to condemn the widespread and unending violent attacks on human rights in the Gambia.
  5. further call on the Heads of State and Governments of the AU to take urgent steps to ensure that the Gambian government respects its obligations under international human rights law.

Background

The Freedom of Expression forum was planned ahead of the African Union Summit by ARTICLE 19, in partnership with the Gambia Press Union (GPU), Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), The All Africa Editors Forum (TAEF), Panos Institute for West Africa (PIWA), The Inter African Network for Women, Media, Gender Equity and Development (FAMEDEV), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)-Africa Office, the West African Journalist Association (WAJA), Highway Africa Conference, SAB Miller Chair of Media and Democracy and Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and other member organizations of the Network of African Freedom of Expression Organisations (NAFEO).

The aim of the Forum is to provide in-depth knowledge of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa and other African Union mechanisms, including the African Peer Review Mechanism. The Forum will focus on how these mechanisms can be utilised at the national and regional levels to strengthen freedom of expression. It will also address key freedom of expression challenges and highlight the threats in many parts of the continent. The Forum will also seek to reinforce the work of existing freedom of expression and journalists networks in Africa and to encourage them to utilise the mechanisms of the African Regional Human Rights System.


Gambia

"Justice for Deyda Hydara" radio spot launched in run-up to African Union summit in Banjul

June 16, 2006

Reporters Without Borders
http://www.rsf.org

Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world. It has nine national sections (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). It has representatives in Abidjan, Bangkok, London, Moscow, New York, Tokyo and Washington. And it has more than 120 correspondents worldwide.

Reporters Without Borders appealed today to radio stations broadcasting in Africa to regularly transmit a short radio spot about the murder of journalist Deyda Hydara from now until the end of a two-day African Union summit in Banjul on 2 July.

The Gambia correspondent of Reporters Without Borders and Agence France-Presse and co-editor of the tri-weekly The Point, Hydara was gunned down in Banjul exactly 18 months ago, on 16 December 2004. Less than 30 seconds long, the spot was prepared by Reporters Without Borders and Hydara's son, Baba Hydara.

"My father was one of the Gambia's greatest journalists," Baba says in the spot. "He was killed just a hundred yards from a police barracks a year and a half ago. Since then, the government has done nothing to identify his murderers. Justice for Deyda Hydara!"

The spot concludes with this comment by Reporters Without Borders: "As the African Union holds a summit in Banjul, Reporters Without Borders points out that the Gambia is one of the most hostile countries in Africa for journalists."

The spot can be downloaded in MP3 format in both English and French from the Reporters Without Borders website (http://www.rsf.org).

In June 2005, Reporters Without Borders appealed to radios broadcasting in Africa to point out that the only thing the Gambian government had done in the six months since Hydara's murder was to try to discredit him.

Reporters Without Borders today also hailed the courageous position on Hydara's murder taken in the US Congress by Representative Adam Schiff (Democrat, California's 29th district). Schiff said: "Mr. Speaker, I rise today to mark the 18-month anniversary of a tragic event that is symptomatic of the deterioration of press freedom in the Gambia and elsewhere."

He added: "Resistance to impunity is essential to maintain civil peace and demonstrate a commitment to democratic values. In a time when repeated anonymous attacks against media professionals have created tense relations between the state and the media in many countries, Deyda Hydara's unrequited murder is deeply worrisome to those who are committed to democracy and justice in Africa. I hope that the Gambian Government will take this occasion to reverse its record on press freedom and set an example for the rest of the region."

Schiff will also write to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh expressing support for the call by Reporters Without Borders and the Gambia Press Union (the country's main journalists' association) for the creation of an independent commission to investigate Hydara's murder.

The letter says: "As the Gambia prepares to host the Summit of the Chiefs of State of the African Union (AU) in July and hold an important presidential election in September, I urge you to reaffirm your government's commitment to human rights and press freedom."


Gambia: Justice demanded for slain journalist ahead of AU summit

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
http://www.irinnews.org

June 22, 2006

[This material from IRIN, a UN humanitarian news and information service, may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]

Dakar, 22 Jun 2006 (IRIN) - When the African Union (AU) meets for its annual summit in the Gambian capital Banjul next week, local journalists will not only report on events they will also recall them.

Specifically, they want to remind summit participants of the murder of prominent Gambian journalist Deyda Hydara 18 months ago.

The Gambia Press Union is urging the summit to press the Gambian government to allow a private investigation from abroad into the murder. Hydara was shot dead in his car about 15 minutes after leaving the offices of the The Point newspaper on the evening of 16 December 2004.

"We're still not satisfied with the investigation on the cause of his death," said Madi Ceesay, president of the press union in Banjul. "The report published by the government was not acceptable. It did not address the issue of who killed him. Either the government does not have the manpower or the capabilities. If they allow outsiders in it may help."

Respect for press freedom is a civil liberty that is taken into account when Western donors evaluate a country's eligibility for development funding. Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) suspended The Gambia's eligibility to participate in its programme for failing to adhere to the organization's standards, including respecting press freedom. The MCC, which is a US government body, provides funding to reduce poverty through economic growth.

In a speech earlier this year, Gambian Secretary of State for Justice Sheikh Tijan Hydara said the government's investigation into Hydara's death was ongoing.

Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF or Reporters Without Borders) says Hydara's murder is just one example of press repression in The Gambia.

"We are very concerned about what is going on there," said Leonard Vincent, Africa desk officer with RSF. "We have systematic arbitrary arrests, torture and detention, illegal closing of media offices, a climate of terror on the independent press."

RSF has launched a radio spot available to African radio stations about the Hydara murder in the run-up to the AU summit. The spot, which features commentary by Hydara's son, Baba, aims to trigger action to find Hydara's killers and to generally raise awareness about press freedom in The Gambia.

Vincent said Hydara, 58, had received numerous threats before he was slain. Hydara was a correspondent for RSF for 10 years. He also worked as a correspondent for Agence France-Press in addition to being an editor at The Point. He was an outspoken critic of press repression under the government of President Yahya Jammeh.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) said on Monday that a stringer for the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) in The Gambia was arrested on 30 May. Omar Bah, news editor of the privately owned Daily Observer has been missing since 12 June, MFWA said. Several other journalists have been detained this year. Other press freedom violations in recent years include threats, harassment, shuttering newspapers, burning printing presses and setting fire to a BBC journalist's house.

While many African countries are improving press freedom, Vincent said, The Gambia is slipping backward.

"It's a real contrast between Benin, for example, and The Gambia. You have the best and the worst," Vincent said. "You have situations that are really improving, like Mauritania or Mali, even Cameroon. We have more and more countries every year improving the situation. But we have very dark spots."

He cited The Gambia, Eritrea and Zimbabwe as among the worst violators of press freedom. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d'Ivoire, Vincent said, have an independent press but the media tends to play dangerous politics with that freedom by "acting as propaganda activists for politicians." Ethnic tension has helped triggered conflict in both Cote d'Ivoire and Congo.

"President Yahya Jammeh's intolerance of dissent has plummeted to new depths, with incommunicado detentions and widespread intimidation of independent voices," said Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement in June.

CPJ urged the AU summit to denounce the deterioration of press freedom in The Gambia and to consider moving the summit elsewhere.


Gambia

"Each passing day just adds to the outcry," one year after Deyda Hydara's murder

Reporters Without Borders
http://www.rsf.org

December 12, 2005

Reporters Without Borders issued a new appeal to President Yahya Jammeh today, on the eve of the first anniversary of journalist Deyda Hydara's murder on 16 December 2004, urging him to acknowledge the inability of the Gambian investigators to solve the case and asking him to request the help of a neutral foreign police force.

In a speech read on behalf of Reporters Without Borders by Gambia Press Union coordinator Demba Ali Jawo today in Banjul, the organisation reiterated its call to the Gambian government "to face the facts and equip itself to solve this terrible mystery by requesting help from the Americans, Europeans, South Africa, the UN or any other neutral country or body."

Léonard Vincent, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk, should have delivered the speech personally at a Gambia Press Union news conference on press freedom but he was prevented from travelling to Banjul because the Gambian authorities did not issue him a visa in time.

"Dear friends,

What do we know today, one year after Deyda's murder? That his killers are cowards and that they are still at large. That the person who pulled the trigger has no reason to be concerned about his future, as things stand right now, any more than the person who gave the order to do it. That Deyda's family has to live with this. That his widow, daughters and sons courageously confront a smear campaign by perverse investigators. And that his fellow journalists are not only threatened by an aggressive president but also by one of the worst sets of laws in Africa. But as each day passes we get stronger, because each day that passes just adds to the outcry.

For all these reasons, I am sad to be unable to be with you today. I am also angry at being unable to go with you to the scene of the murder on Sankung Sillah Street and transmit to you there a message from Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard that we have not forgotten you and that we are your allies. Deyda, who had worked for our organisation since 1994, was an energetic man who knew his rights. In The Point, he held up a mirror to the Gambian people. In Agence France-Presse, he was Gambia's spokesman for the entire world's press. He knew how to talk to us, at times to shake us. He knew how to share with us his concerns, his anger and his enthusiasm. No one answered his phone on the morning of 17 December 2004. Someone had decided to silence him for ever. Tears were shed in Paris, as in Banjul and elsewhere in the world.

No one whatsoever has been accused of being the murderer. We do not know the identity of the gunmen in the Mercedes taxis with no licence plates. We do not know who their boss was. Our anger is on a par with our uncertainty and for this very human reason we demand to know the truth.

After this stifling year of tension, mistrust and fear, things must be clear. If Reporters Without Borders cannot be with you today in Banjul, if I cannot myself read my speech to you, it is because President Yahya Jammeh now sees Reporters Without Borders as an enemy or at the very least as a troublemaker. But what do we want? We just want justice to be done. How? By discovering the truth. This goal is simple. There is nothing subversive about it. It should be shared by all those who cannot stand injustice, whether they are presidents, ministers, journalists, ordinary citizens or human rights activists. Indeed, I would like to say something to the Gambian government: "Help us. Deyda's family and friends need you. Promises given with your hand over your heart are not enough. We now need action."

But we have to be realistic. The investigation is going nowhere. I will not dwell on the "confidential report" which the NIA published in June. Let us just say that the investigators are not doing anything serious. Anyway, those who have something to say refuse to talk to them because they do not trust them. And without doubt, others also would have things to say but they are not being questioned.

There is no denying the fact that Gambia has been reeling since Deyda's death. The country has been badly hurt. The trust between press and government that is essential to keep a democracy alive is broken. As Pap Saine told me one day, Deyda's murderers have an immense debt to pay Gambia. The authorities cannot go on ignoring the legitimate appeals of one of the country's most respected families. Deyda's family and friends are demanding justice, but it is not just for them, it is also for the good of their country.

Reporters Without Borders would like to send a special greeting to all those friends of Deyda present here today who are not Gambians. Your help is essential, not just to show our Gambian friends that we share in their suffering. You are here today in Banjul to prove that the three shots that were fired at Deyda's car on the night of 16 December 2004 in Kanifing have echoed throughout the continent. This horrible murder is not just a matter for Gambians. It has sent a terrifying signal to all African journalists that they could also be gunned down if they do their job too well.

Let us continue to loudly proclaim Deyda's name in Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Let us continue to say that we will no longer tolerate this kind of threat to leading African journalists such as Norbert Zongo, Carlos Cardoso and Deyda in the past, and others today. Let us continue to demand that the Gambian government should face the facts and equip itself to solve this terrible mystery by requesting help from the Americans, Europeans, South Africa, the UN or any other neutral country or body. The resources of Reporters Without Borders are also at the Gambian government's full disposal.

I would like to end my appeal by addressing President Jammeh directly. "Mr. President, a French philosopher recently wrote something you will have to agree with. He said: 'It is not because things are the way they are that we have to be resigned. It is because we are resigned that things are they way they are.' As Deyda might have said, I leave you to think about that. Good thinking, Mr. President."

Thank you."


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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