- The Gambia's most outspoken newspaper, 'The Independent', failed to publish on Friday and today as police still are sealing off the bi-weekly's Banjul offices, which was raided on Tuesday. Editor Musa Saidykhan and General Manager Madi Ceesay are still held in custody by the feared National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which are accused of murdering prominent Gambian editor Deyda Hydara in December 2004.
The two senior journalists at 'The Independent' were arrested by Gambian police during a raid against the newspaper on Tuesday last week. No charges have so far been laid against Mr Saidykhan and Mr Ceesay although the two have been detained for almost a week now. According to Gambian law, police authorities have 72 hours before charges must be laid, thus making their further detention illegal.
The two journalists, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), on Friday were transferred from police custody to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Gambian Information Minister Neneh Macdouall-Gaye told the 'BBC' on Wednesday that the two were being investigated in connection with a purported coup attempt on 21 March. But in a brief telephone interview with CPJ yesterday, Mr Saidykhan said a police officer had told him their detention was due to their work.
Gambian authorities have also failed to inform why the independent bi-weekly remains closed. The offices of 'The Independent' were raided by armed security officers, forcing staff to leave the building. Some computers and papers were reportedly confiscated, although this has not been confirmed.
Since the raid, the Banjul offices have remained sealed, hindering journalists from 'The Independent' from doing their work. For the first times in years, therefore, 'The Independent' did not appear on Friday. As the situation did not change through the weekend, also today's edition could not be prepared.
'The Independent' has been known in The Gambia for its almost heroic ability to hit the streets despite repeated government attacks. This stubbornness has also made it the country's most read newspaper. Arsonists in 2002 burnt the printing machine of 'The Independent', and with no professional company daring to print the bi-weekly, it has been forced to publish on regular Din-A4 paper ever since. Now, for the first time, publication has been made totally impossible.
This currently leaves the tri-weekly 'Point' as The Gambia's only independent newspaper. 'The Point' became famous as a very critical newspaper during Mr Hydara's leadership. After his unresolved murder - generally assumed to have been at the NIA's hands - in late 2004, new editor Pap Saine has maintained the newspaper's independence, but opted for a lower profile when it comes to criticise the government of Dictator Yahya Jammeh.
Security assessments have plaid a vital part in the everyday-life of Gambian journalists since the first arson attacks on the press in 2001. With the killing of Mr Hydara, it became clear that authorities stopped short at nothing to gag the press. Mr Saidykhan a few months ago told afrol News that nobody is allowed to work at night at 'The Independent' and that staff try to leave the building in groups. NIA agents were often spotted, causing fears of abductions. The ever-lasting persecution has already caused the newspaper's managing editor and publisher, Alagi Yorro Jallow, to flee the country.
At 'The Point', there is a certain nervousness the newspaper could once again become the lighthouse of press freedom in The Gambia if 'The Independent' remains shut. In an editorial on Thursday, Mr Saine in a diplomatic way made it clear that "the Gambia government has a responsibility to come out clear as to the reason(s) for the arrest of the two as well as the subsequent closure of The Independent newspaper." He said he expected "the immediate opening of The Independent newspaper."
The closure of 'The Independent' and the arrest of its two senior journalists seem all too related with their press freedom work and criticism of the government. Mr Saidykhan already on 27 October 2005 had been briefly detained by the NIA after he had spoken about the killing of Mr Hydara during a summit of African editors in Johannesburg, attended by South African President Thabo Mbeki. During that meeting, President Mbeki promised to raise questions surrounding press freedom in The Gambia with Banjul authorities.
Also Mr Ceesai, who is also Secretary-General of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), has been known to keep the Hydara case hot within the country and abroad. The GPU head, who over the position after the murder of Mr Hydara, is seen as one of the last guarantors of press freedom in the small country.
In one of the last editions of 'The Independent', published on Friday 24 March, the cover story asked "How Wealthy is Jammeh?". The article questioned the wealth of the President, who was spending more money than the state, according to an opposition leader. The edition in reference to the alleged 21 March coup attempt also contained an opinion piece by Mr Ceesay in which he pointed out that President Jammeh also took power in a coup and criticised his record of 12 years of rule.
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