- The continued detention without formal charges of two leading journalists of The Gambia's most outspoken newspaper, 'The Independent', is causing enhanced world-wide protest. Today, a global press freedom group called on the African Union (AU) to send a mediator to the Gambian capital Banjul to assess whether "it would be appropriate to postpone the AU summit" due to take place there on 1-2 July.
The PAris-based press freedom advocates Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today urged the AU to get involved in the newest round of Gambian government human rights violations. The AU, RSF holds, should even consider delaying its planned summit in Banjul "in view of the fact that the Gambian authorities have been illegally holding two newspaper executives for the part two weeks," the group says in a statement today.
Madi Ceesay, the managing director of the bi-weekly newspaper 'The Independent', and Musa Saidykhan, its editor, were arrested in the course of raids carried out in the wake of an alleged abortive coup on 21 March. Since that, the premises of 'The Independent' have been sealed off, thus effectively shutting down the newspaper. Mr Saidykhan and Mr Ceesay remain in arrest after two weeks, despite Gambian legislation foreseeing that charges must be presented within 72 hours of detention.
In a letter to Congo Brazzaville President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the AU's current chairman, RSF wrote: "Gambia is one of the African countries where it is hardest to practice journalism in a free and untroubled manner. The contempt and hostility shown to the privately-owned press for years by the Gambian government, especially President Yahya Jammeh, have created a climate of apprehension and self-censorship."
The letter continued: "The tension was compounded in 2003 and 2004 by several arbitrary arrests of journalists by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), by arson attacks that were never solved and by draconian new laws. All this culminated in the still unpunished murder on 16 December 2004 of Deyda Hydara, editor of 'The Point' and Banjul correspondent of Agence France-Presse (AFP) and RSF. Since then, journalists have lived in fear."
The Paris-based group further said it found it "anomalous that Banjul was chosen as the headquarters of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) without the Gambian authorities being obliged to comply with its guiding principles," and pointed out that it had already voiced "astonishment" when The Gambia was chosen to host the AU summit.
The letter to the AU chairman concluded: "Our organisation stands ready to document the cases of press freedom violations in Gambia for the AU, participate in an evaluation of the current situation and help seek a solution to the crisis."
Mr Ceesay and Mr Saidykhan were arrested at the same time as many other members of the newspaper's staff in a Criminal Investigation Department operation on 28 March. The other staff members were released the same day but the offices of 'The Independent' have been closed ever since and the newspaper has not reappeared. The Gambia Press Union - which is headed by Mr Ceesay and is the country's main journalists' union - has not been able to find out the reasons for their detention.
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