AllAfrica.com’s Brian Kennedy examines the Gambian president’s ongoing assault on press freedom after the recent arrest of eight opposition journalists
Last month, authorities in Gambia arrested seven journalists for printing a statement critical of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Another journalist was arrested a few days later for taking photographs at the bail hearing for the seven detained journalists.
June’s flurry of arrests and detentions was just the latest chapter in Jammeh’s war against the press. This is a man who once declared to Reuters, “If I want to ban any newspaper, I will, with good reason.” Indeed, Jammeh might be the most dangerous dictator in the world most people have never heard of.
Jammeh came to power in 1994 in a bloodless coup, ending decades of democracy in the west African microstate. While most African countries have become freer and more democratic in the following years, Gambia has gone in the reverse direction.
The latest spat was over recent comments Jammeh made about Deydra Hydara, a respected independent editor who was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 2004. Many journalists are suspicious that Jammeh and his loyal, brutal security forces were behind the murder, but Jammeh has always denied any involvement. Still, Jammeh did not hesitate to attack Hydara’s character to state television, telling them on June 8, “the night Hydara was killed, the Senegalese ex-husband of one of his female colleagues with whom he was having a love affair was in town. So those who want to know who killed journalist Deyda Hydara should instead go and ask him in his grave.”
The Gambia Press Union (GPU) issued the press release in response on 12 June, expressing “its shock and disappointment over the inappropriateness of the provocative statement of the head of state.” Journalists from the opposition newspaper Foroyaa, and independent paper the Point, both of which published the press release, and leaders from the GPU were subsequently arrested on 15 June. They hastily appeared in front of the court on June 18 and were released on bail on the 22 June.
At least the whereabouts of these seven journalists are known. The same cannot be said for the Ebrima “Chief” Manneh, a journalist for the pro-government Daily Observer who disappeared in 2006 and has not been seen since. His crime was wanting to publish a BBC story critical of Jammeh.
Even the journalists lucky enough to be released often face torture while in detention. One journalist recounted his arrest in 2001 in a blog entry for the Committee to Protect Journalists: “I was detained for eight days and tortured in reprisal. I still shudder when remembering being locked inside something called ‘bambadinka’ (a crocodile’s hole). The ‘hole’ is a dark room with no ventilation and infested with mosquitoes and human waste. There is no furniture; the only object in the place is an electrical torture device.”
These latest arrests seem to be an effort to stifle the remaining independent voice in the Gambia. Many journalists have fled the country, while others practice self-censorship to keep themselves out of the feared 2 Mile Central Prison. The Daily Observer has become nothing more than a propaganda rag for Jammeh and his close associates. Freedom House ranks Gambia 172nd out of 195 countries in terms of press freedom in its latest press freedom report. Only seven African countries ranked lower. Gambia looks set to fall even further in future press freedom rankings.
The lack of an independent press leaves little space within the Gambia to cover Jammeh’s bizarre behavior. Jammeh now demands that he go by four titles in addition to president — sheikh, professor, alhaji and doctor.
In 2007, Jammeh made international news by claiming to a gathering of diplomats that he could cure HIV/Aids in three days with a natural, herbal mixture, provoking outrage within the HIV/Aids community. He added that the cure had come to him in a dream. When the United Nations envoy to Gambia dared to suggest that HIV-positive Gambians should continue to receive anti-retroviral treatment, the government kicked the envoy out of the country. Since a flurry of miracle stories in the pro-government press in 2007, Jammeh’s HIV/Aids cure has completely fallen off the map.
Last year, Jammeh threatened to “cut the head off” any gay people found in the Gambia. He told a crowd, “The Gambia is a country of believers… sinful and immoral practices [such] as homosexuality will not be tolerated in this country.” Jammeh then gave gays and lesbians 24 hours to leave the country.
Finally, earlier this year, the government rounded up suspected witches throughout the country. According to Amnesty International, up to 1000 people were taken from their villages, detained, and forced to drink a disgusting mixture that has caused terrible kidney problems. The campaign has resulted in numerous deaths and caused hundreds to flee to neighboring Senegal. Amnesty claims that Jammeh suspected witches in the recent death of his aunt. An opposition leader who dared to write for Foroyaa about the program was subsequently arrested.
Although Jammeh’s fellow African heads of state seem to widely dislike him, Gambia still receives international support from an unlikely place — Taiwan. The Taiwanese ambassador is almost as ubiquitous in the pro-government press as Jammeh. Taiwan spends millions of dollars funding development projects in the Gambia. Jammeh recently made his eighth trip to Taiwan. Taiwan’s support has continued unabated despite the widespread human rights abuses.
What happens next is anybody’s guess, but it is highly unlikely that June will be the last time Jammeh decides to arrest journalists. After all, Jammeh has also told Reuters, “I don’t believe in killing people. I believe in locking you up for the rest of your life.”