Gambia’s war on journalists
News that six Gambian journalists have been jailed for two years for "ridiculing the head of state" signals that the country has become one of Africa's worst abusers of press freedom says’s Brian Kennedy
07 Aug 09

jammeh_185News that six Gambian journalists have been jailed for two years for “ridiculing the head of state” signals that the country has become one of Africa’s worst abusers of press freedom says’s Brian Kennedy.

In September 2001, Eritrea banned its private press and rounded up and jailed more than a dozen journalists, effectively ending any independent voice in the country. Yesterday’s jailing of six journalists in Gambia may not be as dramatic or ominous, but the two situations have striking parallels.

The six convictions in Gambia could effectively be the end of the country’s independent press, leaving Gambia devoid of any independent voice to check an increasingly erratic president.

It looks as if Eritrea President Issais Afewerki has a rival as the worst press freedom abuser on the continent — Gambia President Yahya Jammeh.

Jammeh’s kangaroo court found the Gambian journalists, including the editors of the two major independent newspapers, guilty of sedition and criminal defamation. The judge sentenced all six to two years in jail and also imposed a $10,000 fine. If the journalists are unable to pay the fine, they will have to serve an additional two years in jail, according to the Gambian Press Union.

The conviction was the result of a union press release that criticised the comments Jammeh made about Deyda Hydara, a respected journalist who was murdered under suspicious circumstances in 2004. Jammeh said in a TV interview that Hydara’s murder was the result of a lovers’ quarrel. The union press release on 11 June expressed “its shock and disappointment”, over Jammeh’s remark.

Judge Emmanuel Fagbenle, who issued the verdict, said that the union press release was supposed to “ridicule the head of state and bring his person into disrepute among his colleagues and in the eyes of the public”, according to Inter Press Service.

Jammeh seemed to foreshadow this verdict a couple weeks ago, when he said in another television interview: “So they think they can hide behind so-called press freedom and violate the law and get away with it. They got it wrong this time. We are going to prosecute them to the letter.”

The union said the journalists plan to appeal, but for now the six have been sent to the feared Mile 2 State Central Prison.

Attention will now turn to international donors and donor nations to see what reaction, if any, they have to the latest dramatic downturn for press freedom in the Gambia.

Eight years after Issais banned the press, his country is a poor police state and a pariah in the international community. Hopefully, Eritrea’s path serves as a warning to Jammeh that banning dissent is not a path to prosperity.