RAN 31/09 7 August 2009
The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC) is outraged by the two-year prison sentence and heavy fines imposed on six Gambian journalists who criticised President Yahya Jammeh for making inappropriate comments about the unsolved 2004 murder of a journalist. The six journalists, who were found guilty of sedition and defamation on 6 August 2009, face a further four years in prison if they fail to pay a fine of 150,000 dalasis (US$10,000) each. The WiPC believes that their conviction is in flagrant violation of their right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by the Gambian Constitution and international law, and is calling for their immediate and unconditional release.
On 6 August 2009, Emil Touray, Sarata Jabbi-Dibba (f), Pa Modou Fall (secretary general, vice president and treasurer of the Gambia Press Union, GPU, respectively), Pap Saine, Ebrima Sawaneh (publisher and editor of the independent daily newspaper The Point) and Sam Sarr (editor of the newspaper Foroyaa) were found guilty of six counts of sedition and defamation. They were each sentenced to two years in prison for four of the counts and a fine of 250,000 dalasis (around US$10,000) for the other two counts. If they fail to pay the fine they each face a further four years in prison.
The journalists have been jailed pending appeal and are currently being held at Mile Two Prison in the capital Banjul. The Gambia Press Union (GPU) reportedly intends to lodge an appeal.
The charges stem from The Point and Foroyaa's publication on 11 June 2009 of a GPU statement that criticized President Yayha Jammeh for making "inappropriate" comments on state television about the unsolved 2004 murder of The Point editor and co-founder Deyda Hydara. In an 8 June interview, Jammeh said the government investigation into Hydara's slaying had stalled and suggested that journalists who wanted to know who had killed Hydara should ask Hydara himself. The GPU statement also called on Jammeh to acknowledge his government's responsibility for the killing, which the President had denied in another interview a few days earlier.
The trial of the six journalists was held behind closed doors, allegedly for "state security" reasons. While it was ongoing, President Jammeh threatened local journalists, including in a 22 July TV interview where he referred to them as "rat pieces" hiding behind "so-called press freedom" whom the state would "prosecute to the letter."
Saine reportedly suffers from a heart condition and is in urgent need of a pacemaker. He has faced extensive legal harassment since February 2009 and is currently also on trial in another case for publishing "false information" in a 30 January article on a reshuffle of diplomatic staff.
On 15 June, the six journalists, along with Foroyaa reporter Abubakar Saidykhan, were arrested by members of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and detained without charge for three days at the NIA headquarters in Banjul. On 18 June, they appeared in court and, without the presence of a lawyer, were charged with "seditious publication". They were all denied bail, with the exception of Jabbi-Dibba, who is the mother of a seven-month-old baby. The other six were taken to Mile Two Prison in Banjul where they were held for another four days. They were released on 22 June on bail of 200,000 dalasis (US$7,547) each.
On 3 July, the seven journalists were re-arrested and charged with "criminal defamation". Jabbi-Dibba was again released on bail but the other six were held until 7 July. Saidykhan was reportedly acquitted and released on 28 July after the court ruled that he had done nothing wrong when he attempted to photograph Sarr's arrest.
•Gambia Press Union, GPU (6 August 2009): http://www.gambiapressunion.org/index.php?id=835&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=10&cHash=fe75bacf28
•Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ (6 August 2009): http://cpj.org/2009/08/gambian-court-convicts-six-journalists-of-sedition.php
•Index on Censorship (21 July 2009): http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2009/07/gambia-jammehs-war-on-journalists/