27 July 2011

Critical activists and journalists detained under "bogus charges"

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As Gambian President Yahya Jammeh marked the 17th anniversary of his rule on 22 July, seven activists and journalists were charged with treason and sedition for distributing t-shirts with the slogan, "Coalition for Change - The Gambia: End Dictatorship Now." The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), other IFEX members and rights groups are sounding the alarm over the use of undemocratic laws to punish journalists and government critics and the repression of free speech in the country.

President Jammeh celebrates the coup d'état that brought him to power on 22 July each year as "Freedom Day." But "The Gambia is ruled with an iron fist by a government that ruthlessly quashes all forms of dissent," reports Amnesty International. Most victims of enforced disappearances in The Gambia are journalists, opposition party members - or security force personnel who have turned against the government.

For this year's "Freedom Day", MFWA joined Amnesty International-Ghana, Human Rights Advocacy Centre, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiatives (CHRI) and Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) to highlight atrocities committed against Gambians and other citizens by the Jammeh regime. Amnesty has renamed the day "The Gambia Day of Action" in order to raise human rights concerns "with influential international and regional actors."

The t-shirt campaign is linked to the Gambian Coalition for Change, a political pressure group that is calling for an "End to Dictatorship Now" in The Gambia, says MFWA. On 19 July, three journalists and opposition party members living overseas were charged in absentia with treason in connection with the distribution of the t-shirts. They include Ndey Tapha Sosseh, the former President of the Gambia Press Union - an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) - who works with IFEX member West African Journalists Association (WAJA).

Also linked to the t-shirt campaign, four other activists were arrested in June and charged with treason. Treason carries the death penalty in Gambia.

"These are clearly bogus charges and aim to frighten and silence journalists who expose the shocking record of Jammeh's government on human rights in the Gambia," said the IFJ.

For instance, journalist Ebrima Manneh disappeared after being taken into police custody in July 2006. However, in March 2011, during a meeting with the Gambian media, President Jammeh suggested the journalist had died, saying "Let me make it very clear that the government has nothing to do with the death of Chief Manneh," reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). An unnamed police source also suggested Manneh died in prison in 2009. But officially, there is still only silence.

As The Gambia gears up for elections in November, "the current insecurity and repressive environment does not augur well for free and fair elections," says ARTICLE 19. MFWA has condemned the recent arrests as an attempt to control the outcome of the upcoming elections. A similar crackdown on journalists and political opponents took place during elections in 2006.

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