Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

RIGHTS-GAMBIA: Hydara Six Convicted on Sedition Charge

Ebrima Sillah

DAKAR, Aug 6 2009 (IPS) - A high court judge in Gambia has convicted six Gambian journalists on charges of defamation and sedition.

The journalists have each been sentenced to a mandatory jail term of two years and must pay an additional fine of 250,000 dalassi – about 10,000 dollars – or serve a further two years in prison.

In his judgement, Justice Emmanuel Fagbenle said he was convinced that "the journalists conspired among themselves to defame the name of the president and the Gambia as a country when they communicated among themselves through emails and agreed to publish a press release as their reaction to a presidential press interview on the state radio and television."

The press release issued by the Gambian Press Union (GPU) was full of innuendo, the judge said, and accused the president and his government of involvement in the 2004 killing of Gambia’s investigative journalist and publisher of the Point newspaper, Deyda Hydara.

The statement in question was an angry response to comment made by Gambian president Yahya Jammeh on state television in June, when he said those alleging government was involved in Hydara's killing should ask the dead journalist about it.

The Gambia press union angrily reacted to the president’s statements. The press release in question said, "We find it most unfortunate that the champion for the promotion of Gambian and African culture, traditional norms and values, and someone, who claims to have total respect for religion in particular, Islam, President Jammeh finds it appropriate to ridicule and to speak ill of the dead. Such behaviour and countenance is most unreligious, un-cultural and certainly discredits traditional African norms and values!"

The judge said such a statement was meant to "ridicule the head of state and bring his person into disrepute among his colleagues and in the eyes of the public." He therefore convicted the accused as charged.

The GPU has reacted to the judgement as "outrageous and a mockery of justice in the Gambia."

The journalists' union says Justice Fagbenle has allowed himself to be used by the government "to further enforce its reign of terror".

A statement released immediately after the six were sentenced reads in part, "The pain and trauma inflicted on these gallant journalists and their families, the Union and its membership by the state authorities and a legal system geared towards bolstering tyranny and oppression is unimaginable. Today’s Court decision only confirms our claims that the Gambian judiciary is being used to bolster State-supported tyranny and oppression."

Three of the six journalists are GPU executives: secretary general Emil Touray; vice president and reporter for Foroyaa Sarata Jabbi Dibba – mother of a seven-month-old baby-, and treasurer Pa Modou Faal, treasurer. The others are Sam Sarr, editor of Foroyaa newspaper, Ebou Sawaneh, present editor of the Point newspaper, and Pap Saine, the Point's publisher, who suffers from a serious heart condition.

The GPU says it will immediately launch an appeal while simultaneously seeking redress through the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice.

The handful of independent media outlets in the Gambia have operated under a climate of heightened fear and self-censorship, particularly since the unsolved murder of Deyda Hydara and the 2006 arrest and subsequent disappearace of journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh.

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