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The past 24 hours witnessed the most aggressive attack on press freedom since the new government assumed office 2017.
Between 12 noon and 2pm yesterday, two radio stations have been forced to cease operations and four journalists arrested within the same period of two hours, or thereabouts.
Earlier in the day, one of the journalists covering the disturbances was attacked and physically assaulted
These incidents came in the wake of the anti-government protest called ‘3-years Jotna’. The protest, as we learnt through media reports, unfortunately turned violent even before it started.
Violence against journalists came from both sides.
Sankulleh Janko, a reporter for Dakar-based West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR) was attacked by a group of protesters who were visibly angry and violent and were armed with sticks. They manhandled him and forcefully took away his equipment, including his mobile phone. If not for the intervention of one of the protesters, the reporter who’s one of country’s promising young journalists, would have been seriously harmed, perhaps killed.
In the afternoon, about a dozen armed personnel of the Police Intervention Unit (PIU) of the Gambia Police Force (GPF) stormed the offices of Home Digital FM in Brikama and ordered the staff to cease operations with immediate effect. The manager Pa Modou Bojang was taken away from his studio by the police. Although the authorities have refused to confirm his whereabouts, we have learnt through reliable sources that he was detained at the PIU headquarters in Kanifing before he was taken to Anti-Crime offices in Bijilo.
The story of Pa Modou and Home Digital FM is similar to that of King FM. About a dozen armed PIU personnel stormed the offices in Tallinding, ordered the staff out of the premises, shut down the radio, and whisked away three people, including the manager Gibbi Jallow. The other one is called Ebrima Jallow. We’re yet to confirm the name of the third person.
In essence, from the disturbances yesterday, two radio stations have been shut down and four journalists have been detained.
We are in receipt of the press release that the government issued, confirming the closure as well as the arrest and detention. The release states that radio stations were shut down because they were ‘broadcasting incendiary’ messages. This is unfounded and disappointing.
For we have confirmed from multiple sources, including from the manager, that King FM did not broadcast any information about the protest. The station had throughout the day, until the time it was closed, been playing music that has no bearing on the disturbances.
Home Digital FM was indeed broadcasting messages about the protest. And we have confirmed from multiple sources, including the staff and listeners that there was nothing incendiary about the broadcasts of the events.
We’re of the considered view that the closure of the radio stations was arbitrary and unlawful.
Equally, the proclamation contained in yesterday’s press release which appears to warn journalists against presenting divergent views is equally as dangerous as it is unlawful. It has no legitimate basis, and therefore, we call on the media to disregard it and present as diverse opinions as possible on any issue of legitimate public interest and the issue of the tenure of the president is one such issue. We will challenge any attempt by the government to pursue further with the implementation of this proclamation.
The Information and Communication Act (s36) gives powers to only the Minister of Information to suspend or revoke a broadcasting license. The security has no powers to shut down a radio station. Through our consultations with the minister, we have confirmed that no such order came from the office of the Minister, Ebrima Sillah. Moreover, the laid-down conditions for doing so have not been met.
We know why the radio stations were shut down. We know why the journalists were arrested and detained.
- It is the same reason Deyda Hydara was murdered under Jammeh
- It is the same reason Chief Manneh was killed under Jammeh
- It is the same reason media houses were shut down fifteen times between 1994 and 2016 under Jammeh
- It is the same reason dozens of journalists were tortured under Jammeh
- It is the same reason more than 20 per cent of Gambian journalists were forced into exile under Jammeh
- And it is the same reason more than two dozen journalists were assaulted under Barrow and nothing is done about.
In fact, yesterday’s attacks bring to memory twenty-years of the brutal repression of the media. The modus operandi of this government bears the hallmark of the tactics used by the former government in its disregard for press freedom and the rule of law.
As a union, we have engaged the services of a lawyer. Our instructions are very clear: secure the release of the journalists under custody and launch civil action against the state on matters connected with this arrest and detention before any court of law that has the competence to preside over such.
While it is not our remit to comment on the substance of the debate on the tenure of the president and the disputes arising from that, we call on the government to launch an independent inquiry into the disturbance and act in a manner that it just.
There is no doubt that the way this whole issue of 3 years jotna was handled, and the heavy-handedness of the security, makes mockery of the transitional justice process and our ongoing democratic reforms.
In conclusion, we call on the government to immediately release the journalists and lift the ban on the two radio stations.