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Friday, 21 September 2012

UPDATE: Gambian journalists charged with seditious intention, incitement to violence and conspiracy to commit a felony

Independent newspapers still shut down 

By: Naomi Hunt, Senior Press Freedom Adviser

Gambia's Al Hadji Yahya Jammeh attends the plenary session of the Africa-South America Summit on Margarita Island September 27, 2009. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi urged African and South American leaders on Saturday to strive for a new world order countering Western economic dominance. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

VIENNA, Sep 21, 2012 -- Since the below piece was published earlier today, IPI learned that an additional charge of inciting violence has now been brought against journalists Babucarr Ceesay and Abubacarr Saidykhan, according to Saidykhan.

Ceesay now faces charges of seditious publication, inciting violence and conspiring to commit a felony. Saidykhan is accused of inciting violence and conspiring to commit a felony.  Both were originally arrested on Thursday, Sep. 6 at a police station, where they had gone to file an application to hold a peaceful demonstration against the recent execution of nine death row inmates*.

Gambian journalists charged with seditious intention and conspiracy to commit a felony

Independent newspapers still shut down

VIENNA, Sep 21, 2012 – Gambian journalist Babucarr Ceesay now faces a charge of “seditious publication”, in addition to the charge of “conspiring to commit a felony” levelled against him and fellow journalist Abubacarr Saidykhan earlier this week, local journalists told IPI. IPI is concerned that the charges may be designed to punish these journalists for criticising the government.  

The crime of seditious publication is punishable by a minimum prison term of one year, according to a report from Article 19, while the crime of conspiring to commit a felony may be punished with up to seven years in prison, according to Saidykhan.

Ceesay and Saidykhan were detained by police on Thursday, Sep. 6. They had gone to a police station to file an application to hold a demonstration against the recent execution of nine death row inmates in the Gambia when they were arrested.  

The journalists were detained for four nights, at times together and at times in separate police stations, they told IPI. Police accompanied them to their homes to search for material relating to the case, but found nothing.

Saidykhan told IPI that police searched four different houses belonging to him and various other family members, and in one instance broke a window with a hatchet to get in.

On Monday, Sep. 17, the original charge of “inciting violence” was dropped, only to be replaced with the charge of “conspiring to commit a felony”, they said.

On Wednesday, Ceesay was additionally charged with seditious publication for work done for the Africa Review. “The police couldn’t even show me a particular article that was published, and they made a lot of print outs without specifying that this is the particular article,” said Ceesay, who is a correspondent for the Africa Review and vice president of the Gambia Press Union.

The charge of “conspiring to commit a felony” is similarly mystifying, because the right to apply for a permit and then demonstrate peacefully, is guaranteed under Section 25 of the Gambian Constitution, which states that every person shall have “freedom to assemble and demonstrate peaceably and without arms”.

Saidykhan said the letter of application specifically requested permission for a “peaceful” demonstration. “We said we will uphold the principle of non-violence during the course of the demonstration, and we also solicited the support of the police to help us with security officers to guide the process of the demonstration,” he told IPI.

“We are mesmerised by the manner they are proceeding with this, because Babucarr is charged with seditious intention, and the police are telling me they want to post our [conspiracy to commit a felony] case to the Attorney General for a legal opinion. But this says to us that it might proceed to court,” Saidykhan said.    

“We are concerned that the criminal charges against journalists Babucarr Ceesay and Abubacarr Saidykhan appear to amount to retribution for their work and the expression of their opinions,” said IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills. “Given the fact that two independent newspapers and a radio station were recently forced to shut down, these charges appear to be part of a wider trend against journalism and journalists.  We call for the charges to be dropped, and for The Daily News and The Standard newspapers to be given permission to re-open.”

Last Friday, officers from Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency visited the two newspapers and ordered them to stop operations, citing an order from the office of President Yahya Jammeh. They did not produce any written documents to confirm that order; the papers nonetheless halted operations as requested until the situation could be clarified.

According to Saikou Jammeh, chief editor of The Daily News, he and The Standard Editor Sheriff Bojang have so far been unable to get a clear response from the National Intelligence Agency or the Ministry of the President as to why they were ordered to shut down.  In the meantime, their papers remain off the shelf. “In fact, we are running from one office to another. It is not just expensive [to not sell newspapers], it’s frustrating.”

*CORRECTION: This statement has been corrected to reflect the number of death row inmates who were recently executed.