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US Lawmaker Calls for Release of Gambian Journalist

United States Senator Richard Durbin has called for the release of Gambian journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh. A regional court authority recently declared his 2006 arrest illegal and ordered his release. Local journalists add that although there is no formal censorship in the small West African country, they often self-censor out of fear. Ricci Shryock reports from our West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

This week U.S. Senator Richard Durbin highlighted the case of Gambian journalist Ebrima Manneh. Durbin asked the U.S. lawmakers to acknowledge what he calls blatant human rights abuse in West Africa.

"Today, I want to focus the Senate's attention for just a brief moment on a tragic story from the small West African nation of The Gambia," he said. "Chief Ebrima Manneh was a reporter for the Gambian newspaper, The Daily Observer. He was allegedly detained in July 2006 by plainclothes police officers thought to have been from the Gambian National Intelligence Agency after he tried to republish a BBC report critical of the president of that country."

Durbin said the Gambian government denies any involvement in Manneh's arrest. When the senator tried to contact officials at the Gambian Embassy in Washington, there was no response about Manneh.

"He has been held incommunicado, without trial, for two years. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience and has called for his immediate release," he said.

A West African regional court agrees with Amnesty International's claim. In June, the Economic Community of West African States Community Court of Justice declared the arrest and continual detention of Manneh illegal. They ordered Gambian officials to release him.

Gambian journalists are also engaged in efforts to release Manneh. President of the Gambian Press Association, Ndey Tapha Sosseh, says the international attention is good for their cause.

"For us this is very important, because it attracts visibility. I'm hoping that the Gambian government would respond. Because they have been saying they do not know anything about it," said Sosseh.

Manneh has been missing for two years. Sosseh, who is based in The Gambia's capital of Banjul, adds the local press association is in touch with Manneh's mother and siblings.

"His mother is obviously devastated. She is very old. He has brothers and sisters," said Sosseh. "He was practically their breadwinner. According to his mother, one of his sisters probably will not go back to school in September, because they cannot not afford to pay. He was paying her fees. They were struggling the past two years, but they do not think that she will be going back to school in September."

As the former president of The Gambian Press Association, Demba Jawo says the environment for Gambian journalists is one of self-censorship.

"Being a journalist in The Gambia is definitely not an easy thing. Because a lot of threats, a lot of anxiety as a journalist," said Jawo.

Sosseh adds one recent arrest has added to the chilling effect.

"An editor is actually being charged right now with sedition for publishing a picture of a boy picking up scrap metal-just over that. People are like, 'okay, so what can we talk about now? This is something of national interest.' If we address poverty, we're picked up. If we address day-to-day issues, we're picked up," said Jawo.

As current president of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh came to power in 1994 after leading a military coup. He has served as president since that time, and he most recently won re-election in 2006.