International press freedom groups are condemning the conviction of six Gambian journalists on charges of sedition and defamation for criticizing the government.
The six journalists were convicted Thursday on six counts of sedition and defamation. Each was sentenced to a two-year prison sentence and heavy fines. The Gambian Press Union said failure to pay the fine could lead to an additional two years in jail.
The journalists were arrested on June 15 after reprinting a press release from the Gambian Press Union that denounced comments made on national television by President Yahya Jammeh about the unsolved murder of veteran Gambian journalist Deyda Hydara.
Hydara, co-founder of the independent newspaper, The Point, was gunned down in 2004. In a televised interview on June 8, Mr. Jammeh denied involvement in Hydara's death, and hinted that the journalist had a complicated love life that might have resulted in his murder. The Gambian Press Union reacted with a press release that called his comments insensitive and demanded a renewed investigation into Hydara's murder.
Gambian journalist Amie Joof is the executive director for the Inter-Africa Network for Women, Media, Gender and Development in Dakar. She says politics and issues that question government policies are already off-limits for independent reporters, and this conviction shows just how difficult working conditions have become.
"It is very, very difficult for them to practice their profession and be independent. I think the only people who can do their work now in The Gambia are those who are working for the state media, because they have to comply with the rules and regulations of the state media," Joof said. "But as far as independent journalists are concerned, it's hell on earth. Six of them were convicted yesterday, which just shows you the state of affairs in the country."
The convicted journalists include three executive members of the Gambian Press Union, the editor of Forayaa newspaper, and the publisher and the editor of The Point newspaper, which Joof says are the country's only two independent newspapers.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said that in arresting some of the last remaining independent journalists in the country, "President Jammeh has managed to nail the coffin shut for press freedom in The Gambia." The International Federation of Journalists called the verdict "one of the darkest days in the history of African journalism" and denounced the Gambian justice system as "spineless and a faithful servant to President Jammeh."
Joof says this is a problem for all Gambians, not just journalists.
"Nobody can write or say anything that does not favor Yahya Jammeh and his government. The few people who do it have been sentenced to jail or have been arrested or have been harassed, some of whom are not even journalists. Even thought it's the six journalists who have been sentenced to jail, it's the whole issue of expression that is now dead, so to speak. That is now in a very serious situation," Joof said. "People cannot express themselves. If those whose profession it is to write, to speak, to broadcast are now in this kind of situation, what do you expect the other members of society to do?"
Joof says, although the future looks bleak, she and her colleagues will continue to fight for freedom of expression, the immediate release of their colleagues, and investigations into the 2004 murder of Deyda Hydara and the 2006 disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh .