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Gambian, Senegalese Journalists Describe Fear, Increasing Dangers

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After recent attacks on newspaper offices in Senegal and ongoing detentions of journalists in Gambia, international attention is yet again being focused on the state of journalism in West Africa. Journalists in Gambia describe their daily fear of revenge and warn of a loss of media freedom in the region.  Ricci Shryock has more from our regional bureau in Dakar.

The photos he chose to run in the newspaper were innocent thought Abdulhamid Adiamoh, the managing editor of Today, a daily newspaper in Gambia.

"We ran a story captioned, children pick scrap metal-children dodge school to pick scrap metal, you know, in which we thought we were drawing attention to an issue to show some concern," said Abdulhamid Adiamoh.

But the day after the story ran, police called Adiamoh's office and told him to report to one of the local stations.

"To me, it was a very simple story," said Adiamoh. "It was innocent. We were not making any judgment nor assumption. But unfortunately police thought it was kind of embarrassing to the state, so that was actually what caused the trouble."

Since the story ran, Adiamoh says he has been told to report to the police station at least every other day. He is not alone. This week, as he was making his usual check-ins with authorities, another Gambian journalist, Fatou Jaw Manneh, was sentenced to either four years in jail or an almost $12,000 fine.

She wrote an opinion piece in 2005 that criticized Gambian President Yahya Jammeh and called him a bundle of terror. The government says she published false news that raises public alarm. During her trial, a prosecution witness told the judge that the contents of Manneh's article were false. Manneh's defense team called no witnesses. She was found guilty of sedition.

Colleagues at The Gambian Press Union and family members of journalist Mannneh raised the money so she could avoid jail time.

The president of The Gambian Press Union, Ndey Tapha Sosseh, says Manneh and Adiamoh's cases are examples of the ongoing intimidation of journalists in the region.

"You can probably say some of them are in a state of fear, because the average journalist in The Gambia probably earns less than $100 a month, and for them to realize that if I commit a so-called offense, I will be fined up to $10,000, it kinds of puts some fear into people and obviously will effect the output of their work," she said.

Sosseh says to push for more media freedom her organization is setting up a monitoring unit that will try to draw international attention to Gambian media struggles.

The country has the attention of the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders. The organization's Africa Head, Leonard Vincent, says the Gambian justice system is cracking down on reporters.

"We have been condemning what is going on in The Gambia with journalists for years now, and Fatou Jaw Manneh's case is just one more case of harassment and personal revenge of President Yahya Jammeh based on the police and the justice system of The Gambia, which is completely in his hands," he said.

Earlier this month, United States Senator Richard Durbin addressed the U.S. Congress about the case of another Gambian journalist. Durbin called for the Gambian government to release Chief Ebrima Manneh.

Manneh has been held incommunicado since July 2006. 

Manneh was arrested at his office after he tried to re-publish a BBC article that questioned why the African Union was holding its summit in Gambia. In the report, the BBC pointed out the summit location went against the African Union's pledge to suspend governments that seize power.

The Gambian government denies they have Manneh in custody.

Vincent adds that because of this environment, his organization tracks many journalists who flee Gambia.

"Every year we count dozens of arrests and also dozens of Gambian journalists fleeing the country and living in exile," said Vincent.

Many Gambian journalists and other Gambians, who are also fleeing persecution but have fewer means, end up in Senegal.

Senegal has long been considered to be better for journalists in the region, says Mohamed Keita, a New York-based African research associate for The Committee to Protect Journalists.

But Keita warns the country is at risk of losing that status, due to recent tensions between the media and ruling government party.

This week, he says, there were two attacks on newspaper offices in Dakar.

"Independent newspapers were attacked by unidentified men, and the journalists reported seeing a vehicle with government license plates, so we are particularly disturbed and alarmed by these reports, which would suggest that these were government-sponsored attacks, raids, against newsrooms," said Keita. "And essentially the newspapers targeted are known for their critical coverage of the government."

Three days before the attacks, Senegal's Air Transport Minister, Farba Senghor, threatened retaliation against four Senegalese newspapers. Although two of those newspapers were the same ones attacked, Senghor has denied any involvement in the raids.

According to Keita, the fact that these acts often go unpunished means media outlets are taking matters into their own hands.

"If the government itself is not interested in the protection of journalists," said Keita. "If top officials are out, threatening journalists, then it is left for journalists to really guarantee their own protection, and that's exactly what the editors of these newspapers and others have told us, that they will be hiring security to guarantee their own protection."

Keita adds the situation in Senegal is getting worse for journalists.

"Absolutely by all accounts it seems that the gloves are coming off," he said.

There are problems in many other countries of the region, and many journalists in jail, including in Niger, where Radio France International reporter Moussa Kaka has spent most of the year behind bars, for what the government says is an accusation of treason with rebels, but he says was simply contacting  them for his reporting. 

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