DAKAR — Press freedom activists are condemning the shutdown of two private newspapers in Gambia, saying it confirms what they call President Yahya Jammeh's "ruthless opposition" to a free, independent press. Just days after the papers' closure Jammeh announced that he would allow an investigation into the death and disappearance of two prominent journalists. But observers are skeptical of the offer and say it's the newspaper crackdown that shows the Gambian leader's true colors.
At least on the surface, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has sent out mixed signals in recent days over press freedom.
Following a September 17 meeting with U.S. rights activist Jesse Jackson, Jammeh said he would allow the United Nations to investigate the 2004 death of journalist Deyda Hydara and the 2006 disappearance of Chief Ebrima Manneh, according to a statement by the U.S. embassy in the capital, Banjul.
Days earlier, Gambian authorities arrested two journalists and summarily shut down their newspapers. Gambian press organizations and the Committee to Protect Journalists say the newspapers - The Standard and the Daily News - have extensively covered opposition to the government’s recent execution of nine death row inmates.
Gambian journalists say the two papers are important sources of independent reporting in Gambia, where only a small percentage of the country's 1.7 million people regularly see the more vibrant press coverage available on the Internet.
The International Federation of Journalists, or IFJ, on Wednesday said the crackdown on the newspapers confirms Gambia’s “unfortunate reputation of media predator, totally resistant to media pluralism and liberties.”
A Gambian government press officer said he did not yet have any details about the papers’ closure.
IFJ, which has long called for light be shed on the cases of journalists Manneh and Hydara, is also urging the United Nations to take up President Jammeh’s offer to investigate.
"We consider the key is in the hands of the United Nations to help investigate these cases and provide credible information, considering its role with regard to respect for the freedom of the press and democracy," says Sadibou Marong, who is with IFJ’s Africa office in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
He said IFJ would like to see more concrete steps from President Jammeh, like making official notice to the United Nations of his intention to have an investigation.
But Jammeh probably does not intend to move forward, say Gambian journalists in exile in neighboring Senegal.
Journalist Ebrima Sillah says Jammeh’s talk of allowing a probe is just a ploy to buy time amid heightened pressure by the international community over human rights.
"Jammeh knows that now the pressure on him, even from within, is getting stronger and stronger," says Sillah. "People are now getting impatient and the regime, being good at this kind of propaganda, are now trying to come up with this cosmetic announcement to hoodwink the people and the international community. But I believe that the international community should not fall prey to this propaganda, to this insult to people’s intelligence."
President Jammeh, who came to power in a coup in 1994, has long faced charges of human rights violations and abuses of press freedom.
Ebrima Sillah says recent developments in Gambia should have Gambians and the international community stepping up pressure on the leader.
"The pressure should be reinforced," says Sillah. "We should all speak with clear and unequivocal voice [to say] look, what is happening is unacceptable and the world is not going to stand by. If it happens in The Gambia and nothing comes of it, you have other mad dictators on the continent who will follow the same thing, which means we are setting a very bad precedent."
During the meeting with Jesse Jackson, President Jammeh also reaffirmed a moratorium on executions, put in place after international pressure when the government put nine inmates to death last month. And he released two Gambian-Americans held on accusations of treason.
The U.S. embassy says Jackson was there as a private citizen and guest of the Gambian government to discuss human rights in the country.