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Gambian Journalists Protest Colleagues' Murder


Independent journalists in the small West African nation of Gambia are protesting the recent killing of one of their most accomplished colleagues. Journalists blame the government, but say they will not be intimidated.

Independent newspapers are distributing free leaflets with photographs of Deida Hydara this week along with captions that promote freedom of the press. In his honor, they are carrying out a week-long news blackout.

Mr. Hydara, who was 58, was killed by three bullets during a drive-by shooting last Thursday in the capital Banjul as he left the offices of the newspaper The Point, that he co-edited.

He also worked for the French news agency AFP (Agence France-Presse) and for the French-based press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders.

Journalists suspect state security agents carried out the attack, even though the government denies this. Mr. Hydara had been openly critical of a strict new press law authorizing lengthy jail sentences for libelous journalists and heavy fines for their publishers.

The government says the law is needed to make journalists more responsible, following a series of reports outlining alleged improprieties within the public sector.

A radio journalist who fled the Gambia earlier this year after an arson attack on his home, Ebrima Sillah, says he is not surprised by the killing.

"Since 1994, when the current president, Yaya Jammeh came to power through a military coup, journalists have always been a target by his regime," said Mr. Sillah. "Journalists have been always vilified at public rallies by no other person than the president himself. Journalists have been arrested, detained, harassed and unable to do their jobs effectively so the latest in terms of the killing of Deida Hydara did not come to me as a surprise at all."

The government condemned the shooting which also injured two women and told police to find the perpetrators.

But the vice-president of Gambia's Press Union, Madi Ceesay, is skeptical of this statement. "In the past, we have had atrocities against journalists. The government will come out with statements that no stone will be left unturned and they will make sure that the culprits are brought to book," he said. "It has never happened."

Despite the killing, Mr. Ceesay says journalists will continue pursuing stories that are critical of the government. "Even if they end up killing all of us, one after the other, what we believe is and that is what this other side doesn't understand, they may succeed in killing journalists but they cannot kill the press," added Mr. Ceesay.

A press freedom advocate from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Julia Crawford, applauds their courage, but warns conditions could get worse.

"This is obviously something which can have an effect although it does also carry risks. I mean journalists in Gambia must also be rather nervous," said Ms. Crawford. "These deep crimes have gone unpunished so far and we stress the authorities in Gambia must do everything to find and punish the killers of Deida Hydara."

Journalists are also trying to organize a procession Wednesday in Banjul to honor their late colleague and have invited citizens to take part.