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Journalists Under Threat in The Gambia, Ivory Coast

Watchdog groups are expressing concern at persistently dangerous working conditions for journalists in West Africa, especially in The Gambia and divided Ivory Coast.

A team of investigators from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists went to The Gambia recently, to find out about press freedom there first-hand, following the murder last year of veteran journalist Deyda Hydara by unidentified gunmen.

This followed early morning arson attacks on the homes and offices of other journalists by young men riding with gasoline canisters in unmarked cars.

Perpetrators have not been brought to justice, adding to the fears of journalists, according to the watchdog's deputy director Joel Simon.

"What we discovered was that the harassment, the arson attacks, the murder have created a climate of fear in which the work of the press is inhibited and there is this climate of mistrust which is undermining the investigation into the Hydara murder and we are very concerned that almost no progress has been made," said Joel Simon.

The Committee to Protect Journalists Africa Director Julia Crawford says journalists are also under pressure from families and two new media laws.

"Most of the journalists suffered pressure from their families saying that they should not be journalists anymore, that it was too dangerous," she said. "At the same time, the government just passed two very repressive media laws which makes them feel insecure so the climate at the moment is really extremely bad."

The new laws impose mandatory jail sentences for publishing seditious material, and require media groups to have enough assets to ensure payment of any court-imposed penalties. The advocacy group wants these laws scrapped, but failed to get a meeting with former coup leader, President Yahya Jammeh to convince him of this.

One journalist who had to flee his home while it was being burned down, Ebrima Sillah, blames a ruling party militia known as the Green Boys for the attacks.

"The militia forces of the ruling party who were sent to Libya and they were trained on the use of firearms and guerilla warfare and when they came back to the Gambia they were deployed in various parts of the country, so these people have been writing letters to the various media houses warning them about their reporting on the president in particular and the government in general," said Mr. Sillah. "So, all of a sudden, if you receive letters from them, a few weeks later or a few days later your place will be burned or your office will be burned. In my case and in that of the independent newspaper we both received similar letters from the same group.

The Gambia government has denied any wrongdoing and has called for independent journalists, who often expose lightly substantiated financial and social scandals, to behave more responsibly - the same type of comment which has been made by government and rebel officials in the south and north of divided Ivory Coast.

Paris-based Reporters without Borders sent a letter to Ivory Coast rebel leader Guillaume Soro after an incident last week in which four southern journalists were threatened by rebel fighters on their way home from a disarmament meeting in the north.

The group called for Mr. Soro, who is also communications minister in a just revived national unity government, to react publicly to the aggression.

The journalists complained of being forced to lie down in a cemetery with a gun to their head, while being told they were not welcome in the north.

The editor of one of the journalists and member of a national press association, Charles d'Almeida, acknowledges there is some so-called hate media in the divided country, but that this does not give license to target journalists.

He says he writes letters every day to journalists condemning them for writing articles that he says present ethical shortcomings and asking them to write more responsibly. But he says this process of improving the work of journalists should be done through orderly and legal channels, rather than lawless intimidation.