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Media Watchdog Criticizes Detentions of Press Professionals in Gambia

A journalist and a government press officer are being detained in the tiny West African country Gambia, despite a court order releasing them on bail. The media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, has called for their immediate and unconditional release saying President Yahya Jammeh, who has often cracked down on media in the country, is acting above the law. Selah Hennessy reports from the VOA West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Malick Jones, producer of a state-owned television and radio service and presidential press officer Mam Sait Ceesay have been charged with harming the security of the state by giving "false information" to a foreign journalist. They have both pleaded not guilty.

The two were first released on bail and then were re-arrested as they walked away from the court.

The media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, says sources in Gambia say the men were arrested for telling a pro-government newspaper that the press director for President Yahya Jammeh was fired. The information turned out to be wrong.

Reporters Without Borders spokesman Vincent Brossel says imprisoning the men is a denial of justice.

"We found very shocking that these two persons are detained," he said. "I think it is a matter of principle that people cannot be put in jail just for these types of non-criminal offenses. So let us give a chance to these people to defend themselves in court and not put them in jail."

Local journalists have reported that the prosecutor claims the two men cannot be released from jail because they may interfere with the investigation, which he says is intensive and involves Gambia and countries abroad.

Demba Jawo was news editor of a daily paper in Gambia until he was fired in 1999 for, he says, publishing articles critical of the government.

He says the arrest of journalists has become routine in Gambia. He says the case shows that the government's paranoia is turning on those who work for the state.

"The government has hounded out all the critical journalists of the private press so they have now to turn on their own people," he said.

He says the constitution in Gambia supports press freedom, but the government works outside the law. He says anyone who criticizes the government is punished.

"Anybody who wants to criticize them in any way, you are definitely regarded as an enemy of the government or even of the country, so they will find ways and means of getting rid of you in one way or the other," he added.

The U.S. press freedom organization The Committee to Protect Journalists has named Gambia among five countries where press freedom has deteriorated the most in the last five years.