Seven Gambian journalists jailed last month will appear in a high court in the capital Banjul today, four days earlier than scheduled, to face charges of sedition and publishing with seditious intent.
President of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) Ndey Tapha Sosseh says the trial date at a local magistrate court in the jurisdiction of Kanifing was moved up and elevated to the country’s high court after a judge in the case recused herself, and three-term President Yahya Jammeh replaced five other justices on the high court bench.
“The initial date was the seventh of July. The date now is Friday, the third of July, and they have less than 48 hours to get their lawyers to look at the new charges,” she said.
Sosseh says she fears that the seven journalists, who were granted bail on June 22, after one week in prison, may be subjected to further harsh treatment by the government, which has been criticized internationally for restricting freedom of the press.
“That is my main fear, that Friday is a half-day in Gambia. They’ll appear in court around 11 a.m. and the courts close at midday. They will be fined with horrendous fines that we cannot meet or given bail conditions we cannot meet, within a 30-minute period, just so they will be put back into prison. I actually think that,” she said.
The reporters union chief warned that Gambian authorities are still trying to punish the journalists, who are all press union members, because of the GPU’s outspoken criticism of President Jammeh, who the union recently said spoke callously about the death of their colleague, journalist Deyda Hydara. Hydara, the country’s most prominent reporter and editor of The Point newspaper, was killed in December of 2004 and his death remains an unsolved mystery.
Since June 15, a total of 10 journalists and media executives have been put behind bars. The remaining three were released without being charged. But the press union continues to bring the matter to local and international attention.
“We had the EU and the US Mission in the Gambia issue a statement on the situation in the Gambia, and I think maybe the government is beginning to react negatively to all this international pressure it is getting because everybody is talking about the Gambia. This has never happened, where we’ve had the AU (African Union) rapporteur issuing a press release. We have international institutions staking the Gambia,” she noted.
Journalist Sosseh, who fortuitously left the country on business before the crisis unfolded and avoided arrest, has yet to return home after prolonged stays in Mali and in neighboring Senegal. She says she is not optimistic that the international pressure would sway authorities from dropping the charges.
“I would think that if they wanted to drop the charges, they would not move it from a magistrate’s court to a higher court. Why move it to a higher court if the intention is to drop the charges? I actually have a very bad feeling about this. I don’t know what the intention is. I don’t know what the thinking is, but it certainly does not look to me like the state wants to drop the charges,” she said.
If tensions continue to grow between the President, the Information Ministry, which Mr. Jammeh currently heads, and the press, Sosseh foresees and even greater government crackdown on personal freedoms.
“It is too late now. The debate has gone up, and people will talk. So I think the best thing for them (officials) to do, as everybody is asking, as the AU rapporteur is asking, and drop the charges because they are bogus charges. What is seditious is raising issues in fronting out the media laws in the Gambia to create the necessary space for freedom of expression,” she asks.
Protests are planned today in London by several international journalist protection groups, as well as Amnesty International.
“We are calling for laws that allow us to work as journalists, but that also enable the Gambian public to access information that is relevant to them. Why should that be seditious?” says Sosseh.