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Journalists arrested over criticism of president in press union statement found guilty of sedition

IPI regards convictions as another black mark on Gambia's bleak press freedom record

(IPI/IFEX) - The International Press Institute (IPI) is concerned at reports that six Gambian journalists arrested on charges of seditious publication in June after they lent support to a press union statement criticizing the government have been found guilty of sedition by a court in the capital Banjul.

"The conviction of these journalists is yet another serious step in the Gambian government's campaign of harassment against the media," said IPI Deputy Director Michael Kudlak. "This case should never have been brought. The six journalists should be set free immediately and unconditionally."

Agents of Gambia's National Intelligence Agency arrested Emil Touray, Sarata Jabbi-Dibba and Pa Modou Fall of the Gambia Press Union, Pap Saine and Ebrima Sawaneh of The Point, and Sam Sarr and Abubakar Saidykhan of the newspaper Forayaa on 15 June, following the publication of a statement by the Gambia Press Union criticizing comments made by the country's President, Yahya Jammeh, about the killing of another journalist, Deyda Hydara, in 2004. Pap Saine also reports for Reuters. Saidykhan was subsequently acquitted.

The journalists were charged with sedition five days after their arrest. Those charges were reportedly later changed to seditious publication, conspiracy to commit criminal defamation and criminal defamation.

A report in the Forayaa newspaper quotes Sam Sarr, who has chosen to act as his own counsel, as saying in his address to the court on 30 July: "(. . .) Newspapers have a responsibility to scrutinize the executive and occasionally such criticisms have effect. (. . .) That is the role of the media in a democratic society."

The Point deputy editor Abba Gibba and journalist Augustine Kanjia, as well as Forayaa publisher Halifa Sallah, were also detained in connection with the statement and later released. The authorities also revived unrelated charges of publishing "false information" against Pap Saine, stemming from a 30 January article he wrote in The Point describing a diplomatic reshuffle at the Gambian embassy in Washington DC.

Press freedom in Gambia has long been deteriorating. The IPI has previously drawn attention to the murder of Deyda Hydara, editor-in-chief of The Point, who was brutally assassinated by unknown gunmen in 2004, and to the disappearance of another journalist, Chief Ebrima Manneh, who was arrested by National Intelligence Agency operatives in 2006 and has not been heard from since.

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