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MFWA condemns jail sentences and outrageous fines handed to six journalists

(MFWA/IFEX) - Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) strongly condemns the jail sentences and outrageous fines handed down to each of the six Gambian journalists, including a nursing mother, for supposedly defaming President Yahya Jammeh. We urge all free expression advocates to condemn and protest the sentences which are an affront to democracy in the country, and in Africa.

MFWA sources reported that the six journalists were convicted on all six counts of criminal "defamation" and "sedition". The charges stemmed from an 11 June 2009 press statement that criticised President Jammeh over comments he made slandering Deyda Hydara, a journalist who was brutally murdered in 2004 by as-yet unknown assailants.

On 6 August 2009, the Banjul High Court, presided over by a Nigerian judge, Justice Emmanuel Fagbanle, handed down a two-year sentence for each journalist on four of the six counts, without the option of a fine, to run concurrently. The journalists were also ordered to pay a total fine of 500,000 dalasis (approx. US$18,000) or to serve four more years, for the two remaining counts.

MFWA is not surprised at this development. At every step of the trial, the Gambian authorities, as well as the courts, have demonstrated their resolve to jail these journalists. The accused persons were rounded up on 15 June, detained for more than seventy-two hours without appearing in court as the country's constitution stipulates, and were hurriedly arraigned before a magistrate court without their counsels. Initially, the magistrate court ordered them to reappear on 7 July 2009 but surprisingly, the authorities instead summoned them to reappear on 3 July.

MFWA is saddened by the arbitrary and indecent haste with which the courts in The Gambia are openly doing the bidding of President Jammeh.

MFWA vehemently condemns the jailing of the journalists on these charges and the court processes that violate all known tenets of free speech and fair trial. We urge the public to protest the horrific human rights situation in The Gambia, and in particular, the violations of media freedom and freedom of expression.

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