By: Naomi Hunt, Press Freedom Adviser for Africa
VIENNA, 28 Nov. 2011 – As Gambians went to the polls last week to vote, incumbent President Yahya Jammeh rejected international criticism over the country’s press freedom record, which, since Jammeh took power in a 1994 coup, has been characterised by the intimidation, jailing and torture of journalists, and control of the media.
"When they talk about rights, freedom of the press and [saying] this country is a hell for journalists … There are freedoms and responsibilities," the BBC quoted Jammeh as saying. "The journalists are less than 1% of the population and if anybody expects me to allow less than 1% of the population to destroy 99% of the population, you are in the wrong place."
The International Press Institute (IPI), a global press freedom organisation comprised of publishers, editors and leading journalists, criticised Jammeh’s reported remarks.
“The reason that journalists must be permitted to work without interference, detention or torture, and the reason the media should not be compelled to report only the current government’s version of events has nothing to do with protecting a small segment of the workforce, as President Jammeh suggests,” said IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie. “Responsible journalism upholds democracy by holding government accountable; a free media provides space for a robust and critical public discourse.”
The election was monitored by observers from the African Union (AU) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), but the West African regional organization, Ecowas, said the vote was not legitimate and that their investigations had revealed “"an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation,” the BBC reported.
In cases brought by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), the Ecowas Community Court found the Gambia responsible for the 2006 torture of journalist Musa Saidykhan and ordered the country to pay him reparations. The Gambia has failed to comply with the order. In 2008, the court also ordered The Gambia to release missing reporter Chief Ebrimah Manneh and pay him reparations. Again, The Gambia has failed to comply, denying instead that he is in their custody. In October this year Justice Minister Edu Gomez told the Daily News that Manneh was alive but not in government hands, although he refused to provide more information.