2004 was already a trying year for Gambia's journalists before Deyda Hydara's murder in December. The climate had begun to deteriorate after the attempted murder of lawyer Ousman Sillah on the night of 26 December 2003.
The "Green Boys", a clandestine group claiming to support President Yahya Jammeh made death threats firstly against Alagi Yorro Jallow, Managing editor of the bi-weekly newspaper the Independent, then Demba Ali Jawo, the then President of the Gambia Press Union, and finally BBC Correspondent Ebrima Sillah.
Two arson attacks subsequently destroyed the Independent's printing press and the BBC correspondent's home. There was no serious police investigation into these arson attacks, not even after an Opposition parliamentarian revealed to the national assembly the names of the three suspected of carrying out the attack on the Independent both National Guard members.
Finally, a drawn - out tussle with independent journalists that had gone on for several years was brought to an end by the government on 14 and 15 December when it got the national assembly to approve two laws that made deep inroads into press freedom. The following day, 16 December, Hydara's murder stunned and horrified the entire press corps.
Those who brutally and mysteriously killed Deyda Hydara, the brave and encyclopedic Gambian Journalist, cannot obviously succeed in wiping out his name. Like all fallen heroes in other parts of the world, Deyda would be spiritually remembered for his sacrificial life for the cause of humanity. It is unfortunate for the Gambia to lose such a knowledgeable man in the person of Deyda who was more than a mere journalist. He had left a glamorous mark for generations to see both at the national and international levels. The reason for his killing remains a mystery but it is highly believed to be linked with his profession, as one of the valiant sons of the ink. Hydara was clearly a journalist who upset people.
He used to write two very popular columns in the Point. One, called "The Bite, with DH", appeared in almost all the issues of the Point, which is published three times a week. The other, called 'Good Morning Mr President, "appeared every two weeks. Over the years, these two columns indicate a well-argued and critical analysis of Gambian society, one full of ironic insolence towards the country's rulers and others in position of power. The "Good Morning Mr President" Column was undoubtedly the most popular of the two. Writing with great skill, often adopting a professorial tone, Hydara used to address the young president directly, offering his thoughts on national issues and the way the country was being governed.
After Opposition parliamentarian Hamat Bah named the three leading suspects in the arson attack on the Independent's printing press, Hydara devoted most of his columns in September 2004 to this case. On 6 and 13 September, he asked President Jammeh, who had returned from a trip abroad, to accord "urgent attention" to these reports and to ensure that the suspects were at least questioned by the police. Good Morning, Mr. President" began to tackle business as well as governance issues.
Deyda voiced surprise that the head of the state-owned Assets Management Recovery Corporation whose management was being investigated for corruption, had just been named to run the Gambia Ports Authority. Hydara suggested that President Jammeh should keep him at the AMRC until the investigation was completed. Again, Hydara called for order to be restored in the hotel trade following several scandals and criticized the "pernicious favoritism' in this sector. In his last column, published on 15 December, on the eve of his death, Hydara analyzed the state of relations between Jammeh and the student union, and called on the President to respect their importance and independence.
More frequent but less political, The Bite" also had an approach to economic and social issues that was both polemical and more technical than Good Morning Mr. President'. The last of these columns, which appeared on the eve of his death was entitled We Shall Prevail,' was used to attack the draconian press laws passed by the national assembly the previous day. He explained how and why Gambia's privately-owned media would challenge the laws before the appropriate national and international bodies, and called on the then information minister Amadou Scattred Janneh to resign to protect his dignity, because his attempts to keep a dialogue between the government and the press had been betrayed.
Originally entrusted to the police, the investigation into Hydara's murder was transferred in February to the National Intelligence Agency, whose agents have been the perpetrators or the leading suspects in all the press violations in the Gambia during the past ten years. Two suspects have been arrested since Hydara's murder and both were released after a few days. Neither was charged.
Deyda Hydara was subjected to harassment and surveillance by the Gambian intelligence services. Despite the mounting hostility towards dissent, he did not bow to the threats. Extremely well-informed and convinced he was within his rights, he wrote constantly about the way the country was being run, critiquing what he thought were bad decisions and condemning abuses. The harsh new press legislation and the strategic question of the ailing groundnut sector were the dominant themes of his final articles.
He was murdered by professionals in a premeditated ambush in which, for still unexplained reasons, the security forces present in the area failed in their duty to protect and intervene. Since his murder, the investigation conducted initially by the police and then by the intelligence services has produced no conclusive result.
The investigators have not considered the possibility that the murder was politically-motivated, although, it seems the most probable hypothesis. Deyda Hydara the editor of the Point Newspaper, had long been an ardent supporter of truthful and impartial reportage. He spoke the truth, and wrote the truth. He was not afraid to confront injustice, is-government or criminality. He has paid the ultimate price for his professionalism and integrity.
Thoughtful, altruistic and bi-lingual, Hydara took clear, humanistic positions in its columns. His opposition to regimes that have succeeded each other in Gambia was neither acrimonious nor vengeful. He was an enlightened democrat. Aged 58 at the time of his death, he had no political ambitions. He was shot in with a 9-mm bullet in the head and chest.
He died instantly. He was killed by the first bullet fired at almost point-blank range into his left temple. Half-hearted police investigation which has followed is murder has brought not one person to justice. Deyda's murder has had a profound effect on me. He and I had a very good working relationship and two of us were acting as plaintiffs when the Gambia Press Union sued the Government over the NMC.I know Deyda as a professional and at a personal level. We were like brothers.
We advised each other, congratulated each other, sympathized with each other, and supported each other in so many ways. You can imagine how I felt when I was informed that Deyda has been assassinated. My own grief has been as keen as that of his family.
Not one Gambian could have predicted that a man like Deyda Hydara would be gunned down because he was a journalist. His death at the hands of murderers acting with impunity is a scourge in our land, and marks a new phase in terror tactics and repression. When it became clear that Deyda had been murdered, I did a lot of soul-searching and question surfaced and resurfaced on whether I should continue in my journalistic profession.
The highest contempt is to negate the life of a human being and it is the grossest and most repulsive violation of human rights. What right does a government have in separating a husband from his wife, a father from his children, a friend from his loved ones, a colleague from his professional community through sheer brutality and Malice?
Why should journalists be held criminally accountable for giving the people the avenue to exercise their freedom of expression? The climate of fear which Deyda's death has sparked is palpable, and is in danger of leading to a toning down of voices critical of the government.