20 October 2003

Gambia: Independent Newspaper Attacked by Arsonists

Banjul — An independent Gambian newspaper with a history of reporting critically on the government of Yahya Jammeh has once again been the target of an attack apparently aimed at closing down the paper.

Shortly after midnight on Friday, October 17, three unidentified men came to the offices of The Independent, in Kanifing, a suburb of the capital, Banjul, and assaulted the security guard on duty using iron rods and fists.

The attackers then set fire to the premises but the building did not burn down thanks to the timely intervention of other security guards in the area and the Gambia Fire Services brigade.

The security guard, Mr. Madi Ceesay, an employee of Uncle Sam Security Agency who was still being treated at the Royal Victoria Hospital Sunday, said he was approached by three men at the gate of The Independent and one of them asked for matches to light his cigarette. During the subsequent conversation, the man suddenly produced a gas canister and sprayed it on his face. He said as he was struggling to keep his eyes open, the other man hit him on the face with an iron rod, causing a deep gash on his forehead. At this point he said, the assailants saw someone coming and ran away into the darkness. He then used his mobile phone to call his supervisor who came shortly and took him to a nearby police station and then to the hospital. The supervisor also brought in a replacement.

Shortly after that, four men, probably the first three plus an additional man arrived at the newspaper's offices in a green pick-up truck with no registration plate. According to the replacement security guard, Mr. Samba Sowe, the four men who claimed to be policemen told him that they had apprehended those who assaulted his colleague and that they were being detained at Bakau police station, about four kilometers from The Independent.

He said they asked him to go with them to see the culprits. However, he said when they arrived at the gate of the said police station, they dropped him off and sped away. When he entered the police station, he was told no-one had been brought there. "I became suspicious of foul play and immediately found a cab back to The Independent. When I arrived, I saw the place on fire and some men trying to scale the fence to get inside. When they saw me, they ran away. I then quickly called the fire brigade to put off the fire."

Commenting on the incident, Gambia Press Union President Demba Jawo said he found the role of the police surprising. "While they were notified of the crime at the very beginning, they never visited the scene to see the damage or collect some possible evidence for use against the culprits," Mr. Jawo said.

"The Gambia Press, Union," Jawo added, "is quite concerned about this continuous harassment of our colleagues at The Independent and would like the government to do something to apprehend those behind those dastardly acts."

While not much damage was done to the paper’s equipment because the men could not get into the offices, the electrical system was completely burnt. The paper's management has been forced to make alternative plans for producing the paper.

The attack on The Independent came barely a month after the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) - directly controlled by the office of the President - arrested and detained the paper’s editor-in-chief, Abdoulie Sey, for more than three days. Mr. Sey was abducted by men driving a vehicle similar to the one described by the security guard.

For three days the agency denied having Mr. Sey, only to release him on the fourth day. Mr. Sey’s arrest was preceded by a surprise visit to The Independ'sent offices by a group of heavily armed soldiers at about 3 a.m. about a month before, for no apparent reason. Earlier on, the editor-in-chief and managing editor received telephone calls threatening them with death.

Since its founding in July 1999, The Independent has suffered harassment and persecution at the hands of the regime of President Yahya Jammeh. Barely a month after it started publication on July 5,1999, the paper was closed down for three weeks on the spurious allegation that it had not registered its business name with the commissioner of Income Tax. Shortly afterwards, ten officials of the NIA stormed the paper’s offices and arrested all staff found on the premises. This was followed by the arrest of the paper’s editor-in-chief and managing editor a couple of days later for defying the illegal government ban. The series of arrests and detentions continue to this day with some reporters alleging that they had been tortured by NIA operatives using electrical equipment on their genitals.

Reacting to this latest onslaught, The Independent’s Founding Editor and CEO, Baba Galleh Jallow, said he had no doubt about who was responsible for this latest criminal act. "Everybody, even the police, knows the culprits behind this act. That explains their inactivity," Mr. Jallow said.

He said such acts achieved exactly the opposite of their desired effect. "The idea is to intimidate us and break our spirit," he said. "The reality is that it only serves to cement our resolve to continue speaking truth to power and condemning corruption and evil in all its various manifestations."


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