Six Gambian journalists, including the editors of two independent newspapers, have been sentenced to two-year jail terms and each fined about U.S. $10,000 on sedition and criminal defamation charges.
If the journalists are unable to pay the fine, they will face an additional two years in jail, according to the Gambia Press Union (GPU).
The journalists were charged for their role in printing a GPU press release critical of President Yahya Jammeh on June 11. In the press release the GPU expressed "its shock and disappointment" over an accusation made by Jammeh in a television interview that the 2004 murder of journalist Deydra Hydara was the result of a lovers’ quarrel.
In another television interview on July 22, after the journalists were arrested and charged, Jammeh said: "So they think they can hide behind so-called press freedom and violate the law and get away with it… They got it wrong this time. We are going to prosecute them to the letter."
The convicted journalists are Sarata Jabbi Dibbi, the GPU vice president; Pa Modou Faal, GPU treasurer; Pape Saine, publisher of the Point; Ebou Sawaneh, editor of the Point; Sam Starr, editor of Foroyaa; and Emil Touray, the GPU secretary-general. Saine, who also has reported for Reuters for three decades, suffers from a serious heart condition, and many are worried that he will not receive proper medical attention.
Judge Emmanuel Fagbenle said in his verdict that "the journalists conspired among themselves to defame the name of the president and the Gambia as a country," according to Inter Press Service. In addition, IPS reported that Fagbenle concluded the press release was full of innuendo.
After the verdict, the GPU called Thursday "one of the darkest days in the history of the Gambian judiciary," accusing Fagbenle of being "used openly and publicly by the Executive to further enforce its reign of terror."
International press freedom organizations also widely condemned the verdict. Tom Rhodes, the Africa coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists, worries Gambia is becoming another Eritrea, a country where no independent media exists.
"President Jammeh has managed to nail the coffin shut for press freedom in the Gambia by arresting some of the last remaining independent journalists in the country," Rhodes said.
Reporters Without Borders echoed his comment, writing in a press release: "Is it a crime to express an opinion and ask government officials to explain their actions? Appealing for what is regarded as transparency in other countries is a crime punishable by imprisonment in Gambia."
The organization also called on United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speak out on the verdict. Clinton is currently in the middle of an African tour.
The defense is planning to appeal against the convictions, according to the GPU. The GPU also plans to appeal to a regional body.
The U.S. organization, Freedom House, ranked Gambia 172nd out of 195 countries in terms of press freedom in its latest press freedom report.