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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 July 2007, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Fear for Gambia's missing reporter
Soldiers in The Gambia

By Will Ross
BBC West Africa correspondent

It is a year since a journalist in The Gambia was arrested by security forces.

Since then Chief Ebrima Manneh's whereabouts have been unknown, although human rights organisations fear he is still languishing in detention.

His case is just one of many instances of harassment of journalists in the tiny West African nation.

Deyda Hydara poster
Deyda Hydara was shot dead in December 2004

According to his colleagues at The Daily Observer newspaper, on 11 July 2006, Chief Manneh was picked up by plainclothes security officers close to his workplace in the Gambian capital, Banjul.

He was apparently accused of passing on information to a foreign journalist who was in the country for last year's African Union (AU) summit.

The Gambian authorities deny they are holding Chief Manneh, but not everyone is convinced.

"From our records he has gone through about four different police cells. The last time we heard he had been sent to a police cell about 500km from the capital Banjul - that is Fatoto Police cell," says Jeanette Quarcoopome, programmes manager for the Media Foundation for West Africa.

The Gambia is a popular tourist destination for European sun seekers. But the country has also gained a reputation for human rights abuse.

The president of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, came to power through a coup 13 years ago, but amid claims of plots to oust him, dozens of people have been arrested and unlawfully detained.

Arbitrary arrests

Amnesty International has noted an overall deterioration of the human rights situation.

Incumbent President Yahya Jammeh
I do not believe in murder. I believe in imprisonment for the rest of your life
President Jammeh

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently named The Gambia, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Russia and Cuba, as countries where press freedom had deteriorated the most over the last five years.

The CPJ says arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists without trial have become routine.

Eleven journalists were jailed for extended periods in 2006.

Lamin Fatty, a reporter of the banned Independent newspaper was arrested and detained illegally on 10 April 2006 for 63 days before being released on bail. He was accused of publishing "false information".

Malick Mboob of The Observer spent 139 days in illegal detention for allegedly sending damaging information to an online US-based newspaper before he was released by a court.

In December 2004, journalist Deyda Hydara was gunned down but nobody was charged with his murder.

Reporters Without Borders points out that when President Jammeh was asked about the murder he replied, "I do not believe in murder. I believe in imprisonment for the rest of your life.

"Then perhaps, at some point, we will say, 'Oh he is too old to be fed by the state.' We release him and leave him to sink into a decline. Then everyone will learn a lesson from it."

Deyda Hydara: shot dead, Dec 2004
Lamin Fatty: detained 63 days, 2006
Malick Mboob: detained 139 days, 2006
Chief Ebrima Manney: goes missing, July 2006
Fatou Jaw Manneh: on trial for sedition, 2007
Momodou Lamin Jaiteh: goes into hiding after death threats, July 2007

The CPJ reported that last week a Gambian journalist, Momodou Lamin Jaiteh, was forced into hiding after receiving threatening phone calls and visits at his home by plainclothes men believed to be security agents.

"Momodou Lamin Jaiteh is the latest in a long line of journalists in The Gambia to be harassed," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.

"We call on President Yahya Jammeh to use all his influence to ensure that the intimidation of our colleague stops immediately and that he can resume work in safety."

But Ms Quarcoopome says the harassment of journalists is for the president's benefit.

"There are many aspects of governance that leave much to be desired.

"If there are fewer radio stations and fewer newspapers and the few who are there are only singing his praise then he is comfortable. So it (the government) is just looking for a comfortable situation to perpetrate his repression of the people."

'Coup plot'

Reporters Without Borders said Gambia's privately owned media had been hit hard during President Jammeh's time in office.

"Death threats, surveillance, night-time arrests and arbitrary detention constitute the daily lot of journalists who do not sing the government's praises," the organisation said.

And the human rights abuses are by no means limited to the media.

Following an alleged coup plot in March 2006 more than 70 people were unlawfully detained including civilians, members of government and lawyers.

Two years ago, 44 Ghanaians were reportedly killed in The Gambia under what are still unclear circumstances.

They were apparently attempting to make it to Europe but were picked up by Gambian security forces.

There has never been a proper investigation which has caused anger in Ghana and efforts by its government to find out what happened have been frustrated by the authorities in the Gambia.

It was no great surprise when President Jammeh failed to attend this year's AU summit in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

Gambia jail terms for coup plot
20 Apr 07 |  Africa
Timeline: Gambia
22 Feb 02 |  Africa
Country profile: Gambia
29 Jun 02 |  Country profiles

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