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Journalists Reporting on Refugee Issues Detained in the Gambia

(17 January 2014) International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) is concerned about the arrest of two journalists by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) on Monday 13 January 2014. The publisher and managing editor of the private newspaper The Voice and Pan African News Agency (PANA) stringer in The Gambia, Musa Sheriff and freelance reporter Sainey Marehna were arrested in their Serekunda office and driven to Sanyang Coastal village police station, which is about 35 kilometres away from the capital city of Banjul.

For many years Musa Sheriff has been reporting as a journalist the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in the Gambia and in the region. Mr. Sheriff and his Voice newspaper recently followed the case of five refugees who were detained by the Gambian Department of Immigration and charged with giving false information when they wrote a petition to the president protesting their living conditions in the Gambia. The refugees were released after four months in detention in the central prison of Banjul.

The journalists are charged by the police under Section 14 of the Criminal Code for allegedly publishing false news. NIA said their arrests were in connection with a story published by the weekly Voice newspaper in early December reporting that 19 “green boys”, members of the youth wing of President Yahya Jammeh’s party, defected to the opposition.

IRRI considers this arrest to be a violation of international protections of freedom of expression. Gambia is a party to the African Charter for Human and People’s Rights which protects freedom of expression in Article 9. In addition, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom … to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media.”

Although there is no international legal provision which explicitly outlaws false news laws, the UN Committee on Human Rights has stated: “the prosecution and punishment of journalists for the crime of publication of false news merely on the ground, without more, that the news was false, [is a] clear violation of Article 19 of the Covenant.”

Moreover, this incident forms part of a pattern of attacks on the press which has led IRRI to observe an increasing number of Gambian journalists seeking asylum in neighboring countries, including Senegal. For example, in December 2004, Deyda Haidara, the editor of the independent newspaper, The Point, was shot dead in his car by an unidentified gunman. Chief Ebrima Manneh, a journalist with the Daily Observer, was arrested by the NIA when he attempted to republish a BBC report criticizing President Yahya Jammeh immediately after the African Union Summit in Banjul in 2006. He has not been seen since then.

The two journalists were released on bail on 16 January 2014 after three days in detention, but are still facing charges and will appear before the Banjul Court on 21 January 2014. IRRI remains concerned about the charges facing Sheriff and his colleague and urges the government to drop the charges against them.