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Monday, January 21, 2013

Journalist John Heaves a Sigh of Relief, But...

Press freedom continues to elude journalists in Gambia. Currently under fire is Mr Abdoulie John, a stringer with the US-based Associated Press (AP) news agency. More than one month today, John who doubles as an editor of a Gambian online news agency, JollofNews, is still battling for his freedom.
From Dec.9, 2012 to date, the journalist had been arrested and detained on two separate occasions by the country's intelligence agency, NIA. Interestingly, all this while, he is yet to know his crime, if any.
“I did nothing wrong," he says with a unique emphasis. "It is sad to know that such things are happening in a country that is supposed to operate democratically. This is part of harassment and intimidation by the state to deny independent journalists to operate freely."

John's case had been condemned by media rights activists and concerned international bodies who called on the Gambia government to let go off the journalist.
But, typically, when it comes to allowing the press a bite on the cake of rights and freedoms, the Jammeh administration doesn’t easily budge. And in this case, as a result, Journalist John is left to shuttle almost as regularly as a commercial vehicle between his home in Serrekunda and the NIA headquarters in Banjul. 
"It is now almost a month and this is the umpteenth time that I have been reporting and the National Intelligence Agency seems to be embarking on a sort of fishing expedition,” the former Daily Observer deputy editor said.
His saga started when he went on an assignment to cover the release of eight Senegalese hostages by MFDC rebels in December. There, he had a confrontation with a State House staff photographer at a Gambian border village of Tamba Kunda. The photographer's authoritative-style questioning of John as to who invited him to cover the event did not go down well with the latter who felt the former has not authority to question him. A commotion ensued between the two. 
 Then, John who claimed to be the victim is apparently adjudged the culprit. For, he was not only denied coverage of the event by Gambia’s intelligence chief who was present on the ground, but he was also kept in a confinement which he interprets as arrest.
Since then, John has been under siege. Last week, he was thrown behind bars for days for the second time in a month. In the process of trying to link him to a crime, his house was searched and his laptop computer screened and rescreened by state investigators.
On Monday, however, he at least heaved a sigh of relief when he went to the NIA on what has become a routine for him. His laptop was given back to him. And, he said, he was asked to go home; that he would be telephoned to report whenever needed. His traveler’s passport and electronic storage device - flash drive - however, remains with the investigators.
Although John was cautious to interpret this gesture from the NIA to mean his troubles were over, nonetheless, he sounded upbeat that there would be light for him at the end of the tunnel.
“One has to be optimistic,” he told me. “They searched my house, screened my laptop and rescreened it, but did not find anything implicating. So I am optimistic.” 
Mr Baboucarr Ceesay is the vice president of the Gambia’s media watchdog, Gambia Press Union (GPU). He accompanied Abdoulie John to the NIA offices and shared with me his take on this latest development.
"The release of John's laptop is a move in the right direction. In the first place, he should not have been arrested, let alone been reporting on a daily basis up to this stage. I hope actually they would drop the case.
"I think that is the most progressive thing to the state authorities should do. The media should no longer be seen as an eyesore in this country. In fact, we are partners in development. That is what all security apparatus in this country have to understand."
Meanwhile, for now, Journalist John has been allowed to melt into the comfort of his home with an unsettled fate and a disturbing mental tag that any day he could be needed, perhaps behind bars again.
Of course, his saga, if records are anything to go by, offers a glimpse into Gambia’s media landscape. Here, the press - especially independent press - is muzzled with every available weapon - legal, political and economic.
With an unresolved murder of a prominent journalist and disappearance of a young journalist; violent attacks on media personnel and media outlets; arbitrary closure of independent news media outlets; and draconian laws governing the operations of the press, coupled with high taxes on media, perhaps it is self-evident that Gambia, for almost the past two decades, could not graduate from the unenviable rank of world's press predators.

Author, Saikou Jammeh is the editor in chief of the proscribed Daily News.  With his paper closed, he now freelances for IPS news agency.

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