BBC freelance jailed amid media crackdown

Agence France-Press (AFP) is reporting that a freelance Gambian journalist working for the BBC has been arrested in the country’s capital for contributing to the Freedom Newspaper website.

The website, run by an exiled Gambian journalist, is known for being a staunch critic of President Yahya Jammeh, who took power of the country by a military coup in July 1994.

Recently the anti-state website was hacked to display messages purporting to support the president, together with names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of its online subscribers.

The subscribers were dubbed ‘informers’ and subsequently their names and details were published in the pro-state Daily Observer newspaper, which is thought to have listed the freelance – Lamin Cham – as one of the state enemies.

According to AFP, Cham was “arrested by security forces on Wednesday and has been detained since then on the premises of the National Intelligence Agency for interrogation,” a police source said.

Union sources told the agency that Cham’s inclusion on the list of informers explains his arrest, though confirming that the freelance had been detained, a BBC spokesman said the exact reason remains unclear.

Media freedom groups have condemned the arrest of Cham and other pro-democracy journalists and commentators who appeared on the list of so-called ‘dissidents.’

“It is absolutely astounding that the Daily Observer became an accomplice by publishing the list of these so-called informers and describing them as ‘subversive’,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement.

“The climate in which Gambian journalists work is totally poisonous. The instigators and perpetrators of this plot must be identified and punished,” the Paris-based group added, referring to the plot to hack the website and expose independent reporters.

The media freedom group also pointed out that Gambian police ordered all those “who continually supplied” the editor of the Freedom Newspaper website to report to the nearest police station within 24 hours or face immediate arrest.

The editor, Pa Nderry Mbai, now runs the website from his new home in the US.

According to RSF, he was contacted just days before his site was hacked and then defaced in support of President Yahya Jammeh to be told by a state official, “If you think that you can do whatsoever you want whilst away from the Gambia, then you better think twice... because the impending reaction in the Gambia is going to be very nasty.”

The state official, thought to be the spokesman for the president’s military junta, has refused to respond to a request for comment, Reporters Without Border said.

Meanwhile, Media Foundation for West Africa, the group striving to protect independent reporters in the region, yesterday confirmed the detention of the BBC freelance, citing “little information” about his arrest or whereabouts.

They added that Omar Bah, news editor of the privately-owned Daily Observer has also been missing for the past four days, with one source saying he was last heard complaining of an “impending situation”.

The source did not confirm whether Bah’s disappearance or Cham’s arrest were related to the police initiative launched on May 25, in reaction to the published list of anti-state commentators.


6th June 2006

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