A Gambian radio journalist who disappeared on July 17, 2015 was charged with sedition this week by a magistrate court in the capital city of Banjul. Although it is assumed that he is being held by authorities in secret, his whereabouts and condition are unknown.
State prosecutors said that Abdoulie Ceesay intended to cause discontent, hatred and disaffection of President Yahya Jammeh among Gambians by sending photos which showed a gun pointed at the image of the president. Ceesay allegedly sent the photos via mobile phone to two women, Zainab Koneh and Fatou A Drammeh.
Ceesay was reportedly abducted by Gambian security agents on July 17. On July 13, just four days prior to his disappearance, he had been released from a previous detention. Family members say his body showed evidence that he had been tortured while in custody.
Ceesay manages the independent radio station Taranga FM, which offers local news programming and translates foreign media content into local languages, has also faced numerous challenges from the government. Authorities have shut down the station three times over the past five years, according to the Gambian Press Union.
Ceesay has endured several arrests and detentions in the past, mainly by the country's National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which answers directly to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. The NIA is famous for its off-book interrogation methods, especially against perceived enemies.
Multiple human rights organizations have called for justice in Ceesay's case, among them the Committee to Protect Journalists and PEN Africa Network (PAN) of PEN International, which challenged Gambian authorities on “the continued holding in secret confinement” of the journalist. In a press release, PAN noted its deep concern for Ceesay and his continued detention on the basis of his journalistic work, calling this a “serious violation of his freedom of expression” under Gambian law and international legal instruments.
Journalists are an “endangered species” under President Jammeh
Ceesay is among the most troubled of Gambian journalists, a group that has come to be seen as an endangered species under President Yahya Jammeh, who celebrated 21 years in power on July 22, 2015. In an unusual but welcome move, Jammeh freed over 200 prisoners some of whom had been held unconstitutionally and promised to open a new chapter on civil and political rights in the country. But some Gambians are skeptical as to whether this represents a true policy shift on Yammeh's part.
Responding to a call by a Gambian activist Babou Njie Sallah to free Ceesay, Honest Gambians wondered:
It's insane that Jammeh can free over 200 prisoners and then re arrest an innocent journalist.
Another Gambian Facebook user Salif Joof asked:
What is this telling us as jammeh claim to pardons some prisoners, now again detaining this innocent youth.
In July 2006, a reporter for the Daily Observer, a pro-government newspaper, was abducted under similar circumstances and his whereabouts remain unknown today. Chief Ebrima Manneh reportedly was picked up by NIA operatives from the premises of his office and never returned. AFP reported in 2009 that Manneh was “no longer alive” but this has never been confirmed. He was given Amnesty International's Special Award for Journalism Under Threat later that year.
A Trend of Disappearances
The disappearances of both men speak to a broader trend of political persecution under Jammeh's leadership. Dr. Amadou Scattred Janneh, a former Information and Communications Minister under Jammeh who now resides in the US, illustrated this in a recent Facebook post identifying 20 people including Abdoulie Ceesay and Chief Ebrima Manneh believed to be illegally held by Gambian authorities.
Janneh was banished from The Gambia for distributing t-shirts inscribed with the words: “End Dictatorship Now”. Dr. Janneh was sentenced to life imprisonment but with the intervention of US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, he was sent to the US where he now lives. He has since become a prominent advocate against human rights violations in The Gambia.
Commenting on Janneh's post, Mariama Juwara wrote:
Doctor Janneh, oh dear the list is still long, it seems the whole nation is behind bars. God save my motherland
In February 2015, during celebrations marking the country's 50 years of independence, Article19 West Africa issued a scathing report of 20 years of a rise in media censorship and curtailing of fundamental freedoms under Jammeh. Fatou Jagne-Senghore, Article19's West Africa representative, wrote:
Today, The Gambia celebrates the 50th anniversary of its accession to international sovereignty. However, this independence – far from being celebrated in harmony and joy – is held at a time when the country is depressed, divided and clouded by persecutions that have marked the past 20 years of oppression. Many have suffered the horrors of the regime: physical and psychological violence, imprisonment, confiscation of properties, and travel documents, enforced disappearances, murders and hundreds of people forced into exiles.
These trends also extend to the Internet. The Gambia has one of the harshest press and Internet regulations on the continent. Online criticism of public officials, for example, is punishable with up to 15 years in jail and or GMD3 million (approximately USD75,000). Online supporters of Ceesay have voiced similar frustration with the system, and with the government's increasing use of digital technologies to monitor and persecute citizens. As Ndey Sarr Nyancho put it:
Another day another Gambian taken away.Gambia has turned into a big open prison with everyone on electronic tag. This nonsense cannot continue anymore!