August 15, 2000
President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh
Banjul The Gambia
VIA FAX: +220 227 034
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is outraged at the recent arson attack against the editorial offices of the Banjul-based private broadcaster Radio 1 FM. While a police investigation is ongoing, sources in the Gambia told CPJ that the attack might have come in response to Radio 1 FM's critical discussions of your government's human-rights and other policies.
At around three a.m. on August 10, seven unidentified men armed with tear gas and gasoline containers attempted to force their way into Radio 1 FM's compound on Karaiba Avenue. When the station's night watchman, Musa Trawally, raised an alarm, some of the attackers sprayed him with tear gas before punching and kicking him. Others poured gasoline all over the compound and set it on fire.
Staff members, including Radio 1 owner George Christensen and presenter Ousman Jallow, sustained serious injuries and burns when they wrestled with the attackers and extinguished the fire before it could reach the broadcast studios. Radio 1 FM remained off the air from August 10 until August 12.
The station had some prior warning of the attack. On August 8, according to Modou Thomas, head of news and current affairs at Radio 1 FM, Christensen received an anonymous letter warning that he faced severe reprisals for having raised his voice at Fatoumata Jahumpha Cessay, presidential advisor on media relations, during the August 6 edition of the political talk show "Sunday Newshour."
In an interview published in the August 14 issue of the Banjul weekly The Independent, Christensen said that he had indeed been warned that the station faced imminent attack. Christensen added that he believed the attackers intended to assassinate him and his employees. He pointed out that several Radio 1 journalists had recently received threatening letters and telephone calls warning of impending attacks.
One anonymous letter, received by Radio 1 disc jockey Alieu Bah (also known as Mix Master) some days before the August 10 arson attack, claimed that the writer and others had broken into Bah's residence at around three a.m., intending to set the house on fire. The letter added that they had aborted this plan because Bah was not home at the time, although his wife and child were asleep in the house. The Independent quoted the letter as saying, "Alieu Bah, you got your mouth and radio to talk about people's private lives but we got the power to destroy you. We could have finished you yesterday at three a.m., but..."
CPJ is gravely disturbed by the sharp deterioration of press freedom standards in the Gambia. This trend has been exacerbated by hostile comments from government officials in recent months. On August 2, for example, presidential advisor Fatoumata Jahumpa Cessay accused the local independent press of unfairly tarnishing Your Excellency's image. Cessay also asserted that your government's brusque handling of the local press was "suitable" for The Gambia, where private and independent journalists were being "spoon-fed" by the opposition and "human-rights organizations in the United States, Germany and other countries."
While Section 207 of the Gambian Constitution calls on journalists to "uphold the accountability of government to the people," very little has been done to create an environment in which journalists can work without fear of reprisal. Instead, Gambian journalists have faced extensive official intimidation. CPJ highlighted this point in a July 10 letter to Your Excellency, in which we urged you to repeal the Gambia's repressive press laws and discontinue police investigation into the citizenship of the editors of the weekly The Independent.
CPJ has little confidence that threats to press freedom in the Gambia will abate without your government's firm commitment to protect the security and welfare of journalists. We therefore urge you to condemn the arson attack on Radio 1 FM, to ensure that its perpetrators are brought to justice, and to create an atmosphere in which journalists in the Gambia are free to report the news without interference.
Ann K. Cooper