Five operatives of The Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) stormed the Elections Media Hub on Thursday and stopped two journalists from the Reuters News Agency from doing their work.
Journalists Cheikh Sadibou Mane from Senegal and his colleague from Ivory Coast Thierry Gouegnon arrived at the Hub [the American Corner along Kairaba Avenue] after covering President Yahya Jammeh’s casting of his ballot in the capital, Banjul.
While fixing their satellite at the entrance of the Hub, one of the NIA officers came asking questions about the equipment and why the two journalists were sitting outside the walls of the media hub.
Without introducing himself, he ordered for the journalists to take the satellite andtheir computer inside the hub. “You cannot work from outside,” he said before phoning another colleague.
Suddenly, four agents arrived, and demanded to see letters of clearance from the Ministry of Information and press cards to, as one of them said, “verify”.
The Deputy Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Information, Mr. Malick Jones, was called in and after he arrived, he told the security agents that the journalists are accredited to cover The Gambia’s Presidential Election.
Jumped into car
Jones also explained that the satellite equipment can’t be taken indoors because it needs an open space to get signal. Then he left. But the agents stayed behind and started asking more questions.
Mr. Jones has to come to the media hub a second time, and asked to see Cheikh. Shortly after, the two journalists from Reuters decided they are leaving [for their hotel or to the home of the Dean of Reuters Correspondents in West Africa, Mr. Pap Saine].
The NIA officers quickly jumped into their car and drive behind the journalist, keeping a noticeable distance.
Gambian authorities had on the eve of the December 1, 2016 presidential elections cut off access to the internet throughout and country and blocked international calls and short message services (SMS).
Mane and Gouegnon had been preparing to send a report on Jammeh’s voting in Banjul and the election process via the satellite.
Other international journalists told FPI they had no problem using their satellite to send information about the election to their media houses.
Gambian journalists have been operating under a repressive anti-press freedom and free expression environment for more than two decades.
The presence of the spy agents at the hub also created an intimidating atmosphere for local journalists – who are very well used to this type of harassment. “We cannot do our work properly when they are occupying this space,” one journalist told FPI.
A political and public affairs officer of the US Embassy and an official from RSF (Reporters Without Borders) also visited the hub after they were told security officers are in.
The American Corner is hosted by the foreign-owned mobile telephone company, Comium.
Prior to the NIA’s arrival, a staff of the cellphone company came in to tell employees of the US Embassy at the Corner that Comium’s Legal Adviser Haddy Dande Njie was concerned at journalists use of the corner.
She was told the American Corner is only providing the space, electricity and internet connection [which was not available] for journalists to do their work.
On Friday, President Yahya Jammeh loss the polls to the opposition candidate Adama Barrow by a margin of 51, 416 votes.
Journalists arrested ahead of election
In the build up to the elections, three journalists were arrested: Bakary Fatty of the State TV, GRTS; Alhagie Manka, a photo journalist; and Yunus S. Salieu of the pro-government Daily Observer newspaper.
Manka and Salieu were detained for taking photos during President Jammeh’s nomination as candidate of the ruling party on November 10.
GRTS Director, Momodou Sabally, was also arrested alongside Fatty. They are still being held beyond the legal limit since November 8, 2016. Under Gambian law, persons arrested and detained must be brought before a court of law within 72 hours.