The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) welcomes the release of journalist, Alhagie Bora Sisawo of online news media Kerr Fatou, and calls on the Gambian authorities to take steps to stop the country’s slide into repression.
After 7 days in police custody, Sisawo was released on October 10, 2023, on the orders of Justice Ebrima Jaiteh, who cited the constitutional limit of 72 hours for detention.
Sisawo was detained on October 4, 2023, after he responded to police summons to report at the Kairaba Police Station. The journalist was told his bail in connection with an earlier arrest, has been revoked. And the police proceeded to seize his mobile phone, according to his media house.
Alhagie Bora Sisawo was first arrested on August 13, 2023, for comments he made about President Adama Barrow, the Inspector General of Police Abdoulie Sanyang, and the military coup in Niger. He was granted bail on August 15, 2023.
The reasons for Sisawo’s re-arrest are unknown. However, it occurred within 24 hours of President Adama Barrow’s declaration that individuals facing charges could be rearrested, even if granted bail by a court of law. The President made this statement during the opening of his party’s regional office in Jarra Soma, some100 km from the capital, Banjul. He also labeled the main opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP) as a national security threat.
Sisawo had allegedly justified coups against “undemocratic and self-centered African governments.” The journalist had also criticised the arrest of Senegalese citizens protesting against visiting President Macky Sall, while condemning The Gambia’s Inspector General of Police (IGP) and President Barrow for the arrests in The Gambia.
However, the arrest and continuing harassment of the journalist is not isolated; it follows a pattern of state crackdown on dissent reminiscent of the heady days of ex-dictator Yahyah Jammeh’s brutal rule. Barely a month after Sisawo’s arrest in August, opposition activists Modou Sabally and Bayo Sonko were detained on September 15, 2023. Sabally, the campaign manager for the UDP, was detained after he published critical remarks on social media about the country’s Police Intervention Unit (PIU). The remarks followed the fatal shooting of two police officers. Sabally’s co-detainee, Sheriffo Bayor Sonko, for his part, was charged with threatening a public officer with violence.
Addressing the media at the UDP headquarters in Manjai, Banjul, the party leader Ousainu Darboe, accused the police of doing the bidding of the governing party. He backed his accusation with the fact that the UDP members were summoned only two days after Ousman Rambo Jatta, a member of the ruling coalition and consular officer at the Embassy of Gambia in South Africa, publicly urged the police to arrest them.
And barely a week after the two political activists were incarcerated, a second journalist found himself entangled in the dragnet of the police. on September 20, 2023, the Police Anti-Crime Unit detained Bakary Mankajang, founder of Mankajang Daily, after the journalist responded to a call to report to the Fajikunda police station in Banjul. The arrest was allegedly in connection with a report the journalist had produced on police operations in the restless Casamance region of Senegal, where two officers had been killed.
The detentions continued for the third month, with human rights advocate Madi Jobarteh falling victim on October 9, 2023. Jobarteh was summoned by the police on October 6, 2022, over his posts on social media, and was arrested at his home, three days later despite informing the police that he could not honour their invitation because he was unwell. The activist spent two days in detention was released on bail bond on October 11, 2023, while on hospital bed under police supervision. He was charged with three counts of “seditious intention”, “incitement to violence” and “false publication and broadcasting.”
It was the second time in recent times that Jobarteh was targeted by state actors. In 2022, President Barrow threatened the activist on national television. He accused the activist of seeking to set the country on fire, asked the public to be careful of him and suggested that media organisations that offer him their platforms are harming the country. “My Government should take a stand on him,” the President said.
The MFWA calls on Gambian authorities to drop all charges against individuals detained solely for expressing their opinions or fulfilling their journalistic duties. The Gambian media and civil society played a critical role in fighting and finally getting rid of the autocratic regime of Yahyah Jammeh. They did so at the risk of arbitrary imprisonment, forced disappearances, threats on their lives and the lives of their relatives and even death.
President Barrow’s government, therefore, owes the Gambian people the solemn responsibility to preserve their hard-won liberties. As a country in transition, The Gambia needs to build consensus and national cohesion through tolerance of all shades of opinions.