The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is gravely concerned about the continued illegal, arbitrary closure of the Citizen FM radio station in Banjul, The Gambia.
For more than two years now, the government of President Yahya Jammeh has stopped the Citizen FM from broadcasting on a false claim that the proprietor has not paid his taxes and license fees. The accusation is a blatant fabrication. The station has neither been charged to court, nor been ordered by any court to cease broadcasting, on this accusation by the authorities.
It appears the President’s office has determined to stop this particular station for motives nobody – except the government – knows. The station and its owner have been harassed and attacked with impunity since it was established.
More than five years ago, armed security personnel raided and forcibly shut down the Citizen FM radio station. On Thursday, February 5, 1998, the proprietor of Citizen FM, Baboucar M. Gaye, was arrested together with his news editor, Ebrima Sillah, and detained for several days at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) in Banjul following a news item broadcast on the station the previous night. The news item had allegedly implicated an officer at the NIA, Lamin Jobarteh, in an alleged counterfeit scandal. Jobarteh exercised his constitutional right to a rejoinder and his reaction was given the requisite publicity on the radio and in print.
But two days later, on February 7, 1998, the station was forcibly closed down and armed guards stationed on the premises. Baboucar Gaye was charged to court under a 1913 telegraphic law for allegedly operating a radio station without a valid licence, a charge he denied. (The 1913 Act is an archaic colonial law passed before radio broadcasting was invented).
However, on August 28, 1998, a Magistrate Court ruled that the station and its equipment be forfeited to the state. On April 17, 2000, after two years of protracted litigation, a High Court in Banjul heard Mr. Gaye’s appeal. Justice Wallace Grant, Judge of the High Court of the Gambia, quashed the earlier ruling by the Magistrate Court and ordered the Inspector General of Police to return the station’s equipment within seven days.
According to Justice Grant, Gaye was convicted under a colonial legal relic which, measured against the Gambia’s legal regime today, was “not known in law.”
Following the court ruling, the station resumed operation for a brief period and was shut down again by the security operatives on an allegation of non-payment of taxes. Mr. Gaye has denied this and has proof of compliance with the regulations.
The refusal of the Gambia authorities to comply with the High Court ruling is a worrying testament of the intolerant and authoritarian posture of President Yahya Jameh’s government. It is a threat to media freedom and freedom of expression in The Gambia.
The MFWA calls on the government of President Jameh to hands off Citizen FM, and demonstrate a respect for the rule of law and media freedom in the The Gambia.