The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is extremely concerned about the on-going detention of journalist Alhagie Abdoulie Ceesay in The Gambia.
Ceesay was first arrested on July 2, 2015, released on July 13, then rearrested on July 17, for sharing a picture of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh with two people. He has since been in custody. His lawyer also said Ceesay was tortured in police custody.
Days after Ceesay was arrested, he was charged with one count of sedition when he appeared before the Banjul Magistrate court. But when the prosecution later opened another case at a Banjul high court, he was charged with seven counts. According to the particulars of the offence in count one, the charges said that Ceesay, on or about July 17, 2015, “with intent to excite disaffection against the Gambian president, acted with the same seditious intention by publishing and distributing pictures of a gun and five bullets, pointing towards the image of the president and thereby committed an offence.”
In count two, Ceesay is accused of publishing and distributing the said photo with a phrase: “The sniper hereby advises all citizens and non-citizens to stay at their homes on Wednesday the 22nd of July 2015. As our struggle to kick [off] the dog, begins that very day. We are capable of doing anything and it might start from the celebration ground. Please be at your homes for your safety. Signed by the sniper 3, secretary to the group.”
The same statement is repeated under the statement of offence in the other counts, as contrary to sections 52 (A and C) respectively and 59 (1) of the Criminal Code, Cap 10:01, Vol 111 Revised Laws of The Gambia, 2009. Count seven mentions that Ceesay intended to cause fear and alarm, by distributing such statement and photo, knowing that the statement is false.
Following the commencement of the case at the high court on August 18, Ceesay’s lawyer requested bail and the withdrawal of the case from the magistrate court. This was, however, denied by the presiding magistrate.
So far, Ceesay has been denied bail twice by both the magistrate and high court. Most recently, on August 26, 2015, Ceesay again appeared before the high court where he pleaded “not guilty” to charges of sedition and publication of false news levelled against him. The trial judge, Simeon Abu, denied him bail.
The MFWA is deeply concerned about the “untouchability” of President Jammeh. In fact, his reign of impunity is so strong that individuals who even mention his name in jest, like Ceesay, are arrested and prosecuted. The MFWA recalls the case of Mass Kah, an employee of Foroyaa newspaper who asked a friend to paste the picture of President Jammeh in the sky, for which he was arrested and detained for two weeks before being charged.
Throughout the region, criminal defamation and sedition laws—particularly vaguely worded and overly broad “fear and alarm” ones—have a chilling effect on speech and are often used to clampdown on dissent. Although the right to freedom of expression is limited under international law, criminal speech laws like The Gambia’s fall outside the scope of legitimate restrictions of speech. As Africa moves forward in decriminalisation efforts in light of the African Court’s Konaté decision, the MFWA urges Gambian to drop the charges against Cessay and release him and also take steps to repeal or amend criminal speech laws.
The MFWA also calls on ECOWAS to implement sanctions against The Gambia if it continues to violate its specific obligation under the ECOWAS Revised Treaty to respect the rights of journalists.