Magazine article New African

Dying to Speak the Truth: The Brutal Murder of One the Gambia's Most Prominent Journalists at the End of Last Year Drew International Condemnation for a Country Once Lauded for Its Press Freedom. Yet as Sheriff Bojang Jnr Reports, the Killing Comes Just Days after the Endorsement by Parliament of Significantly Tighter and More Restrictive Media Laws

Magazine article New African

Dying to Speak the Truth: The Brutal Murder of One the Gambia's Most Prominent Journalists at the End of Last Year Drew International Condemnation for a Country Once Lauded for Its Press Freedom. Yet as Sheriff Bojang Jnr Reports, the Killing Comes Just Days after the Endorsement by Parliament of Significantly Tighter and More Restrictive Media Laws

Article excerpt

According to Kenneth Best, a renowned Liberian journalist who founded the Daily Observer, the first and only daily newspaper in The Gambia: "There is no foolproof coat that a journalist can wear to prevent him from getting in trouble ... you could still be killed, arrested and beaten up." Mr Best's remarks are born out of experience. Although he may have made these comments a long time ago, their echo continues to reverberate and the principle continues to apply to the media in The Gambia of today.

Late on the evening of 16 December, 2004, the veteran journalist Deyda Hydara was murdered on his way home from the offices of The Point newspaper in the capital Banjul. A courageous and energetic Gambian, Deyda was a man of responsibility and humility, full of vision and purpose. He has been described as the perfect gentleman who loved his country and sacrificed much for the sake of press freedom and the truth. Co-owner and editor of the tri-weekly Point newspaper, Deyda was a founding father of The Gambia Press Union, as well as correspondent for both Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency and Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), an international media watchdog organisation.

The nature of Deyda's untimely death is as mysterious as it is tragic. A few minutes before he was killed, Deyda left his office where he and his staff had gathered to celebrate the paper's 13th anniversary. A few miles into their journey, a car with the licence plates removed, overtook his vehicle and gunmen inside opened fire, Deyda was shot three times in the head and killed instantly. His two female companions sustained severe injuries and were flown to Senegal for treatment.

Journalists and non-media workers alike were shocked by Deyda's brutal murder, which many see as a major blow not only to journalists, but also to the free press and democracy as a whole. People from all walks of life, including government ministers, gathered at Deyda's house and at the funeral to pay their respects. While the police promised to mount a thorough investigation, President Yahya Jammeh in a national television interview denied that his government was involved in the murder in any way. "My government is not interested in killing journalists, but will jail them when they go wrong," he said. He went on to point an accusing finger at what he described as "non-Gambian armed criminals being accommodated by Gambians in their homes". But the big question still remains: Who killed Deyda Hydara? In spite of the state's strong denial, many people are looking towards the authorities with an increasing air of suspicion.

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After the country bid farewell to colonialism and gained independence from Britain in 1965, The Gambia was noted for its press freedom, respect for rule of law and democracy as a whole. As journalism began to develop, a conducive working atmosphere for members of the press developed with the free flow of information from within both the public and private sectors. But that flow of information has now seemingly ceased. Whatever respect there was for journalists has since faded, beginning as far back as the arrest, detention and deportation of Mr Best to his native country a little over 10 years ago.

President Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a coup d'etat in 1994 and was reelected in October 2001, like all other strongmen in Africa and elsewhere has shown that African-style democracy has a deeply troubled relationship with press freedom. Only after succeeding in using the independent media across the country to sell his coup to the international community did the brutalities begin. Deyda was a fearless and vociferous critic of the government and its policies. In particular he was principally opposed to new laws greatly reducing the freedom of the press against which he had written several stinging articles. On 13 December, parliament voted to toughen legislation against privately owned media operators, when members ratified the Newspaper Amendment Act 2004 and the Criminal Code Amendment, the latter of which is another clear manifestation of the government's determination to limit the space for freedom of expression by the independent media. …

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