Somebody said that immediately on attaining power each dictator suppresses all free speech except his own. And President Jammeh of Gambia is no exception. He may be considered by some as a fool or even a rogue president, but in reality he can be painfully brutal and ruthless and don’t usually hesitate to declare his opponents guilty even before a court can hear their cases. He has on many occasions professed his hatred of journalists, in particular those who are brave enough to write about his dreadful record on human rights.
The latest to be targeted is Ndey Tapha Sosseh, former president of the union of journalists, the Gambian Press Union. She was charged last week with treason and sedition, accusations that may carry a sentence of 25 years in prison or even the death sentence. We take these ludicrous charges seriously but they don’t stand to scrutiny and bear all the hallmarks of a desperate president using all manners of artifice and trickery to witch-hunt journalists.
Last Friday, human rights defenders in many countries organised activities to expose what President Jammeh is doing to his citizens on a day he commemorates every year as “freedom day” in a sham and cynical act of deceit. In reality this is the anniversary of the day he took power by force. And while he celebrates freedom day, the whole world knows there is no freedom in the Gambia where its citizens, journalists in particular, are routinely subject to unfair trials, arrests, and targeting by security agencies.
I participated in a news conference in Abuja, Nigeria, to pledge support on behalf of the global community of journalists for our colleague Ndey Tapha Sosseh (see picture ©Samuel Adeko, Punch Nigeria, Ndey is on the right). President Jammeh would never forgive Ndey for the brave and defiant campaign she coordinated two years ago to free the seven journalists who were grabbed in June 2009 and sentenced to jail for publishing what he claimed was seditious material. The international outcry was so wide and so powerful that he was forced to release them a few months later.
Nor would he forget that Ndey and her union would not stop campaigning for justice in the case of two of its members – Deydra Hydara, former editor of The Point newspaper, killed in 2004 allegedly by security operatives – and Daily Observer journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh – a victim of enforced disappearance for many years now.
So now he is going for her. But what he has forgotten is that she is not alone. Hundreds of organisations all over the world are fully aware of her fighting spirit and her determination to defend free journalism, and would not hesitate a second to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. Hours after we heard about the charges, we are making urgent preparations to assemble the mother of all coalitions, including journalists’ trade unions, labour centres, human rights advocacy groups, freedom of expression organisations to defend Ndey and force him to drop the charges.
Somebody else said that a dictator must fool all the people all the time and there’s only one way to do that, he must also fool himself. And this is what Jammeh is doing right now.