Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned what it says is the arbitrary closure of three radio stations by Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) just two weeks before President-elect Adama Barrow is due to take office if outgoing President Yahyah Jammeh finally decides to surrender power peacefully.
NIA officers visited the three stations – Hilltop Radio, Afri Radio and Teranga FM – on 1 January and verbally ordered them to stop broadcasting. They said the order came from their NIA superiors but they gave no reason for the decision and showed no official document.
Sources contacted by RSF said none of the three stations had broadcast content liable to upset the authorities in recent days. Hilltop Radio and Afri Radio are entertainment stations with no news programmes. Teranga FM used to broadcast press reviews in the Gambian vernacular until banned from continuing.
After Barrow, the opposition candidate, was declared the winner of the presidential election held on 1 December, most Banjul radio stations gave airtime to his jubilant supporters. President Jammeh initially accepted his defeat but later retracted and is now disputing the result.
Emil Touray, the head of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), said the closures represented the start of a major crackdown on freedom of expression. But the closures have not as yet had the expected result, inasmuch as several radio stations covered yesterday’s opposition news conference live.
“These arbitrary closures are extremely worrying just days ahead of an important date for Gambian democracy, and are part of a broader climate of attacks on democratic freedoms,” RSF editor-in-chief Virginie Dangles said. “We urge the authorities to reopen these stations at once and to stop clamping down on freedom of expression and information.”
Teranga FM was previously closed in 2012. Its manager, Alagie Ceesay, was arrested in July 2015 for circulating a photo critical of President Jammeh. His health deteriorated after several months in prison and he was transferred to a hospital, from which he managed to escape. He now lives in hiding.
President Jammeh, who is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators, has ruled Gambia since 1994, imposing a climate of fear that permeates all levels of society and forces journalists to censor themselves if they want to continue working.
The murder of RSF correspondent Deyda Hydara, who was shot dead at the wheel of his car in Banjul in 2004, has never been solved. Another journalist, Chief Ebrimah Manneh, disappeared while in detention in 2006. The authorities continue to deny that they were holding him.
Since Jammeh’s retraction of his initial acceptance of Barrow’s victory, observers fear an increase in repressive measures in the run-up to the date when Barrow is scheduled to be sworn in as the new president.
Gambia is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.