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Gambia: Commonwealth secretary general urged to help "save The Point"

 - Tuesday 10 March 2009.

Reporters Without Borders has called on the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma(photo), to intervene with President Yahya Jammeh to immediately halt the Gambian authorities’ hounding of the country’s last independent daily newspaper and its editor.

Editor of The Point, Pap Saine, is to go on trial on 11 March for “publishing and distributing false information” and “obtaining personal documents on the basis of false statements”.

Mr Kamalesh Sharma Secretary general Commonwealth London - United Kingdom

Paris, 4 March 2009

Dear Secretary General,

Reporters Without Borders, an international organisation that defends press freedom, would like to share with you its very deep concern about harassment by the Gambian authorities of the independent daily The Point, and to draw your attention to the plight of its editor, Pap Saine.

Pap Saine was charged with “publishing false information” and appeared before a court in Kanifing, about ten kilometres from Banjul, on 4 February 2009. His trial was adjourned and the journalist, who pleaded not guilty, was bailed in the sum of 50,000 dalasi (about 1,800 euros). The authorities charged him in connection with an article the newspaper carried on 30 January headlined “Gambian diplomat arrested and taken to Mile Two [prison]”. Police, who arrested him, demanded that Pap Saine divulge the source of his information, which he categorically refused to do. The editor appeared in another case on 24 February in which he was accused of “obtaining personal documents on the basis of false statements”. This charged that the journalist was in fact Senegalese and fraudulently obtained a Gambian birth certificate and ID card.

These absurd and baseless accusations have the sole aim of stepping up pressure on the editor of The Point, who is also correspondent in Gambia for the Reuters news agency. A new trial, to hear these two cases, is scheduled for 11 March.

A group of police officers, led by Inspector Kebba Fadera made three visits to the offices of The Point on 20 February in an unsuccessful attempt to force the newspaper’s reporters to reveal their sources of information.

We remind you that pressure against this newspaper is nothing new. Former editor of The Point, Deyda Hydara, associate and childhood friend of Pap Saine, was shot dead at the wheel of his car as he drove staff home on 16 December 2004. This terrible murder, that remains unpunished despite the fact that there are serious suspicions against the security services surrounding the president, Yahya Jammeh, constituted a turning point for the Gambian press which has since had to live in a permanent climate of fear.

The international community and the Commonwealth cannot remain silent in the face of this unhappy situation that could mean the closure of Gambia’s last independent daily newspaper and the gagging of voices providing the people with information other than the regime’s propaganda.

That is why we are asking you to intervene with President Yahya Jammeh to secure an immediate halt to the hounding of The Point. The Gambian authorities should also publicly promise to respect the freedom and guarantee the safety of Pap Saine and his staff.

In the light of the seriousness of the situation, we are relying on the strength of your commitment and the speed of your response.

Yours sincerely,

Jean-François Julliard Secretary General