Escape of a Gambian journalist from ‘prison hospital’ highlights stern realities

By Sanna Camara

Despite fears of kidnapping or death of Gambian radio journalist Alhagie Ceesay, sources have confirmed he has reached safe grounds after a daring escape from sick hospital bed while under prison custody.

Alh Ceesay
Ceesay is currently on safe grounds after 9 month incarceration in Banjul

Ceesay, manager of independent FM broadcaster Teranga FM, has been remanded in state central prisons since July last year. He was twice abducted by Gambia’s secret police and faces six charges against him since July 2015.

“The journalist is suffering from rare kidney disease that requires specialist medical attention. However, the state is using charges against him to deny him bail, access to family and medical attention,” human rights campaigners have complained.

Independent news analysis and translation

Teranga FM is a leading independent FM broadcaster in The Gambia. It prides itself with independent news analysis and translation into local languages, civic education and political talk shows. This has made it different from over two dozen “gagged” radio stations.

“For this [editorial stance], it has been targeted for closure a number of times by government, even without court orders,” a political analyst indicated. Despite frantic efforts by local press union, lawyers, rights groups and Ceesay’s family, authorities in Banjul have managed to deny him bail since his arrest last year.

Sheriff Bojang protesting for press freedom
Sheriff Bojang, Jammeh’s Information Minister marched with colleague journalists in demanding press freedom in 2013

At the time of his escape, fears intensified that Ceesay may succumb to his sickness as he was rushed to the hospital twice in the week before. He also continued to be denied specialist medical attention by authorities.

This explains why the two prison guards on duty were held responsible and immediately arrested. The national television broadcast news of Ceesay’s escape from custody and warned the public against giving him any form of help. He was considered a fugitive on the run….

Hatred and disaffection against president…

The young journalist faces charges based on allegations that he had distributed pictures of a gun pointed at President Yahya Jammeh by mobile phone “with the intention to raise discontent, hatred and disaffection amongst the inhabitants of the Republic of The Gambia.”

However, his actual troubles with the law started when his radio station went against warnings not to play a song by rap activist Killa Ace. This song was deemed critical of President Jammeh hence the rapper himself fled to exile upon releasing the song using SoundCloud.

Media Chiefs march for press freedom
Gambia’s independent media never relented in the fight for press freedom

Jammeh’s 22 years’ leadership in the tiny West African country is fraught with unorthodox ways of silencing critical voices. Reporters Without Borders dubbed him “predator of press freedom” while Article 19 considers Gambia a worse case of suppressing freedom of expression in Africa.

Calls for release of journalist ignored

About a month earlier, two US senators, Richard Joseph Durbin of Illinois and Patrick Joseph Leahy of Vermont wrote to the West African dictator, urging him to release Ceesay.

Their letter came barely a month after over 36 other freedom of expression organizations from across Africa and the globe also petitioned President Jammeh to release Ceesay.

On August 27 2015, the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions wrote to President Jammeh to explain the circumstances surrounding Ceesay’s detention. Notwithstanding, the government has failed to respond to any of these.

Such an attitude of the Gambian president towards journalists in general, and Ceesay in particular has raised eyebrows in some quarters that the young journalist was being targeted for death…

It also sends a signal to other radio stations not to try broadcasting anything critical of the regime, especially in the run up to the December presidential elections, an young activist said.

 

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