By AA Jallow
PEN Gambia Centre, has called on the Gambia government to investigate the death of Omar Barrow, news editor with the privately-owned Senegalese radio station SUD FM, Ebrima B. Manneh of the Daily Observer, and Deyda Hydara, co-founder, and editor of The Point Newspaper.
PEN Gambia, the center of PEN International made the call through its EMPTY Chair at a daylong, its first Inter Senior Secondary School debate among various schools within the Greater Banjul Area and West Coast Region on Tuesday.
Addressing the gathering, PEN Gambia explained that Barrow was shot dead on April 10 2000 by a uniformed member of the Gambian Army’s anti-riot unit and two bullets hit Barrow in the armpit as he stood inside the Red Cross compound in Kanifing, where he had volunteered as a first-aid medical assistant during a violent student demonstration. Barrow was pronounced dead around 2 p.m. at Banjul’s Royal Victoria Hospital. He was 28.
The students were protesting the alleged murder of one of their numbers by a local fire department employee, and the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by a police officer. PEN Gambia called on the Government to investigate Barrow killing after 23 years.
Following the public outcry over the killings, the government ordered a Commission of Inquiry and instituted a coroner’s inquest. The Commission’s findings, submitted to the Government in September 2000, have not been made public. However, selected elements were revealed in the government’s response in January 2001.
The Commission of Inquiry found that security force officers were responsible for the deaths and injuries of the students and others, and recommended their prosecution. It also recommended that student leaders could be prosecuted for their role in organizing the demonstration. In response to these findings, the government announced that it would not prosecute anyone, stating; ‘The Government is of the view that the spirit of reconciliation will be further strengthened and enhanced by its decision not to prosecute anyone, be it a student or otherwise.
The Government rejected findings relating to the responsibility of members of the security forces. However, it strongly condemned the activities of the student leaders and underlined their responsibility for their unrest.
‘This selectivity undermines the spirit of the Commission of Inquiry. The Government must take seriously all the Commission’s findings and proceed with its recommendations,’ Amnesty International said.
Ebrima B. Manneh was a Gambian journalist who was arrested in July 2006 and secretly held in custody. In March 2019, local newspapers reported that Manneh died in mid-2008 while being taken from a police station to the Diabugu Batapa hospital.
PEN Gambia is asking the reason behind Manneh’s arrest and if he was late where he was buried and why his case is not yet investigated to know who killed him.
Deyda was a co-founder and primary editor of The Point, newspaper, and also a correspondent for both AFP News Agency and Reporters Without Borders for more than 30 years. Hydara also worked as a Radio presenter in the Gambia at Radio Syd during his early years as a freelance journalist. He also served as President of the Gambia Press Union.
Hydara was an advocate of press freedom and a fierce critic of the government of then-President Yahya Jammeh, who was openly hostile to Gambian journalists and the media. On December 14, 2004, the Gambia passed two new media laws. One, the Criminal Code (Amendment) Bill 2004, allowed prison terms for defamation and sedition; the other, the Newspaper (Amendment) Bill 2004, required newspaper owners to purchase expensive operating licenses, registering their homes as security.
Hydara announced his intent to challenge these laws, but on December 16, was assassinated by gunmen while driving home from work. He was posthumously awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2005.
In testimony of Lt Malick Jatta before the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission, TRRC, at a public hearing on July 22, 2019, Jatta said that Hydara was shot on the orders of Jammeh. The reason for his killing was not revealed by Jatta and those that killed him are not prosecuted by the government and are moving freely.
However, PEN Gambia is calling for justice for Hydara and the prosecution of those that openly admit his killing.
In his opening remark, the Executive Director of PEN Gambia Centre, Musa S. Sheriff gave an overview of the organization, which he said aimed at promoting debate and a culture of reading in schools.
“PEN International Centre is ready to work with schools, writers, and artists for the promotion of freedom, justice, and literature. But for now, in the Gambia, we want to focus on literature to bring back the culture of reading. The evolution of technology has changed the culture of reading when students used to go to the national library to take books to read. So the intervention of PEN Gambia is to go back to those years of reading culture,” Mr. Sheriff noted.
For his part, the President of the Writers Association of the Gambia and the Vice Chancellor of the International Open University, Dr. Cherno Barry gave a powerful message of encouragement and advised the students entreating them to adopt the culture of reading.
Dr. Barry also remembered the late fallen defenders of freedom and justice like the late co-proprietor of The Point newspaper, Dedya Hydara who was gunned down for defending the freedom of expression, the late radio journalist, Omar Barrow who was also killed during the April 2000 student’s demonstration and journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh who was arrested by state agents for publishing a story critical of the Jammeh regime
The academician also urged the students to develop a high sense of respect and tolerance for cultural diversity, noting that this cannot be achieved without reading.