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The Courageous Six

Sep 7, 2009, 5:53 AM

Pap Saine, Sam Sarr, Sarata Jjabbi-Dibba, Ebrima Sawaneh, Pa Modou Faal and Bai Emil Touray have all had their names enshrined in history as free expression martyrs. Between 15 June and 3 September 2009, their commitment and resilience were put to the test - and they have proved that they have what it takes to be journalists. On Monday 15 June, they were arrested and detained at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Four days later (Thursday 18 June), they were taken before Magistrate Sainabou Wadda-Ceesay of the Kanifing Magistrates' Court, who remanded them at the Mile Two Central Prison until Monday 22 June. On that Monday, they were granted bail, and the case was adjourned until Tuesday 7 July. For some inexplicable reason, the case was transferred to the High Court in Banjul. So on Friday 3 June, the six journalists appeared before Justice Joseph Wowo who nullified their bail and had them remanded again at the Mile Two Central Prison until Monday 6 July. It was then that they were granted bail again. 

The trial then got underway. The courtroom was packed, with people jostling for seats at each sitting. It had all the essentials of high drama: characters, action, conflict and dénouement. The spectators rooted for the accused persons and their defence team to carry the day. But the prosecution proved that it was no pushover. The undercurrent of tension between the defence team and the presiding judge was palpable, eventually resulting in the case being handled by another judge - Justice Olusegun Fagbenle. Under Justice Fagbenle, the trial was held in an open court, unlike Justice Wowo who insisted on holding it in camera for "the security of The Gambia", as he put it.

Both the defence and the prosecution had their days in court. Brilliant and talented, Mr Lamin S. Camara and his team put up a spirited defence on behalf of the six journalists. And Sam Sarr, who defended himself, stunned the presiding judge and the Director of Public Prosecutions with his integrity and ingenuity. Expectations were high as we looked forward with optimism to judgment day, which was fixed for Wednesday 5 August. But it was postponed until the next day. 

As early as 7 o'clock in the morning of Thursday 6 August, the Court Complex was already swarming with people, eager to know the verdict. And there were armed riot police milling around. The spectators defied the sweltering heat to hear out the judgment. Justice Fagbenle found the six journalists guilty on all six counts of conspiracy, sedition and defamation. And after an interval of one hour ten minutes, he sentenced them to a heavy fine and a two-year jail term. It was a decisive moment for journalism. The six journalists shrugged their shoulders and walked into jail with their heads unbowed and spirits unbroken. Twenty-nine days later (Thursday 3 August), they were granted presidential pardon.

We salute the courage of the six journalists for the personal sacrifices they have made for the success and survival of free expression. If courage is "grace under pressure", then the six journalists have demonstrated that they have it in abundance. Throughout their ordeal, they never showed bitterness; instead, they accepted their plight as an occupational hazard.

The whole saga should be taken as a point for departure for journalism in The Gambia, opening up the possibility of better relations between the government and the independent media based on dialogue and mutual trust. "The [Gambia Press] Union has and will continue to make efforts, as partners in development, to engage the Gambia Government and security institutions with a view to ensuring media laws reforms, improved media/security relations and to improve the status and welfare of journalists." This statement by Bai Emil Touray, Secretary-General of the Gambia Press Union, is instructive. Media law reforms, for instance, will enable journalists to be more active and effective as partners in development.

Once again, we heartily congratulate the six journalists for taking journalism to the next level.

"I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who overcomes his enemies." ARISTOTLE