The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today called on authorities in Gambia to immediately re-open two radio stations closed in the wake of anti-government protests and drop politically motivated charges against their staff.

On Sunday, radio stations Home Digital FM and King FM were raided and shut down by police, who accused both outlets of “broadcasting incendiary” messages and inciting violence in their reporting of the demonstrations, Saikou Jammeh, secretary general of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), told IPI.

Just after noon, a dozen armed officers raided the headquarters of Home Digital FM in the city of Brikama, ordered staff to cease operating immediately and arrested the station’s manager, Pa Modou Bojang, Jammeh said.

Hours later police also raided the Tallinding-based King FM and ordered staff to leave the building immediately, arresting reporters Ebrima Jallow and Madiou Jallow, and manager Gibbi Jallow.

The raids came as security forces in the nearby Gambian capital Banjul used tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to disperse thousands of protesters who were calling on president Adama Barrow to step down.

All four were held behind bars without access to lawyers for over 48 hours, Jammeh told IPI, in what he called an “unlawful” attempt to intimidate media and restrict access to information on the protests.

They were charged with “incitement to violence” and released on bail on Tuesday afternoon, Jammeh added. Both King FM and Home Digital FM have denied airing incendiary material, he said. Both outlets remain sealed off by armed police.

“These closures and arrests are a clear attempt to suffocate news reporting on the protests and constitute a clear attack on media freedom”, IPI Director of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad said. “We call on Gambian authorities to drop the charges against all four staff and to immediately revoke the closure of both Home Digital FM and King FM.”

In a letter to the African Union special rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information, Lawrence Mute, IPI urged the Commission to intervene to secure the release of journalists and allow the two radio stations to be come back on air.

Hopes for democratic transition in jeopardy

Adama Barrow rose to power in the tiny West African country during a hotly contested presidential election in 2017, in which he unseated long-serving president Yahya Jammeh, one of Africa’s most notorious dictators.

During a transitional peace deal with the opposition coalition, Barrow pledged to step down after three years in power. Last year however, he announced his intention to serve the full five-year presidential term, sparking widespread anger which has morphed into episodic street protests under the banner “Three Years Jotna movement” (Three Years Enough).

Over the weekend, protesters again clashed with security forces, leading to the arrest of at least 137 people and the reported deaths of three people.

During the demonstrations on Sunday, protesters also attacked and physically assaulted Sankulleh Janko, a reporter for Dakar-based West Africa Democracy Radio, Jammeh told IPI. The group forcefully took his equipment and mobile phone, he added.

Earlier that day, authorities also revoked the accreditation of Al Jazeera correspondent Nicolas Hague on grounds that the channel demonstrated pro-opposition bias in its reporting.

The GPU called the move against Home Digital FM and King FM as “the most aggressive attack on press freedom” since Barrow assumed office in 2017.

“Yesterday’s attacks bring to memory twenty-years of the brutal repression of the media”, it said in a statement. “The modus operandi of this government bears the hallmark of the tactics used by the former government in its disregard for press freedom and the rule of law.”

Jammeh told IPI the Press Union is preparing to file proceedings in court to have the two radio stations reopened.