Thousands of people thronged the streets of Banjul on Wednesday in a peaceful protest against the murder of one of the Gambia's leading journalists by unidentified gunmen.
About 300 journalists - virtually the entire press corps of this small West African country - marched through the streets to protest at the killing of Deyda Hydara, a newspaper editor and veteran campaigner for press freedom, who was shot dead last week.
Thousands of people lined the route of the march shouting slogans of support, but they refrained from joining the march after the police made clear that non-journalists would be prevented from taking part in the demonstration.
Hydara, the editor of the Gambia’s hard-hitting four-times-a-week newspaper, The Point, was shot three times in the head on the night of 16 December when the car in which he was travelling came under fire. He died instantly. Two female colleagues who were travelling with him in the same vehicle were wounded.
Gambian police said Saturday they were following all leads in the murder but were still waiting for "a breakthrough".
“We called today’s march in protest against the murder of our colleague Deyda Hydara and we are very happy that it passed off peacefully,” Demba Jawo, who heads the Gambia Press Union, told IRIN.
There was a large deployment of police and heavily-armed soldiers in Banjul as the protesters marched by wearing T-shirts bearing the portrait of the slain editor and waving posters with his photo.
One placard said “Freedom of the press is a basic right,” while another read “Who killed Deyda?”
The marchers handed in letters to the headquarters of the police and Interior Ministry. Asked about their contents, Jawo said: "Weare demanding that the security forces take action to stop these kinds of brutal attacks against journalists which have been going on for a long time and have finally culminated in the murder of one of our members."
The government has condemned Hydara's murder and has pledged to find those responsible.
However, human rights groups and international press freedom watchdogs have repeatedly accused President Yahya Jammeh of intimidating the media and clamping down on press freedom. And privately, many journalists suspect that thugs with connections to his government may have been responsible for the killing.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists noted in an open letter to Jammeh that Hydara's death and the recent enactment of draconian new press laws "come against the background of violent attacks against independent journalists and media outlets in the Gambia."
Last April, unidentified gunmen burned down the printing press of another outspoken newspaper, The Independent, for the second time in six months. No-one has so far been arrested for that arson attack, nor for an earlier attempt to burn the newspaper's presses in October 2003.
Hydara, 58, wrote strongly worded editorials in The Point critical of the new press laws, which were passed by parliament last week.
One makes all press offences, including libel, punishable by imprisonment of up to six months for a first offence and three years for repeat offenders.
The other law makes operating licences for private newspapers and radio stations five times as expensive as before. Owners now have to sign a bond worth 500,000 dalasis (US$ 17,000), and use their homes as collateral.
Leonard Vincent, head of the Africa service of the France-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), said Hydara was the "impetus" behind an open letter sent by RSF to President Jammeh, urging him not to sign the two bills into law.
He was murdered a day after the RSF letter was despatched to the Gambian leader, a former army lieutenant who came to power in a 1994 coup.
Besides editing The Point, Hydara was the Gambia correspondent of the French news agency AFP and RSF’s local man in Banjul.