Is the Prisoner From Gambia a Persecuted Journalist or an Impostor?

Journalists wage two-year battle to free Bubacarr Ceesay from prison, incarcerated for being illegal infiltrator; Ceesay claims fled persecution for being journalist in native Gambia.

So is Bubacarr Ceesay a courageous investigative journalist who fled his native Gambia because he was threatened by the authorities, whom he had criticized? Or is he an impostor, seeking asylum in Israel on the strength of forged press credentials?

For two years, the Jerusalem Journalists Association and the International Federation of Journalists has been waging a legal battle against the Interior Ministry's Refugee Status Department, which believes that Ceesay, who has been held at Saharonim Prison for the past two years, is merely an illegal infiltrator.

Bubacarr Ceesay - Nir Keidar - June 29 2011
Nir Keidar

Journalist and director Vered Berman, who has been tending to his case on behalf of the journalists association, believes he is telling the truth. Over the past year, Berman obtained affidavits, notarized in Gambia, from one of Ceesay's former editors at the Independent News and from other reporters, attesting that he'd been employed at the newspaper, and that the authorities had been harassing its editors and journalists, arrested some of them and brought about the paper's closure five years ago.

His attorney, Yael Katz Mastbaum, filed an appeal with the Petah Tikva District Court yesterday, claiming that the ministry had based its determination that Ceesay was a fraud on, among other things, the fact that searches on Google and Yahoo didn't turn up any articles he had written.

However, she argued, they searched while misspelling the name of the newspaper as "Indipnded" rather than "Independent."

That Ceesay infiltrated from Egypt in 2009 isn't disputed. He claimed he was forced to flee after it became clear the authorities were after him for reporting that Gambian soldiers had beaten up and robbed innocent patrons at a restaurant.

After the article appeared, he got a call from his editor saying that "people" had come to the editorial offices to search for him, while his brother also called to say that police had come to search for him at home.

Within 24 hours he had fled Gambia for Egypt, where he remained for three years before crossing into Israel.

According to Berman, from the time he stood before the Custody Court, which deals with illegal aliens, he has stuck to his story about being a journalist.

The Interior Ministry, however, argued that in addition to finding no evidence of his work, Ceesay could not remember the name of the journalism school where he would have had to study for three months to be certified as a journalist.

Berman and Katz Mastbaum insist that the Interior Ministry has never properly investigated Ceesay's background, yet it refuses to recognize his press card or the letter from his former editor as genuine. In the appeal filed yesterday, Katz Mastbaum demanded the investigation into his background be reopened.

"Should a search on Google and Yahoo with a misspelled name determine someone's fate?" asked Berman.

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority reiterated that they had found no evidence Ceesay has ever been a journalist, and denied that his fate had been determined by a misspelled web search.

"The work of the [status] unit and evaluations of requests for asylum are not conducted with Google listings, and those kind of arguments aren't serious," it said.