by Sanna Camara
Independent media is the Gambian population’s last bastion of defense against tyranny and suppression. This form of media first developed after in 1888, after the European division of the kingdoms of the coastal West African region. It was designed to give a voice to a group of people, later known as Gambians. In short, the country’s freedom from colonialism is intricately linked to the history of its media, particularly the independent media. Perhaps it is this history that has continued to haunt the country’s fourth estate even today.
Edward Francis Small, the father of The Gambia’s independence, was both a journalist and a trade unionist. Small also founded, edited, and published The Gambia Outlook and The Senegambia Reporter. The Gambia Native Defense Union, which, according to the August 7, 2007 recount by Foroyaa newspaper, attacked the “blatant flaws” in the administration of the colonial government and campaigned on issues of importance for the citizens of Bathurst, leading to his exile in Senegal.
In its 2014 Report, Freedom House argued that Gambia’s reputation as a serious offender of press freedom and freedom of expression was solidified in 2013. A mix of new legislation, ongoing harassment of the independent press, and arrests combined to increase the state’s control of an already weak media sector, it stated.
President Yahya Jammeh continued to ignore calls for accountability regarding past cases of murder and abuse targeting journalists.
The U.S.-based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the December 2004 murder of veteran journalist and press freedom activist Deyda Hydara “fueled mounting fears among journalists and punctuated a year marked by arson attacks, threats, and repressive legislation aimed at the independent media…”
Hydara, the managing editor and co-owner of The Point and a leading opponent of a restrictive new legislation, was shot in the head on the night of Dec. 16 by unidentified assailants while he drove home from his office in the capital, Banjul. To date, no one has been charged with the crime.
His murder drew condemnation from journalists across Africa and prompted a one-week news blackout by the local independent press. About 300 Gambian journalists – virtually the entire press corps – marched through Banjul in protest.
“The killing left the nation’s independent media shaken. The Point was not operating at year’s end. Abdoulie Sey, editor-in-chief of The Independent, a critical bi-weekly newspaper, resigned because his family feared for his life,” CPJ said. At the time, other media owners told CPJ that their staff members were considering doing the same.
Adding to the accounts of abuse, in April of 2004, six hooded gunmen burst into The Independent’s printing press, firing shots in the air and ordering staff to lie on the ground. One of the intruders then set fire to the newspaper’s new printing press. It was completely destroyed.
In a July 23, 2000, statement, Jammeh himself warned that “anybody bent on disturbing the peace and stability of the nation [would] be buried six feet deep.” And on August 2, 2000, CPJ quoted presidential advisor Fatoumata Jahumpa Cessay as saying that the government’s brusque treatment of the local press was “suitable” for The Gambia.
Cessay charged that independent Gambian journalists were being “spoon-fed” by the opposition and by “human rights organisations in the United States, Germany, and other countries.”
“People are afraid to write, people are afraid to speak… and I think even though things have improved, there is that residual fear in people leading to self-censorship,” Sheriff Bojang, the current Minister of Information, said in a Gambia Press Union produced advocacy video documentary in 2012.
That same year, Bojang’s young media establishment, The Standard, was re-opened for the second time within two years of its founding. It was closed again that October, along with The Daily News, amid the controversy over Jammeh’s decision to execute nine death row prisoners in that year.
Today, The Standard is open again, while The Daily News remained closed till today. Bojang has become the government’s chief propagandist, defending the very crimes he was a victim of. In June, Bojang attempted to defend the government’s human rights record as indicted by the U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights Report.
“It is very rich for the United States to preach to The Gambia about human rights issues and violence against women. As a reply, there is nothing more apt than the biblical quotation: ‘You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7.5‘,” he was quoted as saying in The Standard newspaper, which was previously revered for its independent reporting but now has turned into an outlet for government propaganda.
A diplomat, who responded off-the-record to Bojang’s statement, told the Gambia Beat blog: “Honestly, the response wasn’t surprising. It’s, in my opinion, easier to deflect than to address any real concerns. And that’s what his response was. It’s just still hard to believe that that ‘stuff’ is coming from Sheriff’s mouth. But, that’s his job now. So what can we say?”
When the President made sarcastic and provocative remarks against the slain journalist on national television, the local press union reacted swiftly. As a result, members of its executive board– including a mother of a two-month-old infant – and media chiefs who published the union’s statement were all arrested and arraigned before the courts on charges of sedition. They were speedily prosecuted and imprisoned amid international outcry.
In an online conversation over media freedom in The Gambia, Sidi Sanneh, former Gambian diplomat, opined that the media under Jammeh has been “sent to the pillory.” Sanneh expressed doubts whether the media will be any freer than it had been under the thirty-year rule of Dawda Jawara.
As Jammeh orchestrates plans to seek a fifth term in office, The Gambia’s civil society has lost the independent media as a critical voice, with only the hundred Gambian journalists living in exile to fill that crucial role.
A Gambian journalist and blogger, Sanna Camara was teaching assistant at Gambia Press Union School of Journalism. He is currently living in exile.
[Photo courtesy of Sanna Camara]