(JollofNews) – “Six armed men wearing masks came to the printing works at 2:00 a.m., fired shots into the air, and ordered the employees to lie on the ground. One of them then set fire to the new press…completely destroying it.”

The police didn’t investigate the crime much less arrest the suspects, to one’s surprise.
The incident above sums up Alagi Yorro Jallow’s Delayed Democracy: How Press Freedom Collapsed in The Gambia. The author was a winner of prestigious awards for excellence in journalism, and earned the unenviable distinction of being arrested over a dozen times for his hard-nosed reporting. He was in the main a co-proprietor and the managing editor of the Independent newspaper, and fought with Deyda Hydara against draconian media laws in the country. Forced by death threats into exile in the United States, he studied at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, became a research fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, and is currently a Fulbright scholar teaching at a Bangkok university in Thailand.
Jallow’s book addresses freedom of expression as the cardinal of all freedoms for both journalism and the nation, and gives a comprehensive account of Yahya Jammeh’s despotic response to the idea as well as its application. It also provides a historical overview of media in The Gambia dating back to pre-colonial times, and a running commentary on the troubled story of press freedom in Africa. The colonial laws about the press, Jallow points outs, were decidedly repressive. The British Crown didn’t want the legitimacy of its rule challenged, and so handed down harsh libel, sedition, and other restrictive laws from London to deny their subjects the freedoms and rights to write and speak against colonialism in favor of self-rule. Independence was supposed to change all that, except that it didn’t it. Jawara and his ministers, like governments everywhere, weren’t receptive to the media casting them in a bad light. So they left the oppressive laws in the books and added some of their own.
Jallow’s verdict on Jawara’s thirty years in power is magisterial and unforgiving. The most crucial aspects of democracy, he underscores, were instituted over time and not faithfully. Corruption, impunity, and abuse of the national interest and assets couldn’t be checked, because the system had become too entrenched to dismantle, and it disenfranchised those who should have been empowered to reign it in. The crony state became “too massive, too intimidating, and too powerful,” and therefore rendered the Constitution, the first and final word on the rule of law, dormant. The Parliament had been too enchanted with power to discharge its responsibilities. The fledgeling private media, the only institution outside the direct control of the corrupt and corrupting system, had been shoved aside. A system where the ruling party controlled all the levers of power for self-perpetuation rather than carrying out the nation’s business was bound to produce undesirable elements like Yahya Jammeh as its inheritor.
The coup that brought Yahya Jammeh to power in 1994 coincided with the establishment of several private media outlets. The country’s first daily, the Daily Observer, hit the newsstands about only two years earlier. The Point, a biweekly at the time, was just about three years old. And more papers would come out since, including the New Citizen and the Independent. The lack of journalistic scrutiny Jawara had largely enjoyed wouldn’t be true for the man who seized power on the claim to eradicate “rampant corruption” and institutionalize “accountability, transparency and probity.” He would perceive in the media nothing but mortal enemies. His very first decree suspended the 1970 Constitution, and invalidated every other law that stood contrary to any of his decrees, even the ones that were yet to be conceived and written, leaving the rights and freedoms of every Gambian at the mercy of his diktats. So much for a self-imposed liberator!
We hardly knew his name when it became clear that the usurper had a chronic condition of speaking from both sides of his mouth. The man who claimed to welcome criticisms of his junta’s wrongs would turn out to be as intolerant and vindictive of dissent as any despot that ever wielded power in Africa. He issued Decree No. 4 outlawing all political parties, political assembly, political associations, political expressions, political newspapers, and political anything free people in free countries take for granted. Then he prosecuted Halifa Sallah and Sidia Jatta for publishing Foroyaa as an organ of a political party even though the paper fulfilled every criteria required for a newspaper under the law. Delayed
And for a man who professed that he didn’t hate the press, he would never let up foaming and frothing at the mouth against the media. Just mere months in power, Jallow reminds us, Yahya Jammeh railed at the press thus: “The enemies of African progress, the illegitimate sons of this country disguise themselves in the form of journalists, in the form of freedom fighters, in the form of human rights activists, but they are all illegitimate sons of Africa…You can send them into the streets begging when you don’t buy their newspapers…Don’t allow the mosquito to suck your blood…They talk about Human Rights, an issue they don’t even understand. And I will tell you what Human Rights stand for…a fallacy that is nonexistent anywhere in this world; it is a Western machination to manipulate Africa…If you want to be a donkey, we will treat you like a double donkey. If you want to be a human being, we will treat you like a human being. There is no compromise!”
He barely finished making that dire warning when he deported the Liberian refugee Kenneth Best, the proprietor and editor of the Daily Observer, back to the war-torn country, purportedly for immigration violations. The private media houses, Jallow recalls, were “subjected to frequent visits by tax inspectors, custom and immigration authority, and the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), all looking for illegal immigrants. At one time, immigration personnel were regularly stationed at the gate of the Daily Observer, checking the credentials of anyone entering or leaving. As a result, many non-Gambian journalists were deported or simply left the country.”
In the early part of 1996, the election year to civilian rule, Yahya Jammeh  arrested the editors and publishers of all four private newspapers on the spurious claim that they violated the colonial-era Newspaper Act of 1944 by not submitting the publishing information of their papers on annual basis. The information in question could always be found printed in the back pages of every edition of the respective newspapers. The eight editors and publishers of the Daily Observer, Foroyaa, the New Citizen, and the Point pleaded not guilty and were released on a bond of one thousand (1,000) dalasi each. When the despot didn’t have the case he had hoped, he promulgated new decrees to intimidate the media.
The colonial-era Newspaper Act of 1944, which stipulated the terms of registration, printing and publication of private newspapers, remained almost unchanged until the coup. Having already toughened the conditions, he upped the ante with Decree No. 70 by increasing the penalty for non-compliance with the requirements for the bond under the Act from a fine of one thousand (1,000) dalasis to one hundred thousand (100,000) dalasi. Twelve days later, he issued Decree No. 71 to revoke all existing bonds and prohibit the publication of all private newspapers until they posted new bonds of one hundred thousand (100,000) dalasi within two weeks.
Despite turning himself into a civilian ruler through a very dubious election process, Yahya Jammeh’s abhorrence for the media has never mollified. The harassment and intimidation escalated in the form of arrests, interrogations, detentions, deportations, and torture to scare journalists away from publishing articles he considered “inaccurate” or “sensitive” to national security. He vowed on one of numerous occasions that, “Anybody bent on disturbing the peace and stability of the nation would be buried six feet deep.”
The clampdown wasn’t confined to the newspapers. Take, for instance, the case of Citizen FM Radio founded in 1996 by the veteran journalist Baboucarr Gaye. It became the most popular station in the country for being the only private radio that generated its own news, and for airing major stories in the newspapers in both English and the local languages. Yahya Jammeh might not so much mind that few educated people were reading the private newspapers, Jallow observes, but when those papers were translated on air into the local languages to the general public, the station was bound to stir his fury.
After the proprietor defied his demands to end the program, Mr. Gaye and his staff became frequent targets of arrests and harassments by the National Intelligence Agency. Then, a group of armed soldiers stormed the station and shut it down under the pretext that Mr. Gaye hadn’t paid his operational license fee for that year. He was, lo and behold, charged under the colonial-era Telegraph Act of 1913 for operating a radio station without license. At the end of the protected misdemeanor trial, he was fined three hundred (300) dalasi and ordered to forfeit his broadcasting equipment to the state. Mr. Gaye appealed the ruling.
His victory in the High Court would prove to be temporary. On the night of the 2001 presidential election, the station hosted a live coverage with a team of reporters filing in results from various counting centers, in defiance of the Interior Minister’s warning to the media not to broadcast or publish any results ahead of the official declaration by the Chairman of the electoral commission. The minister ordered the police to take the station off the air. Mr. Gaye was back on the air again but not for long. The National Intelligence Agency arrested and detained him, and sent his staff home on the claim of some tax arrears. Even after he settled all outstanding taxes, the station was never allowed to resume broadcasting.
Another private radio station was given a taste of the despot’s treatment. Radio One FM used to host a popular program called “Sunday News Hour” with a panel of journalists to discuss the issues of the day. One night in 2001, a group of masked arsonists came to burn it down. The proprietor, George Christensen, happened to be present and fought them off at great personal risk. Though he saved his station from getting set ablaze, he sustained burned injuries during the scuffle and had to be admitted to the hospital. And few months prior, Alieu Bah, a journalist at the station, had received a threatening letter to quit before he would be visited with dire consequences. When he defied the threat, his house was torched, and he and his wife and child narrowly escaped the fire, but not without injuries. The police as usual promised thorough investigation, but never apprehended anyone.
Yahya Jammeh ramped up the legal hurdles to further curtail freedom of expression and the press. At his prodding, his lapdog National Assembly passed a Media Commission bill that would make Stalin blushed. The 1997 Constitution mandated “the establishment of a National Media Commission to establish a code of conduct for the media of mass communication and information and to ensure the impartiality, independence and professionalism of the media which is necessary in a democratic society.” This is one of the many flaws in the Constitution on the part of its framers. No government should ever be given an ounce more of power than necessary to keep the people safe and free. Governments are notorious for using  any powers at their disposal, and even more so for abusing those powers to strengthen their own hold on power.
To state the obvious, it’s not the responsibility of governments to ensure the “impartiality, independence and professionalism” of the private media. When they are entrusted to do so, you get the kind of Media Commission Act the likes of Yahya Jammeh could only dream of enforcing. Far from being modeled on the US Federal Communications Commission, which it must be noted isn’t a body to protect press freedom but rather to regulate the media, the National Media Commission was empowered to decree a code of conduct for the private media, set standards for quality and content, and issue rulings on complaints against journalists and media organizations. The Commission was given further powers to basically supplant the courts. Private media organizations as well as individual journalists would be required to register with the Commission for annual licenses, and the Commission would have extrajudicial authority to revoke those licenses, impose fines, issue arrest warrants for journalists, and even send them to prison.
If the media organizations and journalists failed to obtain the annual license, they must be penalized with severe fines or be suspended: three months for media organizations, and nine months for journalists. The Commission also reserved the power to put journalists behind bars for contempt for up to six months. If the regime or any of its bureaucratic branches so much as alleged in a complaint that a journalist or media organization published an official information without authorization or in contravention of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act of 1922, the Commission must compel the journalist or media organization to disclose the source of that information. If the journalist or media organization refused to do so, the Commission must fine, suspend or revoke the license of the journalist or the media organization, imprison the journalist, or impose any combination of these punitive measures.
Rightly considering the Act an autocratic encroachment on their constitutional freedoms, the media staged protests for the National Assembly to repeal the Act, and filed lawsuits for the Courts to strike it down as unconstitutional. The Gambia Press Union and two managing editors, Deyda Hydara of the Point and (the author) Alagi Yorro Jallow of the Independent, were joined by the president of the Press Union Demba A. Jawo and The Gambia News and Report publisher Suwaebou Conateh as the plaintiffs.
About that time, Yahya Jammeh had an interview with the now pro-regime Daily Observer and referred to the media as a “dead and rotten horse.” He accused them of trying to appeal to the international community by reporting lies about him and criticizing his regime. He further lashed out at them for giving more coverage to his opposition, even though he and his officials made a second nature out of declining interview requests, and denying access to official information. When asked in another interview if he had any plans to pay a visit to the private media houses, the despot didn’t disappoint with a characteristic scoff: “You do not need to go to the toilet to know that it stinks.”
While the lawsuit against the Media Commission Act was winding through  the Supreme Court, Yahya Jammeh doubled down on his acerbic screeds and doomsday warnings against the media. Then in October 2003, the Independent office was attacked by four men who climbed over the perimeter wall, hit the security guard unconscious with an iron bar, and set the newsroom on fire. In January 2004, the paper’s managing director, Alagi Yorro Jallow, received a letter from the “Green Boys,” Yahya Jammeh’s paramilitary-style vigilantes, threatening to kill him and destroy the paper for its coverage of the trial of Baba Jobe, who, ironically, as the despot’s confidant and surrogate, had been instrumental in the formation of the semi-official brigade of bandits. These were grave threats, especially after Baba Jobe’s lawyer, Ousman Sillah, was shot in the head in an apparent attempted murder for no other plausible motive than the most obvious: the lawyer might have learned too much from his client about the despot’s criminal chicaneries. In May, Yahya Jammeh warned journalists to “either register with the Commission or go to hell…In fact, the deadline [for registration] should not have been extended. But you give the fool a long rope to hang himself.”
Again, these were not empty threats. As it turned out, 2004 would be the most consequential year for the media in The Gambia. In April, the Independent was attacked again by masked assailants who held up the night crew at gun point and set the new printing press on fire. In July, the despot was on television denouncing journalists for being “bent on character assassination of people,” and claiming that his regime had “provided too much freedom of expression and media rights.” He gave the journalists an ultimatum to abide by his terms or leave the country. As if all that wasn’t enough, the next day he put them on notice anew with a familiar refrain: “I know there are opposition journalists among you but whoever misquotes me I will deal with you.” That same month, Demba A. Jawo, the president of the Press Union, got an anonymous threatening fax to cease and desist from writing critical materials about the regime. On the heels of that incident, arsonists set on fire the house of BBC stringer Ebrima Sillah, who barely escaped with his life.  
When the Supreme Court was set to rule the Media Commission Act unconstitutional, Yahya Jammeh repealed his own draconian law through the National Assembly. No, the despot didn’t just discover his inner libertarian streak; he was only shifting gears. That same day, the National Assembly passed the Newspaper (Amendment) Act of 2004. During the military rule, Decrees No. 70 & 71 increased the bond under the colonial-era Newspaper Act of 1944 from one thousand (1000) dalasi to one hundred thousand (100,000) dalasi. This Amendment raised that sum to five hundred thousand (500,000) dalasi for anyone who wished to exercise their constitutional right to operate a newspaper. The National Assembly passed also the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act of 2004 to further restrict free speech. It categorized for the first time the publication of a “false” statement as a criminal offense. A first-time offender must serve six months minimum in prison without the option of a fine, and a second-time offender must do three years. The maximum fine under Decrees No. 70 & 71 was fifty-thousand (50,000) dalasi. Under the amended law, fifty-thousand (50,000) became the minimum fine and two hundred and fifty-thousand (250,000) the maximum.
Then came the most fateful event of the fateful year on the night of December 16, 2004, when Deyda Hydara, the managing editor of the Point, doyen of the press and fierce critic of the despot, was gunned down while he was driving from work. The assassination was a shocking game changer for the press as well as the entire nation. If Deyda could be murdered in cold blood, no one felt safe anymore. Six months after the shooting, the regime published a report of their “investigation” blaming the victim for the heinous crime. In a dastardly attempt to assassinate Deyda’s character as well, they slandered him as a “serial womanizer,” whose immoral lifestyle provoked his own death.
For Jallow, Deyda’s assassination compelled him into a soul-searching about carrying on being a journalist in The Gambia. He had been arrested over a dozen times in six years. Once for reporting a prison hunger strike, and the other for writing about the despot buying a five-star hotel. During one of the arrests for refusing to disclose the source of his news story, he was stripped naked, and locked up incommunicado in a mosquito-infested and urine-stanched cell for forty-eight hours without access to a lawyer or family members. He contracted pneumonia and malaria as a result. The regime had challenged the legality of his newspaper and even questioned his citizenship as a Gambian along with his co-proprietor Baba Galleh Jallow. They had to endure the indignity of providing the necessary documents to immigration officials to prove that they were lawful citizens, lest they be deported from their own country to a foreign one. And yes, he had received more than his fair share of death threats.
But those past ordeals paled in comparison to the impact the shooting of Deyda had on him. It didn’t help that reliable sources within the Army and other branches of the regime had warned him that he was a target for assassination. One source confided in him that he would have also been shot like Deyda had he been in the country, and not attending a media conference in the United States. Out of fear of losing him, his family insisted that there was only one choice to make. He was inclined to go back to being the managing director and publisher of the Independent to deny the regime a win over truth and openness, but the threats and the mounting pressures forced him to remain in the US.
Despite the international outrage about Deyda’s assassination, the despot’s intolerance for the press continued to increase with time. The Criminal Code Act was again amended in 2005 purposely to target the press and further suppress it from exercising its role to report the news and inform the public. The fine for “false publication” became a minimum of fifty-thousand (50,000) dalasi and a maximum of two hundred and fifty-thousand (250,000) dalasi. And defaulting on the fine would result in one year minimum in prison. The colonial-era laws on defamation, libel and sedition under the Criminal Code Act were also amended to mete out similarly disproportionate sentences. Other laws that were amended as well included the Official Secrets Act of 1922 enacted by the British to punish unauthorized disclosure of official documents. The fine for leaking such documents was increased from one thousand (1000) dalasi to two hundred and fifty (250,000) dalasi, and the jail term from six months to 15 years to life.
A number of journalists have been charged under this Act. A case in point was Lamin Fatty of the Independent. He erroneously included the name of a former minister in a report of alleged coup plotters who had been arrested in 2006. In spite of the paper’s profuse apology to the former minister, the regime arrested Fatty and held him incommunicado for two months. He was then charged under the Criminal Code for publishing “false news.” After a protracted trial due to frequent and frivolous adjournments, he was “found” guilty as charged and ordered to pay the minimum fine of fifty-thousand (50,000) dalasi or serve a year in prison. He was driven to prison, and was only released after the Press Union came up with the money.
Another victim of the Criminal Code in its application to the press was Fatou Jaw Manneh. She traveled from the United States to pay her respects to her father when the despot’s secret police abducted her at the airport. After holding her for a week, they charged her with sedition and giving false information to endanger national security for criticizing the regime on the internet. She was also “found” guilty and ordered to pay the maximum fine of two hundred and fifty-thousand (250,000) dalasi or spend four years in prison. Thanks to her family and friends, and the Press Union, she was able to avoid prison. And another outrageous violation and violence against press freedom was the disappearance and presumed murder of Chief Ebrima Manneh, a reporter with the pro-regime Daily Observer, after his secret arrest by the regime.
While Jallow was settling in the US, his paper continued to face harassments back in The Gambia. In March 2006, the police burst in, arrested the staff and sealed of the office without giving so much as a reason. After brief questioning, two editors and a reporter were held incommunicado, and the rest of the staff were sent home. Three weeks later, the two editors, Musa Saidykhan and Madi Ceesay, were released without charges. The regime informed the paper that the ban had been lifted and it could resume publication. But when the staff returned to work, the police prevented them from entering the office. The Independent had since been closed down with security forces stationed at the building.
When the despot was asked at a press conference about allegations that his regime was responsible for the assassination of Deyda Hydara, he responded: “I do not believe in killing people. I believe in locking you up for the rest of your life. Then maybe, at some point, we will say, ‘Oh he is too old to be fed by the state,’ and we release him and let him become destitute. Then everyone will learn a lesson from him.” Responding to questions about his routine arrests of journalists and unjustified closing down of the Independent, he asserted: “Let me tell you one thing. The whole world can go to hell. If I want to ban any newspaper, I will, with good reasons. This is Africa and this is the Gambia, a country where we have very strong African moral values. If you write, ‘Yahya Jammeh is a thief,’ you should be ready to prove it in a court of law. If that constitutes lack of press freedom, I don’t care.”
In 2009, he arrested six journalists after they issued a statement denouncing him for being dismissive once again of the assassination of Deyda Hydara, and his failure to conduct a thorough investigation to bring the killers to justice. The six journalists were “found” guilty on six counts, including defamation and seditious publication. They were sentenced to four years imprisonment and fined two hundred and fifty-thousand (250,000) dalasi. After loud chorus of international outcry, the despot decided to “pardon” them. That same year, Mr. Abdul Hamid Adiamoh of Today newspaper was also arrested on charges of sedition for publishing a photo of a boy scavenging through a pile of trash.
The incessant measures against the press has made Yahya Jammeh infamous in all the circles that stand for press freedom. The Committee to Protect Journalists  put The Gambia on its list of the ten worst violators of press freedom. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange considered The Gambia one of Africa’s worst places to be a journalist. The Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa compiled a sixty-three-page dossier on the despot’s abuses of press freedom. And Jallow lists about forty journalists who had gone into exile out of fear for their lives or security, and gives a rundown of over 120 instances the regime violated press freedom through arrests, detentions, prosecutions, assaults, torture, deportations, arson attacks, exorbitant fines, imprisonments, newspaper and radio station closures, and murder. These figures would be too bleak for any country, especially a tiny one like The Gambia.
By Jallow’s assessment, Yahya Jammeh’s iniquitous record on press freedom rivaled the likes of North Korea, where rigid state-controlled “television and radio news broadcasts are dominated by flattering reports of the activities of the leader…along with patriotic stories emphasizing national unity.” The Gambia’s political culture, he writes, has taken the turn for the worse with the coup, due to Yahya Jammeh’s strongman mentality that remained hardened even after he shed his military uniform for flowing gowns to assume the appearance of a civilian leader. The change from military ruler to an elected head of state was distinction in style only, without any difference in substance. His attitude toward governance, his mindset about his role and duty, and his total disregard for the rule of law or the constitutional rights and freedoms of the people remain “encased” in the thinking of a power-crazed, absolute authoritarian.
Under the despot’s rule, Jallow expounds, dissent is just another word for sabotage, and public debate must therefore be stifled. All must obey him as the leader, and none must complain about his commands. Popular participation and democratic pluralism are seditious conspiracies. “This is why political plurality is currently alien to the new culture that has emerged from a nation that had the true potential to march on to greater things—by embracing democracy and freedom of the fourth estate as tools for development, stronger stability, and a sense of purpose, but instead denied themselves the opportunities of advancing in a new world, in a new Africa, by waylaying and delaying all that was good and possible.”
Deyda Hydara’s assassination, Jallow points out numerous times, brought a climate of fear in the country that, understandably, forced many journalists into exile or made them much more cautious to exercise self-censorship, but which regrettably led to fewer voices to be critical of the regime. Families of journalists and private media workers, even the families of those who operate the printing presses, pressured their loved ones to refrain from open criticism of the regime and to look for other employments. Any association with the private media has become a dangerous thing.
In that crude and odious sense, the despot might as well bellow and crow that his mission had been accomplished. Silencing the media, Jallow indicates, is a strategic means to a far more consequential end. To ensure that opinions are not aired, questions are not asked, and other ideas do not compete with the despot’s, the channels of mass communication must be shut down. “Killing the messenger will certainly ensure that the message is not delivered. The overall objective of the exercise to silence the media is to prohibit free speech by dismantling the amplifiers of its very basic apparatus.” After the suppression of free speech, the emasculation of the military, and the coercion of the civil service into a partisan puppet, the despot has emerged as the state; and the state, the despot. He fulfilled what Jallow calls hegemonic disposition to power.
The main body of the book started as an academic research in fulfillment of Jallow’s Masters Degree at Harvard. He conducted further research on it as a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Then he worked on it again when he decided to publish it. I should have mentioned from the beginning that he located his theme, and constructed his arguments and analyses on the Enlightenment and Empiricist thinking on the definition and function of freedom of expression. And since the research was academic, the writing conformed to  the convention, including the use of a measured, dispassionate voice. To hazard a guess, that mode of presentation influenced the choosing of the title, “Delayed Democracy.” A less mild-mannered writer might find it more apt to call the reality conveyed in the book, “Aborted Democracy.”
The supplementary part of the book is where we fully encounter Jallow on his own terms. Not the Harvard student or a Washington think tank fellow, but the man and the writer at liberty from academic strictures. Whether he was writing an op-ed piece in the Independent and other platforms, addressing a conference in Nairobi, Edinburgh, New York City, Boston or accepting an award for courageous journalists in Toronto, we get acquainted with the measure of his mind and the depth of his thoughts on the theory and reality of freedom of expression in The Gambia and Africa as a whole. We see the hopeful idealist, the desperate pragmatic and the stubborn advocate at various moments, and sometimes all at once. There’s a moving loftiness even in his grim lament in the Independent in 2003: “Today, the principal weapon is not arbitrary detentions and violent physical attacks on journalists and their press houses. More and more the courts have been coerced into providing the gags and handcuffs.”
He is at his most philosophical in his writings and speeches when he ponders thus: “Is it possible to act courageously as a journalist in The Gambia today? It is true that our experiences—with the murder of our brave friend, Deyda Hydara, the torching of the Independent newspaper’s printing press, the imprisonment and torture and threats that reach us and do not abate—have taught us that there are limits to what we and our family members are able to endure, especially when we are not able to do the work we know is ours to do. As years of intimidation build, stress finds less and less relief, as every possible effort is made to push on and report and publish is exhausted. Nevertheless, when time and time again those efforts are foiled by government intervention, with personal safety threatened, the courage to seek another way, from another place, can become the force of change.”
I must push back on the thrust of his 2004 article “No Longer a Beacon of Hope,” a criticism of the United States about the jailing of the former New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to name her source in a federal leak investigation concerning classified information. He bolsters his contention by quoting a statement of African Editors Forum saluting Miller: “Her courage is a source of inspiration to many editors and journalists in Africa and around the world who live through autocratic rule and suppression of free speech daily…That she is now sitting in jail in what is supposed to be the pinnacle of democracy in the world is both ironic and a testimony to the fact that the struggle for the defense of the right of journalists to do their work freely is universal and knows no boundaries.”
To be fair, the headlines at the time could be very misleading to easily lend a cringing parallel to the persecution journalists in the Third World too often experience. But a closer look at the situation in the context of the byzantine system of American democracy, we can understand why Miller is hardly anyone’s poster girl for press freedom. She wasn’t sent to jail by the White House to force her to betray a source that exposed the Administration. An Independent Prosecutor investigating the White House for leaking the identity of an undercover CIA agent, a federal crime, for political vendetta, put her behind bars. As it turned out, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office had used Miller to sell the Iraq War to the American public as if the New York Times had been conducting its own independent, journalistic investigations about the justifications for military action against Saddam Hussein. The US certainly has press freedom problems. But Miller demonstrated no courage of conviction, and she should never have been viewed as a source of inspiration for African editors and journalists or any other for that matter. We need no further evidence when the New York Times cut her loose.
Besides that instance, Jallow is very much at home with moral and philosophical truths. When Yahya Jammeh is long gone and remembered only for his sick fulminations, deranged narcissism, and countless crimes, The Gambia will orbit along the axis of freedom of expression Jallow and like-minds ideate. His speeches and writings bring three things to mind. The opening paragraphs share strong resemblance to the emotional reach and rhetorical sweep of the oratory of a certain lanky Illinois lawyer serving in the most powerful and prestigious public office. His appeals to the international community to help hasten the arrival of democracy in The Gambia ring with the humiliation of a disillusioned patriot Desmond Tutu confessed to feeling like every Black South African in foreign countries until the day they voted Mandela for President. His opting for exile in the face of death threats isn’t incomparable to Voltaire — a pioneering proponent of freedom of expression in the Enlightenment era — choosing exile in England over indefinite incarnation in the Bastille in his native France.
All three elements fused into a coherence whole nowhere more so than at a media conference in Kenya: “The brutal murder of Deyda Hydara… marked yet another… descent into inhumanity and misrule…The editor of the Point… spoke the truth, and wrote the truth. He was not afraid to confront injustice, misgovernment, or criminality. He has paid the ultimate price for his professionalism and integrity…His death at the hands of murderers acting with impunity is a scourge in our land and marks a new phase in terror tactics and repression…It demonstrates the intractable view of [the despot] that all journalists are criminal illiterates who would be best ‘buried six feet deep’…It exposes the rotten heart of [the regime] in my beautiful country…If a man like Deyda can be murdered for his proper execution of his profession, then no one can sleep peacefully in his or her bed; nobody will be spared.”
The hopeful idealist, the desperate pragmatic, and the stubborn advocate once more merge into a unified voice at the end of the main section of the book to summon us to the breach for freedom of expression. The fight is necessary as much as aspired for any hope of freedom to which people as individuals and nations are entitled.