Madi Jobarteh

(JollofNews) – In 1909, an American journalist called Joseph Pulitzer exposed a fraudulent payment of $40 million by the United States to the French Panama Canal Company. Immediately the US Government took him to court charging him for criminal libel against Pres. Theodore Roosevelt and the banker J.P. Morgan, among others. But Mr. Pulitzer refused to retreat and his newspaper ‘The World’ persisted in its investigation until the courts eventually dismissed the case. Pulitzer was applauded for a crucial victory on behalf of freedom of the press. Five years earlier, while making a proposal for a school of journalism, this is what he said about the role of the media in America in 1904.

“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”

In 1912, one year after Pulitzer’s death, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded. In 1917 the Pulitzer Prize was founded as one of the most prestigious media and literary awards in the world until today. Since then most of the awards in journalism go to exposure of corruption and abuse of power than to any other subject. No doubt the role and contribution of the media in building and defending democracy in the United States has been exemplary.

Fast forward to 100 years later in 2004 in the Gambia, the year Deyda Hydara (1946 – 2004) was murdered. A few days before his assassination, the late Deyda said in an interview with the Independent newspaper that,
“Journalism is a profession with its rules and one cannot be a journalist and flout its basic principles. What’s more, the fundamental law of this land guarantees that we make sure that government is accountable to the people for things it does in their name. Here again we didn’t draft the Constitution, which got inspiration from the covenants and other international laid down rules about freedom of expression. Meaning that even if the Constitution failed to empower us to do so we could rely on these instruments that The Gambia as a nation ratified.”

What Joseph Pulitzer and Deyda Hydara were saying here in their respective societies and times is that ultimately it is the media that make or break a democracy. Both men were not only absolutely clear about this fact, but they went further to put it into practice by ensuring that they expose corruption, abuse of power and stand up for the defense of human rights and the rule of law. This is why Pulitzer was charged and Deyda was assassinated by those in power who are hell-bent on abusing their power at the detriment of society.

Therefore at the dawn of this era of democracy coming hard on the heels of 22 years of dictatorship the Gambian journalist and media must ask themselves what is their role in this new dispensation? Are they going to live to the high ideals of Joseph Pulitzer and Deyda Hydara or will they become the propagandists and sensationalists who are in the business of journalism just for self-aggrandizement? Will they rise up to defend the ideals of democracy and good governance or will they succumb to the powers that be just to perpetuate abuse of power?

Already the Gambia Constitution has given a special role to the media in Section 207 subsection 3, which states that,
“The press and other information media shall at all times, be free to uphold the principles, provisions and objectives of this Constitution, and the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people of The Gambia.”

Section 208 went further to specify the role of the public media that,
“All state owned newspapers, journals, radio and television shall afford fair opportunities and facilities for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinion.”

These constitutional provisions clearly show that indeed the people of the Gambia as expressed in this supreme law of the republic intend to have journalists and media who perform like how Joseph Pulitzer and Deyda Hydara performed. Our constitution has placed a solemn duty on the hands of journalists to build and defend democracy in the Gambia.

When you pick up any of our newspapers, one sees that message inscribed on the front page that indeed they wish to be like Joseph Pulitzer and Deyda Hydara. For example, this is what you find on the front page of the ‘News and Report Magazine’, “All what is in the public domain: All that is of legitimate public interest.” The Point says on their front page ‘For Freedom and Democracy’. Foroyaa says ‘Educating the People’ with the unforgettable Foroyaa Quote, “Know yourselves. Know your country and know the world then you shall be the architect of your own destiny”. The Daily Observer says, “Forward with the Gambia” on their front page.

But for 22 years the media was severely suppressed and hunted down in this country. Many media houses have been burnt down or closed. Many journalists were forced to flee or abandon the trade, while many faced incarcerations and even death. Despite this painful persecution, Gambian journalists indeed held the fort, never relenting. Those who stayed put continued to face the wrath of the tyranny. Those who relocated set up new and many more media houses to continue the fight for democracy. Therefore today more than ever before should be a new beginning for our media houses and journalists in the fight for democracy in the Gambia.

Let our media obtain inspiration from our founding fathers especially Edward Francis Small (1891 – 1958) who also became a journalist in his activism for freedom and democracy in the Gambia in the 1920s. It was his media activism that laid the foundations of our independence many decades later. His newspaper ‘The Gambia Outlook and Senegambian Reporter’ used to petition the British Government demanding representative institutions so much so that the colonial office described him as a “self-appointed champion of non-existing grievances felt by an imaginary body of citizens…he seems to find agitation irresistible.” He was particularly known for popularizing the slogan, ‘No taxation without representation’ in calling for the creation of representative institutions and empowerment of the people.

We also had William Dixon Colley (1913 – 2001) was a co-founder of the Gambia Press Union in 1978. Being a staunch defender of free press and against censorship, he once said, “If what one is saying is right and one strongly believes it is, one should go on saying it up to one’s grave.”

As founder and editor of Africa Nyaato newspaper, which later became The Nation newspaper, Dixon Colley consistently exposed inefficiency and corruption inside government for which one of such articles entitled ‘Till Doomsday’ landed him in court for seditious publication. His quest for truth, freedom and good governance was uncompromising as he expressed in these words, “we try to be radical and pin down government on its policies”.

The story of Sanna Manneh and his newspaper, The Torch represents one of the major highlights of the role and contribution of the media in the promotion of good governance in the Gambia. On 6th October 1988, The Torch published an article, ‘Cabinet Reshuffle Inevitable’ accusing four government ministers of corruption with the then Gambia Cooperative Union in dubious rice dealings, and suggested their sacking. Three of the ministers – Saihou Sabally, Minister of Agriculture, Landing Jallow Sonko, Minister of Local Government and Lands and Dr. Lamin Saho, Minister of Information and Tourism – took the matter to court and Manneh, popularly known as Tiks was charged with libel.

Following a court case from November 1988 to April 1989, Tiks was acquitted on the first and third counts and cautioned and discharged on the second. Foroyaa, which provided verbatim coverage of the proceedings, a practice it continues in such cases up to today, described the trial as a “landmark in Gambian political, legal and press history”. While The Torch newspaper did not eventually survive the financial costs of the trial as it closed down a year later, however the issue demonstrated the role and contribution of the media in the fight against corruption by holding the government to account.

From these individuals, let our journalists of today therefore not only report about official events such an inaugurations and opening ceremonies. But more importantly let them investigate and report on the issues and concerns of our citizens and communities to bring them out to the open for the government to know. Let our journalists conduct analysis of the events, decisions, actions and policies of the government to give our people a better perspective of the status quo. Let our media give space to our ordinary citizens as well as the experts to voice out alternative views on issues and trends. Above all let our journalists follow the money to combat corruption and abuse of power. We need to know how the government is managing public resources and if such management is fulfilling the needs of our people. It is when the journalists undertake these exercises then will we therefore witness the flourishing of democracy and the rise of the republic.

I would therefore dedicate this piece to the Gambian media community for the gallant and steadfast role they have played since the days of colonialism into the first and second republics. To the young journalists, to remind them that they are in a glorious and courageous profession. The traditions of that profession have already been defined and carved out by giants like Edward Francis Small in the 1920s, William Dixon-Colley in the 1960s, Sanna Manneh in the 1980s and finally Deyda Hydara in the 2000s to today. Hence there is enough to inspire and encourage. What is required is to add to that glory by standing firm in the building and defense of democracy in the Gambia.

Our Republic and its Press will Rise or Fall Together!

God Bless The Gambia.