President Adama Barrow has made press freedom a pillar of his reforms since taking power last year from Yahya Jammeh, whose authoritarian 22-year rule was marked by terror and dealt heavy blows to journalists, including arrests, nocturnal arson attacks on media houses, torture, forced exiled, intimidation, and killings of reporters.
Remarkably, a chilling quiet is spreading across new Gambia’s otherwise loud and lively journalism. Front pages, websites, and news programs are brimming with stories, but “journalists are dysfunctional and yet to adapt to the new realities of transitioning from dictatorship to democracy,” one editor told me recently.
“We come under a lot of pressure to support the coalition government of President Barrow,” said a journalist from Banjul. “Journalism is dead in The Gambia. I have never experienced anything like this in a democracy. This type of censorship can only be under Yahya Jammeh’s era,” is how another veteran editor from Banjul put it. They are among the journalists I spoke with, all of whom describe how a combination of governmental pressure and harassment by political operatives and commercial actors, including both advertisers and media owners, is exercising a chilling effect on Gambian journalism.
A renowned journalist who is now a top government official advised Gambian media houses and journalists to desist from sensationalizing political squabbles at the expense of development stories. He urged the media to refocus and redefine their reportorial agenda from the ‘‘over-concentration on politics at the expense and exclusion of more urgent and critical issues of developments that put food on the tables (of citizens), drugs in hospitals, and improve the general well-being of citizens.’’
He highlights the dilemma in which the Gambian media finds itself today and drives at the core values of journalism. As an industry that thrives on being the first to sell ‘‘hot’’ news in line with the demands of its ever-critical and cynical clientele, it must strive to strike a balance between truth and sensationalism.
But the substantive allegations have not received the attention one might expect for what could look like an explosive mix of politics and personal business at the highest levels. We see instead what the media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, calls “an eerie silence in the media.”
There are public attacks on the media by prominent politicians, including senior government officials referring to journalists as “presstitutes,” another senior minister telling journalists to “stop this habit of raising doubt, questioning the authorities,” and the government trying to limit reporting on public officials and withdrawing government advertising from some papers. There is pressure by elected officials and security officials.
One journalist I spoke with described how he had overheard editors reluctantly negotiating the wording of headlines of stories about government initiatives with politicians before they were published. Others asked whether the State Intelligence Services use intended warning shots for the media reminiscence of the former NIA.
Robert P. George, a Princeton professor noted, “It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities.” He added, “Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded … or, if they have already been invited, disinvited.”
The statement, entitled “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression” is co-authored by African and African-American Studies Professor Cornel West and stated, “The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. That’s why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on issues of press freedom and freedom of expression.”
The systematic trolling of journalists by both volunteer militants and paid provocateurs, especially the party activists, is sometimes allegedly orchestrated by political parties. Much of this is online, but sometimes goes beyond that to involve offline harassment, as in the case of a journalists Baboucarr Nani Sey and Kebba Jeffang of the Foroyaa newspaper. Baboucarr Nani Sey, who works for Paradise FM radio, became the first journalist arrested by Gambian Police after the dreadful Yahya Jammeh 22-year era.
For those who are not silenced, things sometimes take a darker turn. There have been attacks on journalists this year, and journalists are intimidated in The Gambia with alarming frequency compared to the previous regime. Take just a few examples from the last couple years. The Committee to Protect Journalists tracks killings of reporters and finds that most journalists who become afraid and dysfunctional in The Gambia do so because of their coverage of politics and/or corruption.
International watchdog groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House continuously highlight the many growing threats to media’s freedom in The Gambia, and both Gambian journalists’ associations have long campaigned against the impunity with which journalists are intimidated, assaulted, and attacked in The Gambia.
The implicit and sometimes explicit threat of violence is increasingly pervasive. When asked if his journalists were pressured directly, a newspaper publisher said to me with a straight face, “Our journalists are only threatened. They do not get beaten up or killed.” The “only” in that sentence is an extraordinary illustration of the mounting pressure faced by Gambian journalists simply trying to do their job.
Police arrested and detained Baboucarr Nani Sey in Kanifing, slamming him with a four-count charge of “conspiracy to commit felony, assembly without a permit, destruction of private property, and unlawful use of banners.”
Sey is the first journalist arrested and charged in the six-month-old government of President Barrow. He was accused of organizing an illegal press conference and protest intended to undermine the peace and security of the country.
However, Sey’s protest and press conference were in connection with claims and counterclaims over a football field the youths of Kololi, about 40 kilometres outside Banjul, alleged was occupied illegally by Global Properties, owned by a close associate of President Barrow. Sey spent the weekend behinds bars at the Serekunda police station and was taken to the Kanifing Magistrates Court.
Ebrima Jaiteh, a legal practitioner, says that in The Gambia, no person needs a police permit to demonstrate peacefully without arms, citing Section 25(1)(d) of the 1997 constitution.
While section 5 of the Public Order Act 1964 requires a person to obtain a police permit before protesting, it is a public order act enacted during the colonial period and lawyers say it is inconsistent with the spirit, principle, and supremacy of the 1997 constitution. Therefore, it is void and has no legal effect.
“I hope the police will not enforce any unlawful order to arrest persons exercising their fundamental rights. It is illegal and unconstitutional to arrest any person demonstrating peacefully without the use of arms,” a former magistrate said.
He advised President Barrow’s government to not encourage police brutality and impunity, saying that citizens must rise to the challenge in the fight for their civil liberties.
Kebba Jeffang, a journalist for the Foroyaa newspaper, described being hit, scratched and insulted at a press conference held by ministers from three parties who joined together to form Barrow’s new coalition government.
“We condemn the attack on Kebba Jeffang and call on the leaders of the three political parties to take appropriate action to address this matter,” said Gambia Press Union Secretary General Saikou Jammeh.
Describing “an attack on freedom of expression, particularly media freedom,” Jammeh added that the supporters’ actions were illegal and had “no place in a democratic society.”
Madi Jobarteh, a blogger and prominent human rights defender, said the violence was “utterly unacceptable and totally unbecoming of the new Gambia we wish to build.”
Eyewitnesses said Jeffang was attacked for asking pointed questions to the ministers about whether their parties would continue to maintain their coalition in The Gambia’s upcoming legislative elections.
“The journalist’s only ‘offence’ is to ask questions to Ousainou Darboe and Mai Ahmad Fatty, the respective leaders of United Democratic Party (UDP) and Gambia Moral Congress (GMC),” said Amadou Bojang, who saw the attack take place.
Ultimately, free media is not something one simply has. It is fought for, repeatedly, against powerful political and other interests of those who would silence journalists, avoid scrutiny, make inconvenient stories go away, and flood the media with fluff to distract us. It cannot be provided simply based on journalistic courage, whether by individual organizations such as The Gambia Press Union or journalists such as Deyda Hydara and others who have been murdered for trying to shine a light on the uglier realities of business and politics in The Gambia today.
A free press requires an enabling environment, with legal protections and media companies committed to professional journalism as well as citizens and journalists fighting together for media freedom.
As the historian Timothy Snyder recently noted, “Do not speak of ‘our institutions’ unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.” Previous generations of Gambians have won that battle, against the British colonial regime and during President Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorial rule. A new generation may have to fight it again to break the ominous quiet that is creeping across Gambian journalism today.