The independent media has become the last bastion of defense for the Gambian population against tyranny and suppression.
Its history that began within a decade after the colonialists demarcated the different kingdoms of this coastal West African region into French and English colonies in 1888, with the establishment of the Bathurst Times, Bathurst Observer and the West African Gazzette around the 1880s.
The media rose out of the need to give voice to the population that is today known as Gambians. Researchers into Gambia’s independence struggle have come to the conclusion that the history of 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 country’s independence, was both a journalist and a trade unionist. Francis Small also founded, edited and published The Gambia Outlook and The Senegambia Reporter. The Gambia Native Defense Union, which according to the 7th August 2007 recount by Foroyaa newspaper, attacked the “blatant flaws” in the administration of the colonial government, campaigned on issues of importance for the citizens of Bathurst, leading to his exile in Senegal.
Today, Gambia’s media has suffered the highest attrition rate of its professionals to exile, thanks to the over-two decade campaign that President Jammeh, a former army Lieutenant and wrestler, consistently employed against it.
Freedom House, in its 2014 Report argued that Gambia’s reputation as a serious offender of press freedom and freedom of expression was consolidated 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 US-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, 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 December 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.
“But 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.
On August 10 2000, arsonists attacked Radio 1 FM, a private station whose pro-democracy stance has made it immensely popular. Several journalists, including owner George Christensen, were injured in the fire, while the station was forced off the air for two days. The attack was foreshadowed by anonymous threats mailed to Radio 1 employees.
On July 20th 2001, Baboucar Gaye, owner of the independent station Citizen FM, won a High Court appeal that restored equipment confiscated by the government in 1998, when the station was forced off the air for reporting the involvement of a senior National Intelligence Agency official in a counterfeiting scandal.
On June 20th 2001, the state filed murder charges against Madi Ceesay of Gambia News and Report, a weekly news magazine. Ceesay was arrested following a violent clash between opposition supporters and activists loyal to the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).
Six hooded gunmen burst into The Independent’s printing press at around 2:00 a.m. on 13 April, 2004, 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, a Heidelberg Kord 64 acquired in January. It was completely destroyed.
Namory Trawally, a sports journalist who was also in charge of the press, was able to splash gasoline over the gunmen. This prompted them to flee and one of them, who was badly burned, dropped his firearm as he left, said Reporters Without Borders.
Barely four months after this, other attacks, including another on the house of Ebrima Sillah, the BBC’s Banjul Correspondent’s house while he and his family were sleeping served as insignia of the press attacks that year. Sillah “miraculously” escaped unscathed but the fire consumed the household and personal effects worth tens of thousands of Dalasi were lost.
In a July 23rd 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 2nd, 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.
At the time, Mr. Bojang’s young media establishment The Standard was re-opened for the second time within two years of its establishment. It was to be closed again in October of the same year, along with The Daily News amidst the controversy over Jammeh’s decision to execute nine death row prisoners in that year.
Today, Bojang, was re-opened while The Daily News remained closed till today, is the government’s chief propagandist, defending the very crimes he was a victim of, spoken against and very much loathed. In June, Bojang attempted to defend the government’s human rights record as indicted by the US 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. Mathew 7.5’,” he was quoted as saying in his own The Standard newspaper that was revered for its independent reporting but now turned government propaganda outlet.
A diplomat, who prefers not to react on-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…?”
Reactions in the media were equally swift: The Point, whose founder editor Deyda Hydara was assassinated eleven years remained unsolved, said the minister’s reaction “rubbished” the State Department report; Jollof News online said the minister reacted “angrily……”
This is notwithstanding the fact that three of Mr. Bojang’s own reporters that were working for The Standard – this author, Sainey MK Marenah and Ousman Bojang – flew into exile within a six month’s space prior to his appointment as minister.
When the president made rather sarcastic and provocative remarks against the slain journalist on national television, the local press union reacted swiftly. As a result, members of its executive – including a lactating mother of a two-month-old infant – and media chiefs who published the union’s statement were all arrested an arraigned before the courts on charges of sedition. They were speedily prosecuted and imprisoned amidst international outcry.
Sidi Sanneh, former Gambian diplomat in an online conversation over media freedom in The Gambia, opined that the media under Jammeh has been “sent to the pillory.” Sanneh expressed doubts whether the media will be any freer that it has been under the thirty-year Jawara rule.
As Jammeh orchestrate plans to seek a fifth term in office, Gambia’s independent media, including the civil society, opposition, military, police, parliamentarians, judiciary, among others have all become voiceless as a result of the weakened independent media in the country.