Media squelching has started with the arrest of Momodou Sabally, the director of the state-controlled GRTS network after last week’s report by Human Rights Watch that media crackdown threatens the country’s elections.
The state broadcaster covered the formalization of the candidacy of the opposition GDC presidential hopeful’s race at the Independent Electoral Commission, showing the crowd of thousands that accompanied Mama Kandeh, 51, who was expelled from the ruling APRC party in 2013.
No charges have been brought against Sabally, but sources said he is detained at the NIA head office in Banjul.
Sabally was among dozens of former senior government officials who were pardoned by President Yahya Jammeh last year. He was facing economic crime, neglect, and false information charges. He later became the director of the pro-government newspaper Daily Observer, introducing new columns and a magazine that brought it vibrancy and increased revenue.
A media practitioner said that Sabally introduced new programs at GRTS to attract more millennial viewers and had made remarkable success to make the institution financially viable through commercial advertising. Such, the media practitioner said cannot be achieved if he kept broadcasting some Kanilai festival programs.
GRTS officials in the past 5 years told a parliamentary oversight body that the institution was bankrupt as more Gambians turn to satellite television networks for programs they may enjoy.
Unlike his predecessors, Sabally has not been running pro-government programs all day on the network, although the make primetime news headlines, “not even whiles he was at Daily Observer,” a network staffer said. “President Jammeh will not be happy with this because this is his way of trying to get votes and now Mama Kandeh’s IEC nomination is broadcasted and it was all over Sabally’s facebook.”
The staffer, however, said there was nothing wrong with what Sabally did because “it was the right thing to do” and he was marketing the network for more people to know that they will cover the elections.
“He wants to transform GRTS more into a reputable source of regional news and operate it like CNN or BBC. But this is The Gambia, it is difficult or impossible to do that under Jammeh. This election was his chance to do that. But see the results now,” the staffer, who wishes to remain anonymous said.
Whiles at GRTS and the Daily Observer, Sabally signed agreements with news agencies like Xinhua.
GRTS has been accused of not giving equal airtime to opposition candidates to reach voters and pro-democracy campaigners say opposition rallies are heavily edited. ECOWAS said the country’s 2011 election were not free and fair because of “an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power.”
Opposition leaders in September demanded enough airtime on the state broadcast network in a meeting with the electoral commission chief.