Gambian journalists are forced to choose between prison and exile. It is a dangerous business to be in and the government of President Yahya Jammeh said he would not let “less than 1% of the population to destroy the country because they are journalists.”
Jammeh has lost his fifth bid to remain President of The Gambia and refuses to leave. The Gambia is Western Africa’s smallest nation and the country is on edge. The political deadlock has brought the country to a dangerous phase of a political crisis that could escalate if not quickly contained.
The Gambia’s press union has called on President Jammeh who had earlier endorsed the outcome of the presidential election to facilitate a smooth transfer of power in the interest of peace and stability in order to strengthen the limited democracy that the country has enjoyed over the years.
In 2011, ECOWAS, a regional bloc of West African states declared that the presidential polls were not free and fair. There was an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by President Yahya Jammeh’s ruling APRC party.
Draconian media laws, including a colonial seditious law, restricts journalist from reporting anything other than the government’s side of the story. Newsrooms went into self-censorship, leaving most of the critical reports about The Gambia coming from its many unreliably sourced online radios in the Diaspora, often funded by donations from opposition activists.
This year’s presidential elections was different. Jammeh was overly confident of winning. Although there was intimidation, the state-controlled broadcast network gave political parties equal airtime for their rallies and mini-televised addresses. Previously, Jammeh would ensure that producers at the state-owned GRTS heavily edit critical part of opposition rallies before airing them.
Although Gambians went to the polls totally cut off from the outside world, accreditation was given to local journalists and more international reporters than ever before. This, however, did not stop the intimidation, harassment, and detention of journalists, including two Reuters reporters.
Human Rights Watch identified that the government’s intimidation of journalists and opposition leaders and supporters, its domination of state media, and its use of state resources for campaigning give the ruling party a clear advantage over other parties.
Momodou Sabally, the former director of the state-funded GRTS Network was arrested after heeding to calls by the electoral chief to fairly cover all political parties.
A night before Sabally was arrested, he covered the formalization of the presidential hopeful of a breakaway party of Mr. Jammeh’s APRC. Mama Kandeh, the leader of the opposition GDC was a former parliamentarian for the APRC.
“Momodou Sabally, Bakary Fatty, Alagie Manka and Yunus Salieu’s arrest are a clear manifestation of intimidation and harassment on media practitioners,” said Saikou Jammeh [no relation to President Jammeh], secretary general of the local press union.
Sabally was detained for 16 days before charges that were dropped got reinstated; Fatty remains in detention without charges for more than 30 days; Manka spent seven days in detention before he was freed and Salieu was released a day after his arrest. Manka and Salieu were arrested and detained for taking photographs of President Jammeh’s supporters during his nomination at the electoral commission.
At least two Aljazeera reporters were deported from The Gambia, lowering the chances Gambians in the outside world have to know what was happening back home. But there were other international reporters like the BBC Africa’s Umaru Fofana who had access to the internet by using a satellite connection.
On the evening of the elections, the government shut down internet connections, restricted international calls, and SMS services. Gambians are enjoying a new found freedom and want Jammeh to remove the remove the blockade on WhatsApp and Skype and refrain from further interferences with the internet.
The streets of Banjul are calm, but the political environment is tense. Gambians were overjoyed at Jammeh’s concession and suppressed their fear that he was up to no good as a mischeivious leader.
Jammeh’s facing unbending internal resistance and the Gambia Press Union has joined those calling on Jammeh to go.
“The Gambia Press Union is deeply concerned by the prevailing political uncertainties brought about by the unfortunate and regrettable U-turn by President Yahya Jammeh on the results of the December 1st presidential elections,” Saikou said. “We are aware of the risks and challenges the current political environment poses to press freedom. We therefore, call on both sides of the political divide to give full cooperation to the media and uphold the values of press freedom.”
Ahead of the election, journalists faced threats, arrests, and detention as well as undue restrictions on access to information by the state. Security forces are urged to ensure the safety of journalists and journalists called upon to be professional.
At a time that an executive order has prevented the state-run media from broadcasting dissenting views, there is a need for journalists to give a comprehensive coverage of post-electoral events.
Several independent journalists were killed, forcibly disappeared or tortured between 2004 and 2006, and many are in exile. One such journalist is Chief Ebrima Manneh, who has not been seen since 2006.