World Press Freedom Day will be marked in Gambia on Wednesday for the first time since the fall of the country’s authoritarian president.
During his 22-year rule, Yahya Jammeh imprisoned dozens of journalists and forced hundreds into exile. Others disappeared after being arrested by the secret police and one celebrated journalist was murdered 13 years ago. His killer or killers have never been brought to justice.
The atmosphere of repression led some to dub the small west African state the North Korea of Africa.
Bai Emil Touray, president of the Gambia Press Union, described Gambia under Jammeh as “the most difficult country for practicing journalism”.
“In the past, journalists were subjected to all forms of degrading and inhuman treatment including torture, enforced disappearances, killings and incarcerations,” Touray, who was jailed by Jammeh in 2009, told Anadolu Agency.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Jammeh “established a climate of terror… in which journalists were murdered or disappeared, were spied and informed on, were arrested arbitrarily and were subjected to nightmarish trials.”
When he ran for re-election at the end of last year — a vote he lost to Adama Barrow — Jammeh closed broadcasters and newspapers and shut down the Internet.
The departure of Jammeh for exile in Equatorial Guinea has sparked a climate of hope among Gambians, especially journalists.
“Now that the 22-year era of Jammeh is history, we are witnessing a situation where journalists are practicing their jobs to the best of their abilities without fear or unnecessary self-censorship,” Touray said.
Talibeh Hydara, an editor at The Standard newspaper, said the post-Jammeh period was seeing “enormous” changes to the Gambian media.
“It’s been less than five months since Jammeh left but it has felt like a year because of the progress already made,” he said.
“There is renewed confidence in journalists, especially the young ones because now we can do our work effectively without fear of arrest or disappearance.
“We are keeping the new government accountable to the people. Plus, many people are now choosing journalism over other professions. All of this shows great progress.”
Journalists are due later Wednesday to march to the Information and Communication Ministry’s offices in capital Banjul to present a paper of proposals on freedom of expression and media reforms.
Baboucarr Ceesay, an investigative journalist and human rights activist, said the media was “breathing a new type of hope from the promises of the new democratic dispensation”.
He was detained in 2012 for demanding permission for a demonstration against the unannounced killing of nine death row inmates.
Perhaps the most notorious case of media repression was the December 2004 murder of Deyda Hydara, co-founder of The Point newspaper.
No-one has been brought to justice for his shooting but a man is reported cooperating with police and has admitted involvement in the killing.
Hydara was shot dead as he drove home from work and two colleagues were injured.
He became a symbol of press freedom in Gambia. In a BBC interview, Jammeh denied his security agents had killed Hydara and asked: “Other people have also died in this country. So why is Deyda Hydara so special?”
Pap Saine, who co-founded The Point with Hydara and has received several international awards for his journalism, described the decades under Jammeh as a “nightmare for journalists”.
Saine, who was arrested three times and imprisoned once under Jammeh, said Gambia was on the path to rekindling its post-independence democratic period before Jammeh’s 1994 coup.
“Now we are looking at a new page and we are optimistic about reforms of the media laws,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“Already we are encouraged by the reopening of the media houses that were closed before. There is freedom of speech.”
He urged the government to speed up the pace of reforming taxes imposed on media outlets by Jammeh to weaken them financially.