The Gambia, the Media and the Way Forward
As journalists continue to appear before the Gambia’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), it is important that the Barrow administration work toward bettering the conditions of journalists once and for all. In this article, I look at the need to hasten up on media law reforms and in providing an enabling environment for professional media and quality journalism to thrive beyond the rhetoric of media freedom and freedom of speech.
The principle of transparency
It is often argued that democracy thrives under transparency. And that transparency is enhanced by the media. In his testimony, secretary general of the Gambia Press Union, Saikou Jammeh said that former president Yahya Jammeh targeted the media mainly because he wanted to keep things under the wraps. By default, the media is expected to hold public officials to account and this is done by reporting on their relevant actions and inaction. In fact, the normative role of the media in a democracy is so important that it is referred to as the fourth branch in modern governance, competing at the same level with the executive, legislature and judiciary. Traditionally, the term forth estate referred to the media in reference to the earlier three divisions of the state into: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. In any case, the media bled under Jammeh and that significantly hindered its progress in delivering transparency in our society. In the GPU secretary general’s salient analysis, it is because Jammeh was involved in human rights violation, which the media out to have reported (and indeed attempted to report) that he (Jammeh) targeted the media.
There are some cultural issues relating to the work of journalists that we have to deal with as a country and people. One of those is the culture of sutura (secrecy). On its own, secrecy is not just useful but an important element of living. But in the Gambia, there is the tendency to sweep so much and sometimes too much under the carpet. Too much of anything is bad but too much of secrecy is horrible, especially for high quality journalism. Some people also hide behind the maslaha syndrome (loosely, maslaha means compromise) . Like sutura, maslaha can be a good thing, especially in searching for a common ground but too much of compromise lowers standards and affects quality. While all of this is important, a critical question is also how do you determine too much of anything? In other words, when do we say this is too much of sutura or maslaha? The obvious and probably only right answer is that it depends on the specific circumstance and situation. But as a people what is also critically important is that we are aware of the bad effects of these cultural elements and their potential to hamper our progress.
While a lot of people are clearly frustrated at the snail pace of our progress toward democratic governance, we all agree that we have made some gains. Despite all the disappointments, anger and frustration, we still have a chance to strengthen the gains of removing a dictator through the ballot box instead of the bullet. So in the name of building and strengthening our democracy, there is need to push boundaries. Democracy is about many things but it is also about compromises and consensus building. The media must provide itself as a platform for citizens to build and strengthen our democracy.
That the media has suffered too much for far too long is an understatement. Under the Jammeh regime, we know that the media faced all kinds of violations, including murder. In his testimony at the TRRC, Lamin Cham of the Standard newspaper said that the media was the single most troubled professional group under Jammeh. Whether you agree with Lamin’s assessment or not is another thing but certainly, the media suffered so much under Jammeh.
Given all that happened, it is crucial that we rebuild our journalism and media industry. The past two years of the Barrow administration has offered a sign of relief for journalists. Generally, citizens including journalists have become notably more open and vocal both online and offline. But there are still serious threats. Economic sustainability for independent media outlets and quality journalism remains a serious challenge. Since 2018, there has been resurgence in violence against journalists, especially online journalists. To date, there have been up to ten (10) cases of violence against journalists. At least two journalists covering the local government elections in April 2018 were roughed up by supporters of the former ruling APRC party. In June the same year, another online journalist, Pa Modou Bojang, was beaten by members of the Police Intervention Unit, a paramilitary unit of the Gambia Police Force, while covering a deadly protest in Faraba. Bojang sustained injuries, and said he was detained for hours, and that his digital recorder seized. In September 2018, Babucarr Manga, a cameraman for a web-based TV, Eye Africa, was assaulted by personnel of the Police Intervention Unit (PIU) for filming a public protest in Abuko. More recently, in July 2019 two journalists were attacked again by militants of the APRC at the High Court in Banjul. These journalists, Modou Saidy of The Fatu Network (TFN), and Romain Chanson of Radio France International (RFI) were simply doing their job. What is even more bizarre about this case was the government response to the attack. Spokesperson, Ebrima Sankareh in his condemnation of the attack did not mention one of the victims, Modou Saidy of the Fatu Network. It is unclear why Sankareh left out Saidy but whatever the reasons, his action (inaction) in this case has serious implication for local journalists. The government has a legal and moral responsibility to protect all people living within the country and that includes people that you may or may not agree with on any given issue.
So as we recount the difficult experiences and memories of media under Jammeh at the TRRC, it is important that we ask the fundamental question of how far have we come in making sure that such barbaric acts never happen again. The slogan: never again, must not remain a mere slogan but a lived reality. Part of the TRRC proceedings can be viewed here: