The Gambia, the Media and the Way Forward


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.

Cultural Issues

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.

Nascent democracy

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.

Painful past

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:

5 Reasons Why State House’s NIA Journalists Screening Is a Bad Idea


President-Adama-BarrowReports have emerged recently that the Barrow State House will henceforth subject journalists covering the presidency to background checks and screening from the notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA), now State Intelligence Service (SIS). The Gambia Press Union (GPU) quickly reacted, urging all journalists “not to comply”. The GPU said it will engage the Directorate of Press and Public Relations (DPPR) at the presidency. But while that dialogue maybe on, I wish to offer Mrs Amie Bojang Sissoho and State House five reasons to shelf the screening plans.

Background checks vs screening: It is worthy of note that there is a little difference between conducting background checks and screening. Background checks is part of due diligence and I will be shocked if it has not been part of your accreditation process thus far. So, given the homogeneity of our country and the tiny nature of our media industry, screening is almost irrelevant. We almost all know each other enough to provide invaluable counsel as to the fitness (or lack of it) of individual journalists to be granted accreditation.

Limited or Unlimited Access: Accreditation to cover the presidency does not and should not equal unlimited access. Journalists as well as other visitors and staff should have designated access levels. Just because you carry a press card with a State House seal does not mean you can loiter around or lurk into any and all offices. The DPPR’s office can accommodate a press pool for reporters. And you do not have a “West Wing” kind of space and room; you can create an annex in any of the neighbouring ministries and allow journalists into the press pool as and when necessary. With this option, you really don’t need screening.

Media reforms: The Barrow administration has made significant policy pronouncements aimed at deregulating and reregulating the media to conform to international standards. Press freedom and freedom of expression indexes have all hailed this as huge progress given the trying times we endured under Jammeh. The Gambia’s scores improved in many indexes, from Freedom House to Reporters Without Boarders analysts saw the pronouncements as significant commitment toward media reform. This improvement should be jealously guarded by the administration and if anything, work on implementing your previous positive pronouncements. It is time to move from commitment to action in our media reforms agenda.

Fear of Intimidation: Given the history of harassment of journalists in this country, it is a bad idea to subject journalists to another form of screening. Our media professionals have gone through so much for a lifetime. The idea of screening alone has the potentials to produce chilling effects on journalists and their reporting. So in the interest of public service journalism, State House should abandon the screening project.

A selection of Gambian Press

The Foroyaa newspaper started operation way back in the latter part of the first republic, whereas The Standard is the newest paper to date.

 

Torture chamber: The rebranding of the NIA into SIS is an ongoing process. Just because we have renamed the organisation and pursued a few reforms including staffing does not mean the rebranding is complete. In fact, while we may have repainted the premises, many Gambians, particularly journalists still see the NIA/SIS premises and the organisation as torture chamber. So even if screening (and I don’t mean background checks) maybe extremely necessary, the NIA/SIS is the wrong option.

I hope you hear the loud cries for freedom of the press and other media.

5 Reasons Barrow Should Reschedule His Nationwide Tour


adama-barrow-return

President Adama Barrow of The Gambia! Photo: wikipedia images

President Adama Barrow has announced plans to embark on a nationwide “thank you tour”. The tour according to news reports will help the president familiarize himself with the political situation in the run up to the parliamentary elections, due on 6th April 2017. Needless to say the timing of the tour isn’t ideal, it is a waste of public and therefore, unnecessary. Here are five reasons, Barrow should consider to reschedule his tour.

Too much to do! The president is barely two months into his administration and has not even completed his cabinet. There is so much to do in Banjul. And adding on the logistics of preparing and heading out for a nationwide tour at this hour is totally undesirable. In his own words, Barrow has admitted that he inherited a broken system and that he will embark on a system “overhaul”. It is thus wiser for the president to focus his energy on that system overhaul for now.

Waste of resources! A nationwide is expensive, given that the president travels with “the State House”. And if figures from Barrow’s minister of finance are anything to go by, we better spend wisely. Barrow himself during his first tour outside Africa, said that his predecessor wasted about 85 million Euros domestically (whatever that means). I do not need to lay out how much the country’s economy is in distress. We heard the finance minister detailed how GDP is deteriorating, domestic and foreign debts skyrocketing. Inflation is still high, and the prices of basic commodities is unbearable to most of the very people the president wants to go and thank. He can definitely thank people better by fixing their shared problems.

Security situation! There is still a security risk in the country. From the political impasse to the reoccurring events around the border with southern Senegalese region of Cassamance, the security situation in the country is still volatile. Now this may sound as an over generalization and I agree, it could be but trust me, security is one thing we do not want to underestimate.

Timing isn’t great! The parliamentary elections are just around the corner. There is clearly, a conflict between and among some key players in the coalition government. The president has made his stand clear and there is seemingly a compromise. But any chance to link the president to any faction of the coalition will only complicate the conflict within the government. And as parliamentary candidates canvass across the country, Barrow will undoubtedly be caught in between. And as the president endeavors to be neutral in these circumstances, he should focus more on our collective need as a nation instead of what we want. Because we may want a “thank you tour” but we clearly need a robust economy, a functional government with fiscal discipline!

Unfettered media access! The president has all the media access he needs to send the biggest and loudest thank you ever! Some will argue that even former President Jammeh did not have the level of media access that Barrow has now. From the state broadcaster to community and online radios, FM stations, social media and all the others, Barrow can reach the last person in Koina in a single day, or even within an hour. And more importantly that will definitely cost ten times less than a nationwide tour.

Former and Current Presidents

Jawara (R) and Jammeh (L) former presidents

Here is a bonus point for the president. A nationwide thank you tour sounds like something former president Yahya Jammeh will do. The Barrow administration is seen as a change, geared toward building a “New Gambia”, (I still do not know what it really means). It is political hypocrisy of the highest order to condemn Jammeh for bad governance only for you to embark on his terrible projects.

The African Union on Twitter


Across Africa, citizens using social media to battle for democracy

In 2001 the African Union (AU) was established, succeeding the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The change signaled a shift in political will for a continental unity for dealing with common challenges such as economic rebuilding, growth, democracy, social cohesion, peace and stability. Modeled on the European Union, the AU also hoped to showcase Africa as a significant player in global affairs. To date, some regions have made progress toward the democratisation process. Continue reading

The Mediterranean crisis: a global challenge?


Overloaded migrant boats. Photo: nationale.ae

Overloaded migrant boats. Photo: nationale.ae

The statistics are scary. The world is watching. The politicians and policy makers (or should I say talkers, please excuse my language) either in Addis Ababa (African Union headquarters), Brussels (European Union capital) or New York (home of the United Nations) are NOT doing enough. For most of these organisations, they only convene on an issues after the loss of lives. Continue reading

My Open Letter to Imam Abdoulie Fatty of State House


Dear Mr Fatty,

Imam Abdoulie Fatty

Imam Abdoulie Fatty

I am writing to you regarding your recent pronouncements as carried by The Standard newspaper in its Friday 31st October 2014 edition. In the news article, you are reported to have “characterised the members of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at in The Gambia as non-Muslims, asserting that they should be banned from propagating their faith in the territorial confines of the country”. As a concerned citizen and a former teacher at one of the Ahmadiyya schools in the country, I feel obliged to enlighten you. I will also show you how your comments are unwarranted and out of touch.

First of all if as you suggest Ahmadis should be banned because of they are non-Muslims despite their claim to be Muslims, what about our Christian brothers and sisters? The Gambia population and housing census indicates that the country is not 100 percent Muslim and so common sense demand that if you ban a group for being non-Muslim then all other non-Muslim groups are effectively banned. Well except if we have biased and narrow minded people at the helm of affairs.

Secondly you have placed the Ahmadis outside the pale of Islam, I just wonder where have you amassed the authority to do so? Please note that your reference of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) and Omar Ibn Khatab (ra) is not applicable in this sense because like you noted the Holy Prophet never called Omar a non-Muslim but said that his faith is incomplete. And make no mistakes the difference between incomplete and a “nonstarter” maybe tiny to you but highly essential in this case. But let me assume (just for the sake of assumption) that your reference of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) and Omar Ibn Khatab is applicable here, are you claiming that you have earned the status of determining who is and who is not a Muslim in place of the Holy Prophet (pbuh)? Oh! I understand as a scholar, you are a representative of the Holy Prophet (saw) but remember there are limits in that representation. These limits include the fact that you cannot marry more than four wives at the same time even though the Holy Prophet (pbuh) did and that you cannot determine who is and who is not a Muslim. So what does the representation and leadership require of you?

Leadership and indeed responsible leadership demands that our leaders show some amount of due diligence in dealing with issues over sentiments. It does not behove a religious leader, especially a representative of the “Prince of Peace” to show seeds of discord and hatred among the followers of even say different religions. Suffice it to say that a Muslim leader cannot preach hatred against his fellow countrymen, even if they fail to believe in anything. Imam Abdoulie Fatty, after reading what you have said about Islam, it hurts me to call you “Imam”. So let me be clear, I am using the title just for the purpose of identification rather than association and please no disrespect meant. But instead of being guilty of the same thing I am condemning you for, let me cut the chase and go to the facts. Here you will find how legally, socially, politically and above all Islamically you got it all wrong.

Legally, “The Gambia is a Sovereign Secular Republic” this is on chapter one, section one and subsection one of the constitution of the Republic of The Gambia 1997. So lets just say that you have not read the constitution cover to cover because it is not in Arabic but this is in the very first chapter. Even if it is by chance, you should have seen it, so no excuse. And if you dig deeper, you will find out that the constitution and other laws and policies generally protect religious freedom. The constitution even further provides Gambians “freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice”. But again if you have checked the State House website, you will find that His Excellency has always preached about religious tolerance in The Gambia so please do not contradict and ruin President Jammeh’s efforts on this very important mattter.

Socially, we do not just have a strong but also an enviable social cohesion unheard of anywhere else in the world. Sadly though the implications of your statements will undermine just that. The Gambia is one of, if not the most peaceful country on planet earth – The Smiling Coast! Why on earth then trade that peace for religious bigotry? If you ban Ahmadis from propagating Islam in The Gambia today you will succeed in one thing and only one thing, that is sowing the seeds of social discord. And as a peace activist, I will definitely suggest that you should be charge with incitement of violence against the Ahmadis. Your comments constitute an absolute threat to peace and stability in the country. Furthermore, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at through all its institutions employs more non-Ahmadis than Ahmadis thanks to their believe in nondiscrimination of any kind, including but not limited to creed, gender, national origin, race, etc. Do you know how many people your plan will make go without jobs? How many responsible people? Okay look at it this way, at least 90 percent of all children enrolled in Ahmadi schools are non-Ahmadis. But is it also not funny when Dr. Zakir Naik said that people should not go to Ahmadiyya or Christian schools? No it is absolutely not funny becuase Dr. Zakir Naik has attended more than one Christian school. Oh! I get it, he did not know that it was wrong at the time? By the way the Ahmadiyya and Christian schools are among the best schools in the country. In fact some would say that they have the best schools in the country. I will not disagree with that but lets move on.

Politically, you are entitled to your opinions and I am glad that you believe that President Jammeh has built enough schools and hospitals which will adequately serve people without the Ahmadis. I cannot speak for the Ahmadis but I do know that the Ahmadis are not competing with His Excellency but they are simply complementing government’s efforts in service delivery. But since we hold no political offices, I am of the opinion that you and I cannot make sweeping political declarations like this. It makes us sound like a political clowns. My little knowledge of politics tells me that in party politics, numbers matter. And in genuine national development genuine partners do matter as well. So in both cases, the Ahmadis are important constituents. Whether or not you are doing this to score some political points from His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhagie Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh, I do not know. But please note that there is no country on planet earth that can be single-handedly developed by one individual. And am sure His Excellency the President knows this very well and that is why he is always trying to woo investors and genuine partners into the Smiling Coast. Unfortunately though your religious “gerrymandering” tactic in this context is not ideal at all. In the games of politics it is always a win or a loss. And since this is not just a lost but a big lost for you, I pray that you are not shown the red card. Unless you apologise for your ranting, you constitute a political liability for His Excellency.

In conclusion, Islam literally means peace and submission to the will of Allah the Almighty. This is enough reason for all men of understanding to keep to a personal struggle for salvation from Allah the Almighty in peace and harmony. Notwithstanding, the holy Qur’an, which is most reliable point of reference for all Muslims is full of exhortation for peace. The holy Qur’an tells us that we should make peace even if it is an inclination from our enemies and then put our trust in Allah. We read in chapter eight, (Surah Al-Anfal): “And if they incline towards peace, incline thou also towards it, and put thy trust in Allah. Surely, it is He Who is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.”

So in the name of peace and harmony, security and stability of our dear motherland I implore you to shun your hatred for the Ahmadis. The Gambia is bigger than all of us and we cannot afford to place our personal interests in religious bigotry above superior national interest in peace and stability. If anything, the Ahmadis and I mean all the Ahmadis that I know are law-abiding and very peaceful.

May we live and leave behind a better and more peaceful Gambia! Ameen!

Yours sincerely,

Demba Kandeh

5 Reasons Why Jammeh Should Not Celebrate 22nd July


22nd July is seen by many as the most important date on the calendar of Gambians. It is almost a household name in the country thanks to the “remarkable efforts” of the AFPRC and now APRC and its allies. On that fateful day, two decades ago, former President, Dawda Kairaba Jawara was deposed in what has been described as a “bloodless coup”. Jawara’s overthrow was masterminded by a group of soldiers led by then Lieutenant Yahya AJJ Jammeh. They identified themselves as the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) and Jammeh, 29 then, was the chairman of the AFPRC. As usual for putsches, the constitution was suspended, the borders sealed and a curfew implemented. While Jammeh’s new government justified the coup by decrying corruption and lack of democracy under the Jawara regime, army personnel had also been dissatisfied with their salaries, living conditions and prospects for promotion. The coup did not receive much resistance from home but attracted international condemnation. But twenty years on, Demba Kandeh tells us why the coup should not be celebrated. Continue reading