Like dictators everywhere, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh doesn't like journalists. And since his ascent to power in 1994, he's enacted several laws that have made their lives more or less impossible. This will make covering the 2011 elections a particularly tricky task. By SAIKOU CEESAY.
In 1994 five junior army officers, led by Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, seized power in The Gambia. Prior to the military coup, The Gambia was known as the “smiling coast of Africa”, a place of tourist attractions, generosity, sunshine and hospitality. The country, which is home to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, as well as the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies, represented one of Africa’s multiparty democracies, but the situation swiftly changed when Jammeh took control.
Under colonialism, The Gambian media was suppressed, with sedition and defamation laws in place that restricted media freedom for the protection of the privileges and integrity of the person of the Queen. These laws were amended by the government of Sir Dawda Jawara in the first republic after independence in 1965 and the media environment was relatively friendly.
But they didn't last long. On 4 August 1994, Jammeh introduced Decree Number 4, which denied Gambians the right to discuss political views and express themselves as members of political parties. Jammeh rigged the constitution in 1996 and fixed presidential elections in his favour. Subsequently he reverted to the repressive laws through an act of parliament which brought in the 2004 Media Amendment Act dealing with sedition, libel, false publication and defamation, among other issues.
This legislation is now used to censor media freedom and imprison journalists perceived to be critical of the president and the government. At worst, it has resulted in arrests, physical and verbal intimidation, and even journalists being tortured, as well as the arbitrary closure of media houses. The unsolved disappearance, and probable murder, of journalist Ebrima Chief Manneh in 2006 is just one shocking example of this. Manneh’s disappearance followed his attempt to publish an article he downloaded from the BBC’s website. The article criticised Gambia’s poor human rights record and condemned the hosting of the 2007 AU Summit in The Gambia, considering the hostile human rights environment.
Restrictive laws mean media workers could be jailed from four to six years if found publishing seditious and defamatory materials. Having already made a debacle of media freedom, President Jammeh isn’t slowing down: He has proven himself a tough man, as evident by his closure of Teranga FM in January 2011. Teranga is a privately-owned community radio station and, for the three months before its closure, it broadcast a “review news” programme. During this slot, newspaper stories from the independent Daily News, The Point and the pro-government Daily Observer were read on the air in English and local languages. According to its proprietor Ismaila Sisay, the feared National Intelligence Agency officers said the news programme was a threat to national security.
In contrast to stations like Teranga FM, the state-owned Gambia Radio and Television Services broadcast only news officially approved by the government. They are effective in reaching out to a mass audience, but lack credibility due to toeing the official line. The broadcaster focuses more on displaying Jammeh’s achievements, for instance his so-called treatment programme for HIV/Aids, and skill in developing agriculture. In contrast it neglects newsworthy events of interest to the public.
For its part, The Gambian independent media is still bleeding from the unsolved murder of leading editor Deyda Hydara of The Point in 2004, the arson attack on Independent Newspaper on 17 October 2003, the disappearance of Ebrima Chief Manneh in 2006, the illegal closure of media houses and increasing attacks on journalists. The small press corps has already been harmed by 17 years of intimidation and repression by the Jammeh’s administration, with regime increasing the bond for the registration of newspapers from $3,500 to $17,000 in 2004, as a means of discouraging the publishing business in the country.
And Jammeh's tactics worked forcing dozens of the country’s best independent journalists into exile. Nevertheless, despite operating under a restrictive environment, The Gambian media is achieving a certain vibrancy, although in recent years there has been little change in terms of numbers in the print and electronic media.
Photo: Dancers painted green celebrate on the beach in support of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh after results of presidential elections were announced September 23, 2006. Tens of thousands of people crammed onto Gambia's tiny island capital Banjul on Saturday as Jammeh threw a massive beach party to celebrate his re-election for a third term. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly
The newspapers that are available do represent a diversity of voices. The most credible of these are the The Point, the Daily News and Foroyaa. The Point was started by journalists Pap Saine and the late Deyda Hydara in 1991 with a view to strengthening the right to freedom of expression and democracy. Hydara's share in the paper now belongs to his family. The Daily News is owned by Madi Ceesay, a former president of The Gambia Press Union and recipient of the Community to Protect Journalists 2006 Press Freedom Award. Foroyaa is owned by Halifa Sallah, an opposition politician from the People for Democratic Organisation Independence and Socialism.
There's also the independent newspaper Today, which was founded in 2007 and is privately owned by Nigerian-born Abdul Hamid Adiamoh, and The Voice, owned by journalist Musa Sheriff, who came to The Gambian as a Liberian refugee and decided to stay. Then there's the pro-government The Daily Observer, which was also founded by a Liberian, Kenneth Best, in Monrovia and transferred to The Gambia because of the war. Owing to its critical nature, its African foreign staff, including the proprietor, were all forced to leave the country. Best was forced to sell the paper and it is now owned by business tycoon Amadou Samba. The paper has moved a long way from its independent roots and it's widely believed the paper now belongs to Jammeh, with Samba merely a figurehead.
In terms of broadcast journalism, there are few private community radio stations operating purely on a commercial basis and these largely cover sports and entertainment. According to international press freedom defenders Community to Protect Journalists, many independent media outlets have been shut down by the Jammeh government between 2001 and 2010, including Citizen FM, Radio 1FM, a local bureau of Senegalese station Sud FM, The Independent Newspaper and Business Digest.
To say it’s difficult running an independent media operation in The Gambia is an understatement, and the task isn’t made any easier by the government's reading of the constitution. “The ruling APRC government pledges to uphold and defend the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in Chapter IV of the Constitution,” the ruling party's 2001 election manifesto stated, but the same constitution advises Gambians to know “where our rights end and where other people’s rights begin”; sections 22 and 24 of the Gambian constitution clearly spell out the above-mentioned rights.
This is a frightening reminder from a government with an appalling human rights record. Lest we forget, in August 2009 Jammeh vowed to behead human rights defenders and those working for them in The Gambia. On 21 September 2009, he issued a threat to journalists and human rights defenders whom he branded as “troublemakers”. “What I want to make very clear to … so-called human rights defenders is that I will never allow anyone to destabilise the country on behalf of the campaign to promote human rights,” Jammeh said on the state-owned Gambia Radio and Television Services.
Jammeh’s statement was provoked by the legal tussle involving six members of the Gambia Press Union, including two publishers (Pap Saine, managing editor of The Point and Sam Sarr, managing editor of Foroyaa), and three executive members from The Gambian Press Union (Sarata Jabbi, first vice-president, Emil Touray, secretary-general and Pa Modou Faal, treasurer). Their arrests followed a story published in two newspapers, reacting to a provocative statement by the president on state-owned national television. Jammeh, who hasn't called a single press conference since 1994, tried to blame the murder of editor Deyda Hydara on the victim. Jammeh’s remarks about the slain journalist angered the union members, who felt that government had failed to investigate the crime and bring to book the perpetrators. As evidenced by his rant, the press release the union published on this matter did not go down well with Jammeh.
The 2011 presidential elections will be highly challenging for the private media considering the unfriendly media laws in place, and the fact that Jammeh intends to transmogrify himself into a “king”, a course of action with which the opposition generally disagrees. The independent media is materially and financially weak, and has inadequate resources to face up to the challenges ahead. If not improved, the current state of the private media will lead to inadequate dissemination of information to the public. For the media to be able to cover the elections they must provide adequate training for reporters, better equipment and finance reporters’ movement to cover political activities across the country. Not much hope remains. FAM
Saikou Ceesay has worked as a reporter on Gambian publications The Daily Express, Foroyaa, and The Daily News. He is assistant editor of the latter. He has been arrested and interrogated by The Gambian police while investigating stories on more than one occasion. Ceesay established his blog, Gambia Affairs in 2008 to promote and defend freedom of expression, press freedom and human rights.
Main photo: Gambian President Yahya Jammeh holds up a Koran while speaking to the media after casting his ballot in the presidential elections in Banjul September 22, 2006. Voters in the tiny West African nation of Gambia went to the polls on Friday in a presidential election widely expected to extend the iron-fisted rule of incumbent Jammeh for a third elected term. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly