Crusading journalist

By Omar wally

Fatou Camara is a celebrated Gambian journalist who started her career at Radio 1 FM. In 1996, she sojourned in England and studied media and communication before returning to join GRTS as a reporter and newscaster in 1998. In 2005, she picked up a job at the US Embassy as protocol assistant and military liaison officer. In 2008, she set up iMedia Company. She was the host of the very successful The Fatou Show programme on GRTS. In 2011, she was appointed director of press and communication at the Office of the President but lasted for only three months. President Jammeh recalled her in 2013 only to fire her later.
Fatou was arrested twice by the NIA prompting her to go into self-exile in the USA. With her online The Fatu Network, she played a game-changing role in what was commonly called the ‘The Struggle’ with her spirited anti-Jammeh bashing. After the fall of the dictator, Fatou Camara is back home, ready for a comeback in New Gambia.

In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Omar Wally talked to her about her past, present and future:

Bantaba: Your contribution was immense in bringing down Jammeh’s regime. What was it like fighting an entrenched dictator?
Fatou: There is a way in everything. When I went to the United States, there were people who had been fighting Jammeh for 20 years. The first thing I told them was I will not fight for twenty years. I said we had to find a way because Jammeh’s regime had to end or we stop fighting. Fighting had been going on for long and I have to say kudos to the opposition leaders, because they fought for a very long time. The diaspora came in and then I came in four years ago. So it was tough. But it worked and God was ready to save The Gambia.

You worked with Jammeh on two occasions, how was it like?
When you work with Jammeh, you don’t see the things that you get to know when you are not near him. Like when you meet someone they want to show you their nice side. When I heard the killings and everything that he was doing, and I thought about how he sits in his office very innocent! If you are not told about those things you will never believe he could go to that extent. So you didn’t see that side of him in the office. What I see sometimes is the humanitarian part of him, not the brutal side.

If you had not fallen out with Jammeh, would you have set up Fatu Network?
Well everything happens for a reason. I was here doing my business and it was good. But if you said I’m not coming to my country, of course I will fight back. When I was fighting Jammeh he was fighting back. They came to Washington and they attacked me. So it is normal for every human being if someone fights you, you fight back. Like if I get up right now and start a fight with you, you are not going to sit down and watch me, you will fight back. Jammeh fought me and I fought him back. People are here and didn’t go anywhere but they could not fight much, because we all know what was at risk. When I went out, I got to know more about the killings and then family members opening up to me, telling me this happened to my family member. That motivated me and I said we needed to do something to end it so that we can have freedom in our country.

So in the end, you won the battle?
Gambians won, because what we wanted was to get rid of Jammeh. And Jammeh himself got to a point where he was tired. Maybe he was tired of all those things but didn’t know how to go, because you cannot be that one person that everybody is scared of, killing, torturing and giving orders for all the bad things happening. Imagine, Jammeh sent me to NIA, locked me up for 25 days. After that, saying to the [head of the] television don’t let her come on television. That is petty. So if a president is petty, you take the petty out with him and that was what happened.

Now that Jammeh is no more, what next for Fatou Camara?
I want to set up my public relations company. There was iMedia before, now I have a partner that I will be doing PR business with communication and try to see other areas that are there that I can work in. The fighting is over; there is a time for everything. Now is the time for the new page.

Did you regret working for Jammeh?
No I have no regret because I was not working for Jammeh. He was not paying me from his pocket.

But he hired you?
Jammeh hired me because he saw the talent in me. You know there are 1.5 million people [sic], how many people held that office? When I left that office it was empty for a very long time. So, if I was an accountant and Jammeh made me a press secretary, people may have an issue with that but he hired me for the job I know very well. Jammeh did not do me any favour; he saw that talent in me that he needed at that time and he hired me and I delivered.

Okay, you have talent, but you could have told him, I cannot accept your job offer because of your [poor] human rights record?
How many people know about that human rights record in The Gambia? Not everybody knows about it. When Jammeh approached me to work with him, it took me six months before I even accepted. I told him I had contracts that I was doing and he said I was very talented and he wanted me to do the job for him. I said but I have contracts that I’m working on right now, why not we wait until I finish my contracts. Six months later, he saw me again and said I was the one who refused to work for him. I said I didn’t refuse; I am just trying to finish my contract. When we take jobs we want to make difference, if Jammeh was a bad person and I think I could help him, there is nothing [wrong] with taking the job and trying to change that person. But you get in; you get to realise that this is somebody who would never change. I did not do the job because of money because I was making millions from my show and I was getting paid a paltry D6,000 [at State House]. I didn’t also do it for fame because I was in the media since 1994 at the radio.

You have been credited for facilitating Jammeh meeting with the press, how did you come to fall out with him?
I only wished he had given me that opportunity at the time to continue what I was doing. Because when I came, I wanted to do something that was never done in that office before. I like [getting] results. When he hired me, I thought he should meet the press because the relationship between him and the press at that time was not very cordial. I asked him to do it and he agreed and I wanted to do a lot more for him, for example trying to bring him more into the public, to open up and even meet people. I also helped open The Standard newspaper, [which he had ordered shut for over six months]. So my intention was clear.

Why did you accept the job from him a second time?
We are all human beings and we are all Muslims. The second time when Jammeh saw me, he said he was misled to fire me. Jammeh said people said stuff about me and he found out it was not true. He said he wanted me to come back and I said, can we have a one-on-one meeting. Few days later, I was invited to that one-on-one meeting and I told him everything that was on my mind. I explained to him I was disappointed at the way it ended the first time. He was not comfortable listening to it, he was like, ‘Oh some of these things I don’t know about, people pretend to act on my behalf, but I didn’t ask them to do that…’ That was what he told me. That was when he took out the Qur’an and swore and I believed him. This was a president in all white, with [rosary] beads and the Qur’an and I trusted him.

Most people said you flouted the principles of journalism because Fatu Network was set up purposely to fight Jammeh and you were like a muckraker?
I don’t think it was set up purposely to do that. iMedia was exactly like The Fatu Netwok; nothing changed. I think the only thing that changed was the website. Because I am not a print journalist but a broadcast, I don’t write, so that was the only new addition to that. It was not to fight Jammeh but it was to talk to people in The Gambia to know what we had and for people to speak out. There were victims at the time and people had things to say. We wanted them to come and talk about Jammeh. That was what demystified him. People got to know who this man really was.

There were the good and the bad things [when it comes to Jammeh], but The Fatu Network was publishing more ugly things about Jammeh than good things, why?
Well it was a fight and a fight is always ugly, it is never pretty. What we wanted to do was speak out about what the people were going through at the time. Remember people were being tortured, killed and lots of things happened.

So to put it quite plainly, as a journalist if you are fighting a dictator, you should put aside professional objectivity, is that what you are telling me?
What we were doing, there was nothing unprofessional about it. We were writing facts and what we were told. Whatever we quote, it was very credible and from verified sources, so it’s not definitely made up.

How about the accusations that you were not portraying the other side?
But nobody stopped the other side from giving their side.

But did you make any effort to get their side?
We always do. When Jammeh appointed me in 2013, I told him to be open to the online media, I told him don’t run away from the media.

As a victim and a Gambian, what do you think should be done to Jammeh?
Victims really deserve justice and for that to happen, Jammeh has to come, talk to people and tell them why he did all of that. It is important for victims to know the truth and be told where some of the [disappeared] people are. Until now there are people whose whereabouts are still unknown. We need those answers from Jammeh and he also has to face the law. Otherwise what we don’t want is impunity. If he gets away with it, some other person can think it is right, they can also torture people, get away with it and the world cannot accept anything like that now.

If the Barrow government offers you a job, will you accept it?
All of us cannot be in the government. I have been in the government before; I think it is time now for people with fresh ideas to come forward and offer something [new]. I can be in the private sector. I really don’t want to be in the government but if there is any way I can support my government without being in the government, I will do it.

Were you expecting some form of reward after Jammeh left because of the crucial role you played in ousting him?
I met President Barrow in Freetown and never asked him for anything. I did not do that to get a reward. I see people around who never even uttered a word being rewarded. When I see situations like that, I am happy because what that tells me is, we did something, at least to make sure that those people are comfortable and they are enjoying.

Was Fatou Camara expecting a heroine’s welcome?
If I was expecting that I would have announced [my return] in advance. I have The Fatu Network, it is the most followed network in The Gambia, among Gambians I think. So if I was expecting that, I would have written that I was coming back and talk to the media about it.

Were you a ‘Jammeh enabler’?
I was never a Jammeh enabler. I never help Jammeh to kill anybody. I was there for three months and there were people who have been there for years and there are still working in the government. There are people who worked with Jawara, Jammeh and they are also working with Barrow. So how can someone who work for three months can be an enabler? There are people who have been there for years and they are still there.

The time you spent in government doesn’t matter; what matters is what you did while you were there?
But what did I do, did I killed or report anyone? I brought the journalists to meet Jammeh and on Jawara’s birthday, I told Jammeh he should do something for the old man, and I [re]opened The Standard newspaper. Some of the people working there, what did they do? So that is the difference. Whatever I do, I like to make an impact. I did what I was supposed to do and I didn’t do anything [untoward].

Are you going to be part of Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission?
I actually travelled with them as designated communication person for the TRRC. And many people are saying, why I was there and I really don’t get it. But when I first got information about the TRRC, the Justice minister will tell you, the first thing I told him was I’m not sure of sitting in an office, 8am-4pm. That could be very difficult for me. But if they are going to outsource it to my company, that will be beautiful. We will do it.

Will Fatou Camara and other victims of Jammeh get justice?
Well that depends on the government. They know what happened and what we went through. They knew the whole story. So we are waiting to see what they will do.

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