The president of the Gambia Press Union discusses with the editor of Gainako online news site, issues confronting the trades union and related matters. Excerpts:
Mr Touray the whole world is aware of the difficult situation the Gambian press has been under for the past 20 years, can you give us an overview assessment of the Gambian media, and how would you describe the condition of the press in the country?
Journalists in The Gambia work under a hostile environment which makes it very difficult for them to perform their duties like their counterparts in other jurisdictions. This affects investment in the media industry.
As you stated the media in the Gambia continue to operate under a hostile environment given the draconian media laws passed in the country by this administration, how does that affect the work of the independent media?
These laws affect both freedom of expression and media freedom. There cannot be media freedom when freedom of expression is at low ebb. These laws have stifle freedom of expression in The Gambia which ultimately impacts negatively on the academic and media freedom. Some people are afraid to express themselves openly because they do not want to be arrested and prosecuted under these laws. Since journalists do not ‘manufacture’ news coupled with the fact that sometimes people are afraid to confirm or refute certain happenings, journalists are forced to engage in self-censorship. This is largely owing to the fact that journalists in this tiny West African nation do not want to publish news items that they cannot defend before a court of law.
Mr Touray many media houses in The Gambia have been subjected to arbitrary closures, arrest and prosecution of journalists. As I speak to you there are still two Gambian journalists being prosecuted for reporting a story that is exactly identical to what the Daily Observer reported and nothing has happen to the Observer reporters, how do you explain the reason why Sainey Marenah freelance journalist and Musa Sheriff publisher of The Voice newspaper’s case? In other words what is the status update of their case?
This is a case that is already in court and as such I do not want to prejudice the outcome of the case. However, I wish to inform you that barrister Lamin Camara and his partner Edward Singhatey, have submitted a no case to answer submission. The prosecutor is supposed to reply to the defence’s application for their clients to be acquitted and discharge on grounds that the prosecution has not led a prima facie case against them to warrant the court to order the duo to put up a defense. Comparing the case of Musa Sherrif-Sainey Marenah and what Observer published on one of its editions, in my view, will not advance our campaign for freedom of expression and freedom of the media. Our position is that no one should be prosecuted for utterances or articles that are within the parameters set aside by the UN Human Rights Committee for the exercise of freedom of expression.
In another media case Mr Alagie Jobe, deputy news editor of the Daily Observer, was recently acquitted by the courts but not before he was held for almost three years and allegedly tortured, can you give our readers an assessment of what happened to Mr Jobe and what was GPU’s role in his defence?
Mr Jobe was actually detained for 17 months and not three years. He was detained at Mile 2 Prison on suspicion that he engaged in the production of seditious materials. While he was in detention at the NIA Headquarters in Banjul, we asked the state to uphold the letter and spirit of the 1997 Constitution by either releasing him on bail or bringing him before a competent court of law for trial. A week after the issuance of the GPU release, he was arraigned in court. He was subsequently remanded in custody at the Old Jeshwang and Mile Two Central Prisons where he was visited twice by a GPU delegation.
Many critics have alleged that the Gambian media is completely muscled to the level that hardly does anybody see any articles and or editorials critical of the government or public officials thus compromising their responsibility to hold the government accountable to the public. What is your reaction to that assertion?
People have a right to freedom of expression and this right must be respected and protected by all. However, it is important to point out that the local media continues to play an important role in The Gambia’s democratisation process. These critics need to be fair to the actors on the ground. You will agree with me that in an environment where freedom of expression is at low ebb, ultimately freedom of the media would be curtailed. Those critics, in my opinion, should explain why Teranga, Daily News and The Standard were closed down by the authorities in 2012. This in my view is why the media engages in self-censorship because they don’t want to
It has been a little over three years since you and your team were elected to run the affairs of the GPU, can you outline some of your achievements during this tenure and what were some of the difficult challenges you encountered as President of the organisation?
As a union, we were able to set up the first journalism school in The Gambia. GPU in collaboration with the National Training Authority drew the first and only standards and curriculum for journalism education in the country. During this period, we were also able to acquire an Observer Status with the African Commission on Human and People’s Right and have in the process raised concerns on the state of Freedom of Expression and Media Freedom in The Smiling Coast. It is fair to give credit to Article 19 for this achievement since the observer status was acquired under the GPU-Article 19 Project. During this period, we were able to hire lawyers to represent Nanama Keita, Dodou Sanneh, Bai Mass Kah, Sainey Marenah and Musa Sherrif. We also paid barrister Lamin Camara to represent Lamin Njie (a staff of The Daily News who was charged with contempt of court), Babucarr Ceesay and Abubacarr Saidykhan who were arrested and detained by the police shortly after they applied for a permit to protest the execution of nine death row inmates. When Fatou Camara was in detention at the NIA headquarters for a long time, GPU with the help of lawyer Sagarr Jahateh, filed civil action on behalf of her family. In its prayers, GPU asked the court to release Fatou unconditionally. Days after the state was served with the summons filed by the GPU, prosecutors decided to bring charges against her and arraigned her before the subordinate court in Banjul. Given that this action preceded the hearing of the GPU application before the high court, Sagarr Jahateh had to apply for the matter to be struck out of court. GPU had to pay a fine of D100,000 imposed on Saikou Ceesay by the Banjul Magistrates Court to save him from going to jail. We have sponsored three of our staff to study at the University of The Gambia, two of them are studying law and the other is doing journalism. While we have made gains in certain areas, it is fair and honest to point out that we have also recorded setbacks, prominent among these are the collapse of the GPU Newsprint Project and our failure to hold general body meetings for a long time. The dead of the GPU Newsprints Project was due mainly to several factors including the withdrawal of D100,000 from the newsprint account to pay the fine imposed on Saikou Ceesay by the Banjul Magistrates Court as well as using part of the proceeds generated from the sale of the newsprint to invest in the GPU Printing Press Project. While the Printing Press Project failed to yield dividend for the GPU owing to the fact that some of the newspapers owed the project a substantial amount of money, I would not call this a complete failure since the functioning of the machine did not only enable these papers to come out in the market regularly, but it paved way for them to compete the sister papers and pay their staff (most of whom are GPU members) salaries and wages.
Can you give us an assessment of the kind of funding and projects that the GPU has received and embarked on during your tenure? What is your relationship with the Young Gambian Journalists Association?
We have recently signed a financing agreement totaling twenty two thousand Euros (€22,000) with the German Embassy in Dakar. This grant is among other things meant for the procurement of laptops, digital recorders and digital cameras for the GPU School of Journalism. Last year, we were allocated ten thousand dollars ($10,000) by the UNPD to organize short term courses for Gambian journalists. UNDP this year allocated fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) to GPU for capacity building. We received financial support twice from the Child Protection Alliance to review the GPU Code of Conduct on reporting Children issues and as well train our members on how to report about children. We had received financial support from the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies. This grant was used to train our members on how to report on gender issues. We also implemented the ICFJ-GPU and FLARE joint project which was secured in 2011 with the help of Alagie Yorro Jallow, a former GPU executive member.
When you took over the presidency of the GPU, some people alleged that since you were associated with Foroyaa a newspaper associated with a political party, your colleagues were going to have some influence on how you run the GPU, what is your reaction to this assertion three years later?
Probably you have not read my previous interviews, but I want to make it clear that accusations must be supported by facts. I respect their rights to freedom of expression as enshrined under section 25 of the Second Republican Constitution of The Gambia, but I believe in the exercise of such rights, one must not be subjective in discussing matters of public interest. It is not for me to shrug off such allegations; the onus is on them to convince others by adducing compelling evidences. In the absent of any evidence I don’t see any merit in responding to those critics.
Touray GPU has a term limit of three years upon which you will have to convene a congress to elect a new executive! You were elected in June 2011 and we are now in September 2014, has your term expired and if so why are you not calling for a congress to elect a new executive?
In answering this question I would first like to refer you to the provisions of the GPU Constitution. This is the letter and spirit of the Constitution of The Gambia Press Union. Here it reads:
CHAPTER 7: ELECTORAL SYSTEM AND POLLING OFFICERS
Article13 1 Elections of members to the Executive Committee shall be conducted every three years by secret ballot
2 All fully paid up members of the Union shall be entitled to vote or be voted for.
3 The election shall take place no later than December 31st of the third year.
We will hold congress in accordance with these provisions of the GPU Constitution.
What exact stipulations are outlined in the GPU constitution regarding term limits and conducting elections? Do you intend to run for a second term of office as allowed by the GPU constitution?
I have answered this question in my previous interview with The Standard newspaper. In short, if members feel that I should run for another term, I will offer myself as a candidate.
You have been accused of being a very soft and laid back leader leading an organisation that has seen the worst assault on its members more than half of whom are in force or self-exile? How would you respond to this criticism and would you acknowledge that you are too laid back to successfully lead an organisation such as the GPU?
Let us detach sentiments from facts. Tell me what GPU could have done better under the current circumstances to stop the exodus of these journalists out of the country. You will agree with me that GPU has consistently criticized the bad media laws and have always stood by its members whenever they are in trouble with the law. This accusation would have been valid if GPU under my leadership has abdicated its responsibilities or unable to measure up to expectations.
What strategy if any do you have in working with the Jammeh government either in trying to harmonise relationship between government and the private media OR challenge the government on its draconian media laws?
The GPU-Article 19 project saw the review of the Media Laws by the latter. This document was submitted by the GPU to the Ministry of Information with the hope that it would be used by government to bring the laws regulating freedom of expression and media freedom in line with regional and international standards as proposed by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, Pansy Thalaku. However, nothing positive came out of this initiative. This has left the GPU with the option of challenging the constitutionality or otherwise of the laws of sedition and false publication at the Supreme Court of The Gambia. The Supreme Court will at its next session hear this matter.
GON. Did you ever attempt to have audience with government officials and or even the President to discuss about the status of the media? If so, what was the outcome and if not, why not?
We had a meeting with the former Minister of Information, Nana Grey-Johnson, who was advocating for the licensing of Gambian journalists. This meeting was to be followed by a stakeholders’ forum where the issue of self-regulation was going to be discussed by representatives of Government and actors in the media fraternity, but this meeting never materialised.
What are some of the lessons you have learned leading this Union and looking back do you have any regrets or is there anything you would have done different if you knew what you know now?
I will reserve my opinion on this question for posterity.]]>