By Njundu Drammeh
Legends do not die, they live on.
To kill is horrendous. To kill just to satisfy the whims and caprices of another human being is not only horrible but shows the basest nature of man. To cut down a person whose only crime was the pursuit of truth is dastardly and cowardly, the greatest disservice one can do to his or her nation. Such has been the character and machination of our previous government, the perfidy of a President, and the habit of willing henchmen and ‘hangmen’. Unconscionable President, soulless Government, cowardly army (none more complicit than any group in our 22 years of tyranny and misrule), double standard intelligentsia, apathetic citizenry. It was a fertile ground for impunity and human rights violations.
The press had its share of the atrocities, in larger measure or proportion. Those who dared to have the courage of their conviction and pen paid heavy prices. The catalogue of miseries and misfortune against the Press and the dirges of sorrow it sang, very audibly and sonorous, were heartrending, mind-cudgeling and above all unfortunate. The dastardly and cowardly attack that so tragically claimed the life of the genial Uncle Deyda Hydara was the “unkindest cut of all”. That he was cut down by the very State which was supposed to protect him was the real definition of betrayal and testimony of the brutality of an unconscionable governor.
Uncle Deyda’s struggle, for which he paid the ultimate price, was the people’s struggle- a fight for us to live in dignity, freedom, respect, and peace each day. He led that struggle in his own way, speaking truth to power, pricking the conscience of the governors, using his pen to educate and arouse in the citizenry the feeling of self-consciousness and sovereignty. His was a struggle for freedom and human rights; a struggle for the dignity of the Fourth Estate. The press was manacled, blindfolded and gagged. Appalling deeds were committed against its independence, appalling suffering and provocation endured. The freedom and independence which it required, and which is a much sought after desideratum, was callously bisected, dismembered and buried ‘seven feet’ deep by the power that be.
Uncle Deyda was a martyr for all of us. Thirteen years or so since his sojourn to meet his Lord, the time has come for us, as a nation, to redeem, recognise and celebrate his sacrifice and place it where it should be, in the pantheon of the great. The sacrifice was not just for the Gambia Press Union or the press fraternity; it was for all of us. It is therefore the whole nation which should celebrate the man and his sacrifice. We must not leave that to Gambia Press Union alone. Unfortunately, we do not often see one person’s struggle against tyranny or protest against human rights violation or denial as one in which the collective should be involved.
It is only that person’s struggle or the group or organisation he or she belongs to. If only the conscience of the whole nation was awaken; if only the whole nation agreed on the perfidy of the Government of that day; if only we knew that uncle Deyda’s struggle was for all of us; if only we saw the Government’s killing of Deyda as a declaration of war against each and every one of us; if only we never believed the calumny of Yahya against the media; if only we all appreciated the great work of journalists, may be, just may, the whole nation would have played ‘activist’ and ‘fighter’ for uncle Deyda, would have demanded justice for him and all those who suffered for us to be free. But his struggle and that of the Gambia Press Union were not seen as that of all of us. Every struggle is still seen as ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
As we celebrate the glorious life of uncle Deyda and all the other martyrs, the time has come for the Government of New Gambia to take away all the obstacles and barriers that restrict or impede the freedom of the Press and, by extension, freedom of expression and assembly. These too were uncle Deyda’s struggle and for which he paid for his dear life. The contribution I can make towards the ‘common stock’, as a private citizen, can mainly be in the forms of suggestions and criticisms. It is a citizen’s moral duty to criticize and scrutinise both the motives and character of governmental acts of commission and omission. If I have to pay a price for writing what I feel or for speaking my mind; if the views a person expresses could imply violence which can uncontrollably shake the foundation of the State, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the very character and attitude of that State.
The Public Order Act and all its provisions which put restrictions on the enjoyment of right to assembly or protest, the provisions on defamation and false information, ‘insult laws’ and all the gags adversely prevent democracy to blossom and flourish. Freedom of the press is the basic benchmark for determining whether a country is truly democratic. It serves as an important safety valve or warning light, identifying issues and problems that urgently demand solution or discussion if political advancement, stability and pluralism are to be maintained.
A free press does not subvert public order in any state. Instead, a robust press actually brings about or promotes national reconciliation by encouraging the discussion of controversial matters of national concern before they reach the flashpoint. It is the very catharsis of discontent and an antidote to violence. The press only mirrors the prevailing opinions, the undercurrent of discontent and other cross-current of views, the exposing of murky deals and shenanigans. With freedom of the press, people are in a position to participate in the decision-making process of their country.
The breath and latitude given to the press is a pointer to the ‘openness’ or ‘closeness’ of any government. The press should have the freedom to assess actual risk, criticise government policy and make intelligible criticisms. Democracy strives in soils where people fearlessly, freely and faithfully express their views to further the exchange of opinions and the enlightenment of the public. A free press thus serves as a catalyst for democratic change, the vigilant conscience-keeper of the nation, the unflagging watchdog of the citizenry.
As we continue uncle Deyda’s struggle for freedom and human rights, we celebrate his life as an extraordinary human being who laid his life for others to be free, as a voice for the voiceless and the torchbearer for all of us. Uncle Deyda ran his race on earth in grand style. We know he is now in a better place. He lives in our lives, and what freedoms and rights we guarantee to ourselves will be determiners of the place he still occupies in our hearts.
May the souls of his killers rot in eternal damnation.