You have been at the helm of affairs for GPU for almost three years. What is the condition of GPU?
I can say that when we took over we inherited a lot of challenges. We are trying to see how best we can overcome those challenges. One of the major challenges we face is lack of resources. As we speak we have tackled some of them and are working on others. We do not have an editor’s guild, distributors or printers association here because the media is still in infancy so the GPU to a large extent covers the publishers and the editors. Under normal circumstances, it should not be like that but then that is what we inherited and we hope in the long run things will change for the better. There is an editor’s forum and when registered the editors will manage their own affairs instead of the GPU helping them when they are in trouble with the law, printing their papers and so on and so forth. We hope that in the long run when all these things are set up, the problems will become history.
As the president of Gambian journalists, what is your typical day like?
You have to understand that running GPU is like running a state because the media is not well developed. As a result, we have daily challenges to address. Most freelance journalists don’t have Internet data cards so they come here and use our facilities to do their work. Our Internet supply has been interrupted for the past few months owing to some technical complications. Sometimes our members find it difficult to understand that we don’t have the solution to all their problems. People have to understand that the GPU like any institution or a government has its shortcomings. We are grappling with financial problems.
You used to work at the Daily Observer but left under insalubrious circumstances. Could you explain what transpired?
Actually what happened was at the time we had disagreements with the manager at the time Buba Baldeh and the whole editorial team decided to call it quits. Buba Baldeh was not happy with a story published about Nayconf. As a result he was threatening to sack the author of that story. Some of us contemplated the best way to do was to seize the files of the paper where the stories were kept so that Observer would not be able to come out the following day. But Pa Kalifa Sanyang who was the news editor at the time and realising that Buba Baldeh’s actions were excessive thought the best way was to call it quits. We acceded to his proposal and resignation letters were written and handed to Andrew Dacosta who was then the deputy managing director. They wanted to reinstate some of us and sack the editor–in-chief Pascal Eze but we agreed that if we had to go back all of us had to go back. It would not be fair to sacrifice Pascal because he was not the author of the story. He was only trying to show solidarity. Some indicated that Pascal was non-Gambian and that Pa Kalifa Sanyang belonged to a particular group which I would not mention. That was aimed at sowing seeds of discord among us. I do not believe in xenophobia or tribalism. Some returned but some of us who felt the conditions still remained the same stayed away. For seven to eight months some of us stayed without working. But after a while, I started working with the Entrepreneur magazine where I worked for a while with Musa Saidykhan.
You suffered the privation and deprivations of unemployment for eight months. Do you, in retrospect, nurture regrets for your decision?
I have this problem: I do not easily take decisions. I do not regret my actions. I think I did what was proper under the circumstances and as a result I have no regrets. There were people who returned and I don’t blame them because the fact that I believe in something does not mean I have to expect somebody else to believe in that.
What do you identify as the biggest challenges for Gambian journalists?
One of the main obstacles for Gambian journalists is the draconian media laws that we have in place. They stifle free expression. As a result of these laws and continuous harassment of journalists, people who have the financial clout to invest in the media are not keen to do so which is really affecting journalists and journalism in this country. Again, journalists are paid pittance which is forcing many journalists to engage in unethical conducts to get money. We have written to media houses to increase the salaries of journalists and they did that. Some could not do it because they indicated that they were grappling with financial problems. As I said, we would like the media laws to be repealed which will encourage people with the means to invest in the media industry.
How do you plan to go about tackling such oppressive media laws?
We have made a review of the media laws in the country and found out that they are not in line with international standards. This is why the special rapporteur for the freedom of expression Faith Pansy Tlakula called on the government to bring its media laws in line with international standards but they are yet to do so. However, we have sent a copy of the review to the Ministry of Information and they are yet to do anything about it. In the event they fail to move ahead to repeal those laws, we will be compelled to institute civil action. In such a suit, we will pray the constitutional court to declare that the courts went in excess of its powers to promulgate such laws which are not in tandem with the constitution. There are some people who would say that going by the Gambian constitution freedom of expression and press freedom are not absolute. But if you go to section 25 of the Constitution, it makes it clear that any legislation that is passed has to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic state. We believe the law on sedition is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic state. We are doing our best to challenge the constitutionality or otherwise of those laws. We hope our prayers will be granted by the constitutional court of The Gambia.
The GPU goes to congress next month. Are you going to seek a return to office?
The issue of congress is something we are going to discuss at executive level and we are hoping by next week or so we will have a discussion with our membership with a view to mapping out a way forward. If my colleagues feel I should run I will run. That’s the stark reality.
But in a previous personal conversation with me you told me you were not going to seek re-election. Why the change of mind?
You have to understand that at some point you get disillusioned by certain things. The ultimate objective is to serve. I worked with many organisations and contributed to them. At some point I got dissatisfied with so much infighting and I felt like the proper thing to do was to leave. At some point with the GPU you sometimes ask yourself whether it is worth it with the troubles and machinations. You might not be aware of the machinations that have been ongoing but your boss [Sheriff Bojang] knows what I am saying. I am not a person who likes to criticise people and there are some of my colleagues who see that as a shortcoming on my part. I do not like criticising people openly because it is not my style. Even my colleagues who do that know I don’t like that. It is just not my style.
What have you achieved and accomplished since you became president to think you deserve a second term?
I do not believe in saying. ‘I have accomplished this, I have accomplished that’. It is not for me to say so. If you talk about Gambia Press Union, you are talking about a group of people.
But uneasy lies the head that carries the crown. That said, I ask you again what you have achieved.
It is amply evident that the GPU has made tremendous gains. The fact that the GPU has a secretariat like this is an achievement. We were occupying a very small office in Serekunda in a very noisy place and sometimes it would go for months without us paying for our rent. Furthermore, we were able to review the media laws and indicate the shortcomings there. I would not say that has not happened before but it had not happened in the last nine years. We have set up an Institute of Journalism where people are trained to be qualified journalists. It is the GPU that has worked with the GAMES Project and the National Training Authority to set up standards for journalism education in The Gambia. For me that is an achievement because it is an institution that is going to teach journalism in this country. We have gone to the point of defending people who are not our members. Not only that but paying their legal fees. We have gone to speak for journalists who were not our members. I cannot recall any journalist in trouble who did not get our support.
The general perception is that the GPU is, by proxy, controlled by Foroyaa and PDOIS and that you yourself were or still work at Foroyaa?
People are entitled to their opinions. We have to understand that it is not proper to stifle dissenting opinion. What is profoundly important is for people to support their claims with facts. You will agree with me that those people who said those things have not provided evidence to support what they are saying. I don’t take them seriously. I would expect them to adduce facts and evidence to support what they are saying.
Many people said you are not a charismatic leader and that you dress rather humbly?
You know whatever you do, people will always have something to say. If I dress in suits like a banker they will say I am taking money from GPU. Like they said about our former executive director Aloa Ahmed Alota when he started driving a car. For me, what I believe in is doing the right thing and leave people to say whatever they want to say.
With Sainey Darboe]]>