Every May 3, journalists in The Gambia join their colleagues and the rest of the globe to mark World Press Freedom Day, WPFD. This has been the norm since the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration, a statement of free press principles coined by newspaper journalists of Africa at a seminar in Namibia in 1991.
May 3rd was purposely initiated to act as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to the freedom of the press. It is a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics, and a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom, according to Unesco.
In The Gambia, journalists marked this year’s event amid a cloud of distress and uncertainty following a slew of torrid remarks by President Barrow accusing the Gambian press of ‘formenting discord and instability’ by giving a platform to activist Madi Jobarteh who is one of his government’s foremost critics and social commentator.
“He claims he is from the civil society, but he is a civil society [member] whose only intention is to set the country on fire and all the journalists are giving him a platform,” President Barrow said. “But they should know that whoever is aiding Madi Jobarteh, you are not helping The Gambia.”
The Eid remarks intimidated many journalists, and painted a partial Gambian media.
The country’s foremost investigative journalist and Malagen editor, Mustapha K Darboe said the accusations are dangerous and likely to affect people’s perception of Gambian journalists. “As a head of state, if you are telling people this is how journalists are, eventually, they will hear it, and they will believe it. Because when a president speaks, it is a policy.”
Many journalists thought this year’s WPFD commemoration, as it came on the hills of the Barrow attack, would take the form of a march past denouncing not only the president, but all forms of attack on the Gambian media.
When CSOs joined the journalists last Saturday to belatedly mark the day at the University of The Gambia’s auditorium, the issue of the president’s attack was not in the itinerary. But in his lengthy address, the president of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), Muhammed S Bah, noted: “We wish to remind the government that it is the responsibility of the state to guarantee journalists’ safety and combat impunity and enable the media to carry out its work independently and without interference. This is in light of recent comments and actions by both public figures and private citizens (online and offline) targeting members of the media.”
In an earlier statement, the GPU said the president’s remark accusing Gambian journalists of fomenting discord to “burn The Gambia” by giving a platform to Mr Jobarteh is unacceptable.
“Giving voices to those who hold the government to account is fundamental to the media’s watchdog role which is guaranteed by the Gambian constitution,” the union asserted.
Journalist Banna Sabally said she felt intimidated after listening to the president’s statements, and spoke of the “danger” in the statements.
“As a head of state, he has a lot of supporters. What would happen if those people start spreading the same message President Barrow is spreading? It could have a terrifying impact,” the radio journalist admitted.
“It feels like a threat,” said the president of Young Journalists’ Association of The Gambia (YJAG), Yankuba Jallow, reacting to the president’s statement.
The Foroyaa newspaper journalist said they were “unfortunate and miscalculated comments”.
Modou S Joof, the secretary general of GPU, said such statements could serve as a way of curtailing press freedom and freedom of expression in The Gambia.
He pointed out that political figures in the opposition including government ministers are equally culpable to that effect.
But Mr Joof said that no journalist should pander to such statements. “I think journalists should not be cowered by statements from the politicians including the president to not do their job.”
He said a section of the Gambian press maybe bias, which will undermine the crusade for a free press and safety of journalists. “We have to be honest that some of our journalists are partisan,” he said.
Attacks under Barrow
While the condemnation and bashing against the president’s remarks were swift, it did not surprise most journalists. Attacks on the media under the Barrow administration have been well documented.
In March 2017, ex-Forayaa newspaper journalist Kebba Jeffang, was assaulted by supporters of the United Democratic Party (UDP), Gambia Moral Congress (GMC) and the National Reconciliation Party (NRP) for asking a legitimate question regarding the inter-party committee (IPC) unity at a press briefing organised by the parties. Then Interior minister Mai Ahmad Fatty issued an apology letter to Mr Jeffang, but no one has been held responsible.
In November 2019, three journalists, Landing Ceesay of Paradise FM, Sally Jobe of Kerr Fatou and Gambia Talents Promotion’s Ebrihima Jambang were assaulted by a member of the Barrow Youth for National Development. Later, the government released a statement condemning the act, which happened during the president’s Meet the People’s Tour, yet nothing came out of it.
In January 2020, two private radio stations King FM and Home Digital FM, were taken off air purportedly on the orders of the police. The order came after the police raided their studios and arrested four journalists in the lead up to the presidential elections.
The two FM stations were accused of spreading “incendiary messages” and “inciting violence”.
Sankulleh Janko, a reporter for the Dakar-based West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR), was assaulted in 2020 by a group of protesters who confiscated his gadgets. Like the other cases, nothing came out of it.
Prince Bubacarr Sankanu, a principal information officer for the Gambia government, insists that freedom of speech and of the press has long been guaranteed in The Gambia, citing a recent legislation on Access to Information. “That illustrates how far the government is willing to go,” Mr Sankanu said on the sidelines of the WPFD commemoration.”
He said the “political will” is there to advance issues surrounding freedom of the press and of speech, but cautioned that: “Many people think freedom of expression is just taking the mic and saying what they like. No. Freedom of speech without rules or limits will lead to anarchy.
Respected Gambian political science professor Abdoulaye Saine, in a letter, said President Barrow’s diatribe against media platforms, human rights advocates, and community activists, was both “shocking, and frightening”.
“Wagging his finger as he threatened all who dared to express a different or dissenting view, President Barrow reminded me of Gambia’s dark, and dictatorial past under Jammeh. Never Again,” he said.