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City of Banjul
Friday, September 18, 2020

FROM CHEERS TO TEARS

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How a national TV caused sleepless nights for a people Let me start by saying that I would not have inked this piece ordinarily, but for the interest of the collective, I am left with no choice than to say a thing or two on the rather unhelpful role played by GRTS in those trying moments when a nation was teetering on the abyss of conflict. It is of course going to leave a bad taste in some people’s mouth even though the intent here is to enable us all draw some useful lessons in our quest to move key state establishments from perceived individual fiefdoms to vibrant national institutions. But as they say in the mantra ‘first things first’ and in line with the adage ‘giving God what is God’s and Ceaser what is Ceaser’s, I must start on a positive note. In the run up to the Dec 1st Presidential ballot, our much-maligned GRTS did even its biggest critic proud, when during the campaign it accorded fair and balanced coverage to all the contending political parties namely APRC, GDC and the Adama Barrow-led independent coalition. In other words, the political terrain from a broadcasting point of view had been one of a level-playing field. Even those who had for years cut ties with their only local television station were compelled to buy manual antennas in their bid to be informed about the goings-on in our domestic politics. That rare feat of course was down to the courage and tenacity of the respective crews assigned to the various parties to a point some observers here on the home front were concerned about what would become the fate of one or two reporters, who had put themselves in the firing line just to share with that Gambian voter the major talking points that had been central to the electioneering process particularly from the opposition end. Blending style and substance, GRTS, which does not get the credit it ought to have, left little if any stone unturned in telling a curious and an equally apprehensive public the development agenda of the APRC, GDC and the Independent Coalition, with the IEC rightfully living up to the herculean task of grand umpire. That refereeing role, I must say, was a job the electoral commission duly performed without a modicum of faint-heartedness. Everyone (individual and institution) must henceforth take cue from the gallant staffers of the IEC as they, under the stewardship of Alh. Momarr Njai, from the very onset insisted that our marble system of voting cannot be gazumped by any. Turns out, not many would have the same bravado that was uncompromisingly shown by the IEC, given how a state institution that unprecedentedly kicked off things in such a re-assuring fashion would come to cause unbearable nights, from the very minute then President Jammeh announced that dramatic U-turn on TV. It was there and then that a television station that started things on such a bright note just as I equally did for this write-up, all of sudden turned itself into a different cheer-leader, hell bent on window dressing for an already sinking ship to the chagrin of the electorate; a people who have had just conquered hitherto insurmountable barriers to usher in change. For those of you who are eager to remind me that those GRTS staffers who at the time were dancing to the whims and caprices of the former president out of duress and had no choice other than repetitively playing trauma-inducing rhetoric on his behalf, let me also ask this: isn’t the University of The Gambia an equally important pet child of Jammeh? Couldn’t the GRTS top brass or the core of crucial staff also borrow a leaf from the books of the plethora of key national institutions like the GTU, Gambia College etc to take a pro-people stance on Jammeh by simply issuing a statement condemning the former President’s blatant move; a decision that literally transformed this country into a tinderbox with the potential to explode into incalculable catastrophic proportions. Truth to be told, not every one at GRTS is to blame for the role played by the institution in consolidating the untenable position of an embattled leader, whose belief in the “us against them” doctrine meant he was prepared to take on the whole world . Sadly though, in an age when many are bereft of conscience and honour, some would not think twice to enter brick walls in fighting an unwinnable battle as long as the production line of their daily bread is allowed to remain intact. Perhaps too, it could be the power of some brown envelope that must have been trading places between the corridors of power and a television station. That may only be a guess. However, one thing I can say without a shadow of doubt is the fact that the once all powerful men like Saul Badgie had their people on the inside at GRTS who were blindly tricked or timidly saw Saul Badgie and his baron’s word as law; that he was not only the defacto CDS but a ‘Co-president’, so to speak. Why would anyone in those highly unpredictable moments involved themselves in ‘MAD'(Mutually Assured Destruction) by convincing one another or provocatively insinuating to others that Jammeh was going nowhere; that any word of ECOWAS intervention was nothing but mere rhetoric? Why would anyone seek permission from Saul Badgie before they could air the video recordings of CDS Ousman Bargie and his police counterpart Yankuba Sonko as the pair pledged the allegiance of their respective forces to Mr. Barrow? Those were the same sycophantic fat cats who were key in the recording and transmission of the then weekly familiar television episodes that were the cause of so many sleepless nights. Any time, it was scrolled on TV ‚ÄúPresident Jammeh to address nation”, a sense of trepidation was all you could feel in town and even afar going by Social Media activities. Many, out of the boiling frustrations, could only console themselves in a psycho-therapeutic manner by taking to Facebook to show their disgust, while few who could not see the damage from their comfort zones on MDI Road gleefully revelled in their own moment near oblivion. Although most Gambians felt hard-done by the footage on TV of that APRC nomination which in fact happened in November 2016, what would later prove even more embarrassing was the televised conversation between Jammeh and Mama Sirleaf. Someone ideally the DG GRTS or the Foreign Affairs Minister at the time should have frankly implored on a besieged leader in those fragile moments that doing such might be the final nail in the coffin for him. For crying out loud, not everyone should be privy to what was a supposedly highly confidential diplomatic affair. The exact contents of such talks just like courtesy calls on world leaders should only be a privilege for only few highly placed individuals. But nay, the extent to which some folks were willing to go in endearing and in the process, cementing their personal and professional interests, brought nothing but shame on anyone with ties to the Gambia and her people. It was a diplomatic ‘own goal’ that could have been avoided with good counsel. When we could have been better served doing what they called ‘damage limitation’ in sporting circles, GRTS TV for whatever reason had not on several occasions opted to put under the carpet any news that had been coming from the other end of the political divide. Not even the last round of talks between the the Ecowas mediators and the coalition deserved mentioning, thereby raising anxiety and adding to the prospects that the will of the people was never going to prevail in the end. In contrast, GRTS Radio in all fairness did a far better job as they played no agenda role for an establishment that was all but a toothless tiger on the rampage. I wish to make it clear the greater majority of GRTS staff are highly decent professionals but like any situation or place, the actions of only a few had dragged everyone else’s name in the mud during those unforgettable point in our history. And even as Yahya Jammeh is no more breathing the Gambian air, the same cobwebs that were symptomatic of his reign still reign supreme at state TV. The newsroom which is the nerve centre remains deeply divided and in need of capacity building as do the programmes and technical departments. Among the rebuilding job that must sit on top of any new DG’s to-do-list is a robust and efficient recruitment mechanism that would put mediocrity in the doldrums as opposed to ‘yes men’ without the required job related background. Specialisation, improving programme content both in terms of quality and diversity must also be a priority. Given that many new media outlets could be on their way here in this ever increasingly digital age, our national TV must be resurcisitated from decades-long inertia. Highly innovative and independent-minded individuals must be given chance to come up with innovative programmes of relevance, intellectually driven and as well critical analysis of both the government and the private sector. By that way, the state media will fully assume its rightful role by going beyond merely replacing Yahya Jammeh’s name with that of President Adama Barrow. By Famara Fofana]]>

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