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On John Pilger and Mathew Jallow

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By Ebrima Baldeh

I have never met them in the flesh; but if reading and digesting journalistic talents are anything to lean on; then, I must say without any misgivings that I knew John Pilger, and Mathew Jallow for a long time. I’d like to add pizazz to the invaluable contributions of these men and what they’ve bequeathed to us, who, sadly, left us less than one month apart, who lived in different worlds, but were bonded by: an insatiable appetite for good and courageous journalism.

Back in the days when Kenneth Bests’ Daily Observer was flourishing in the 1990s, a team of young and enthusiastic men was shortly called into action shortly after the completion of what was then, Advanced Level education, to help spread the word and by extension, flex their muscles on what was a fluid and tenuous vocation. And, the newspaper became the hottest commodity in the streets especially the weekend editions, where politics, human interest stories, entertainment and a bit of gossip was interspersed giving the reader a mouthful feast for the week. 

But the hysteria was gradually halted when reporters who often were good at chasing news breaking stories, were instead hunted by the surreptitious regime, detained, mercilessly tortured under humiliating circumstances. And, when the sale of the mighty Daily Observer was finally completed; Best was forced to leave the nation; change management signaled

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changes in editorial policy and outlook. The likes of Mathew Jallow, and several others fled in the late 1990s,  in an attempt to save their energy and ink for another day and another world, where democracy and freedom of the press thrived: Enter the United States of America.

Under a new environment, the dissident journalists, activists and whistleblowers across Europe and the US, regrouped under the guise of cyber journalism, this new breed truly gave Jammeh’s regime a tough call. Online newspapers, radio stations with acerbic  editorial  contents proliferated, books and academic papers abound. Of the uncountable cyber warriors, Mathew Jallow was unrepentant and unforgiving in his style and crusade, hammering and calling out those who helped the regime abuse democracy.

Former Daily Observer journalist turned psychologist, Omar Bah, who now holds a PhD, fled the country after he was declared wanted, published a book entitled: Africa’s hell on earth, outlining the regime’s excesses and how reporters holding the government accountable were handled with brute force.

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Years after he left the Daily Observer and sought refuge in the US; now Ivy league educated, Cherno Baba Jallow, who cut his journalistic teeth at the Daily Observer, recalled how the late the affable  Mathew Jallow threw him a challenge:

“I think this was in 1991/2… I had finished my A’ Levels and had started working at the department of planning, agriculture ministry. But I didn’t like my job. I asked Mathew how I could join the Observer. He told me to go see Mr. Best. And I remember him saying, there are A’ Level holders like Sheriff Bojang, Abdoulie Jammeh doing it. You can do it too”

During one of my sessions at the national archives in Banjul  some years back, voraciously foraging history, and sipping inspiration from the legends, I stumbled on a story headlined: “man changed into woman at Serekunda market” written by Mathew Jallow. I thanked myself for not screaming, for I would have rudely distracted many of the readers and researchers in the mostly quiet room, phew!  the story turned me on and vowed to dig deeper into the man and his stellar qualities.

On his reflections on Mathew Jallow, Cherno Baba said:  “He was a gifted writer, and he wrote on different subject matters. He had a weekly column in the Observer “The Way We Live” It was about culture, changing mores, etc. Interesting take on Gambian society.

Pilger exuded brilliance in framing contextual subjects that often revolved around deprivation, enlightenment, and drawing the audience’s attention on the mismatch between what the ordinary people think and what the truth is.

Even when some of us disagree on what constitutes a documentary, Pilger was not the one to deodorize it; nowadays, the concept of documentary means different things to different people, some cast it more or less  as propaganda and public relations stunt.

While there may be many, few notable documentaries under his belt comes to mind: War on democracy (2007), the war you don’t see (2010)  and the coming war on China (2016), in these films John Pilger, manifested candor and  journalistic wit to navigate around contemporary political and economic themes. In framing, Pilger stood for the voiceless and lampooned powerful nations and big corporations who exploited the masses to enrich themselves such as the case of a reputable garment factory in Indonesia, whose workers toiled day and night and were paid peanuts. Throughout his life, Pilger didn’t shy away from controversial issues; whether it was the intractable Israeli- Palestine conflict, the Australian-born, who was mostly based in the UK ran his show with gusto: investigating and framing documentaries in a way that exposed what would have remained hidden for so long.

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