Rodney Sieh was a reporter and sports editor on Daily Observer, The Gambia before Yahya Jammeh’s pogrom on journalists forced him into exile in the West from where he returned to set up the award-winning FrontPageAfrica.
After 25 years, Mr Sieh returned to The Gambia this week and Bantaba anchor Alagie Manneh sat down with him for this interview. Excerpts:
You first came to The Gambia in the 1990s with your uncle and founder of Daily Observer, Kenneth Y Best. Briefly take us through that journey.
The journey started in late 1991. My uncle Kenneth used to run The Daily Observer and invited me and I came to The Gambia, with my mom. When I came, The Gambia was different then and the media was just growing. The likes of Ebrima Ceesay, Sheriff Bojang, Fatou Jaw Manneh,were the young journalists then. Things were fine then. I remember I was the sports reporter for Observer and then I became the BBC reporter in Banjul. Then in July 1994, everything changed when Jammeh took over.
Why are you in The Gambia after 25 years?
I wanted to come long time but I felt the timing wasn’t right. A lot of things were happening. The timing is right now because it’s good to remind people about where The Gambia came from and where The Gambia is going and how important it is for the media to stay strong. I hope my presence here can remind the government that there is still hope for a powerful media in The Gambia. I hope President Barrow does the right thing and open the radio stations which remain closed.
You and your uncle fled war in Liberia where journalists were systematically targeted by warring factions. Was working as a journalist in The Gambia difficult for you?
Not really. If anything, it validated the sense that no matter where you are, journalists have become targets. Under Jawara, things were not bad. I used to see Jawara every Saturday at the Fajara Golf Club. I covered the club for Observer. Once the coup happened, it became different. Gambians who were not familiar with this kind of media clampdown became… they had a front row seat to what was happening under Jammeh, people begin to see signs that he is not friendly with the media. It became an everyday occurrence because at his press briefings he would single me out as quoting State House sources. After a while, it became apparent that Jammeh and the APRC were not friendly to the media.
About 2 years after Daily Observer kicked off, the July 1994 military coup happened. As a Liberian journalist working for a Liberian-owned paper in the country, what was 22 July 1994 like for you?
It felt confusing and difficult at times. Because the paper was popular and I was on BBC everyday on Focus on Africa, people knew me and would welcome me in their homes to hide. I have slept in different places just to keep myself from being caught. It just became a fear being a journalist under Jammeh.
What are your most vivid recollections of those days, especially as a journalist here?
I remember we had lots of stories, in the beginning. We had stories that they were killing people secretly. So, those kinds of things happen every time. You would hear about people getting arrested, tortured and killed. As time went by, it just became harder to be a journalist in The Gambia. The New York Times came to The Gambia to do a story about Jammeh and they interviewed Mr Best, who said somethings that Jammeh didn’t like. He became a target and then he was deported. Once he was deported, I became a target.
Tell us about your fracas with the regime when you covered the first six months of Jammeh’s presidency.
It started when I asked Jammeh ‘are you going to be a dictator’? I asked that question because I knew it is coming back to haunt him. He did say he was not going to be a dictator but today, Jammeh’s legacy is out there for all to see. He became ruthless. When I saw him the first time, he reminded me a lot about Samuel Doe; he was frail, skinny and his speech was not… I saw in his eyes Samuel Doe. When things started happening and we were reporting, I could sense that things are becoming uneasy. Sabally, Singhatey, the first time I met them they were all eager about the change and what it holds. But those people have laid back and allowed Jammeh to seize control and as a result… some of them got pushed and others got killed. The same thing happened in Liberia. When Samuel Doe came, he had 17 men with him. Before he left office, they all escaped or were dead. Jammeh was becoming dictatorial and that was where the problem started with Jammeh and I. It’s funny, years later at a summit in Addis, I saw Jammeh and he saw me, too. He shook his head and walked away. I was like African dictators are all the same; they feel invincible, untouchable and some of them feel they will never die.
It didn’t take long before Daily Observer was targeted by the military regime and foreigners barred from entering into the paper’s premises. What’s your recollection?
When I was here, before I escaped, it happened twice – they were targeting foreigners working at Observer. After I left it became more rampant and Justice Fofana, Ebrima Ceesay… it wasn’t just about foreigners now. After we left, Jammeh of course became more influential with the Observer.
Kenneth Best was deported back to Liberia, and you left. Tell us about that. Why and how did you leave?
He [Kenneth] was kicked out. He was deported. When I called the BBC that day to inform them that I have a story, the publisher of Observer has been arrested, I said I am afraid but they said I have to talk. I told them that I was in hiding. I remember the anchor ended and said by Rodney Sieh in hiding in Banjul. After that report, I remain hidden. It was my last report for the BBC. I left The Gambia around November 25th, a few days after Kenneth was forced out. I already had a British and US visa. I went to the border and took a bus to Casamance and word got out. From there I flew to London. After a few months in London, I went to America.
Did the coup change the way you reported news and events? Did it compromise anything for you?
No. If I had stayed and embraced Jammeh and ignored everything that was happening, then it would change me but I am very stubborn. I always feel like, all my life, I always feel like doing the right thing. If I accepted and allowed Jammeh, I don’t think by now the trend that followed would have happened. People were saying let’s forget about Jammeh but we had to report what he was doing. There was corruption, there were killings and things were happening that shouldn’t be happening. These were things that Gambians never saw before. Gambians never heard about secret killings. It never happened under Jawara.
In the US, you continued journalism withObserver online then FrontPageAfrica newspaper. Tell us about the transition and what triggered the birth of Front Page?
A lot of journalists from Africa go to America or London and forget about the profession. But for me I felt that I have a calling. When I went to college, I started the first online newspaper in the college in New York. I started Observer online. Mr Best went back to Liberia. That’s how I left Observer and started my own Front Page Africa.It was very easy for me. We started at a time when online networking was just starting. I used a lot of social networking to get the online going and once people knew there was a newspaper that was exposing corruption, that was investigating government, they followed us and in a matter of like a month or two, we were already one of the leading pacesetters for Liberia and West Africa.
For many years, you’ve not been in speaking terms with Kenneth Best. What happened?
There was a series of articles we ran about corruption involving the ambassador to America, who was Mr Best’s friend. When we put those articles online, Mr Best wanted us to put them down and I refused. I said no. Sometimes, people, as they grow older, their beliefs change. Somewhere along the road maybe he had too many friends and doesn’t want anybody to write about them and it becomes a tricky balance for journalists. And I think that’s what happened to him. Mr Best was like my idol. Everything I learned in journalism is because of him. I wanted to be like him.
Until the birth of Front Page Africa, Kenneth Best’s Daily Observer was arguably Liberia’s biggest newspaper. How easy or difficult was it for you to compete for prominence and market with your uncle, Kenneth?
I just did the things that he was doing. I stayed on course and did everything he taught me. I investigated corruption and most of our political stories landed people in jail. And people like that; they like corruption stories. Most times we did these stories, some people hold them against us. You should know I went to prison twice because of my work.
You had problems with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. What brought it about?
For me, it all started with the corruption. Most of the reason why African presidents fail is because they surround themselves with corrupt people. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, may have had good intentions, but she had lot of bad people around her and as a result, there were stories about corruption, about stealing government money, theft of property and stuff. We begin to report these stories and people who were in the government felt offended. One of our investigative reports led to a minister being dismissed.
Was it not in fact that story that handed you a 5,000-year prison term in 2013?
When the minister was dismissed, we were sued and I was sentenced to 5,000 years in prison. But I think this investigation we did was based on a general auditing report, so, once that got out the international community started saying that there was a miscarriage of justice here, that I did nothing wrong. I just reported what the auditing commission reported.
You were thrown into a prison cell with murderers, armed robbers and petty criminals. Do you think that was meant to break you?
Yeah, they wanted to break me. In fact, one of the guys who were there killed an American general in a hotel. One of them was a rapist. There were a lot of armed robbers. These things are meant to break you so that when you leave from there you will be weak but, when I came out of there, I became stronger.
After serving four months you were released. Where you pardoned?
There was a lot of international… in fact before I went to prison – I knew I was going to be arrested anyway because the court had found me guilty. I did an article for the New York Time’s, an op-ed, which lays out my sentencing, how unfair it was and stuff. Once that article came out, the government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became… they panicked. Now they were trying to get me out of prison because it was embarrassing the government. They promised me; they said they will give me money if I shut the paper down. They said I change the name of the paper, I said no. There ware a lot of demands. They wanted to save face, and I wasn’t gonna budge and after so much pressure from the international community, they finally let me go.
President Sirleaf’s party eventually lost the last election and former football icon George Weah came to power. What kind of a president is he?
He’s unusual. There’ve been lot of corruption. He has been building a lot of massive properties overnight. As I speak to you, there’s a shortage of food, shortage of gasoline in the market. Government structure is pretty much non-existent. Some people are feeling the pinch. People are not happy and it is becoming more and more difficult for Liberians to survive. There was a lot of hope because Weah came from the grassroots. Weah came from the poor part of society and rose up to become the best footballer in the world. People expected him to be someone who would identify with the poor; identify with his own people, but somehow about power, the thing about power is that once you get power, it corrupts your mind, it corrupts your body it corrupts your whole being. I think like Jammeh, he has been corrupted. Once they become president, it is different; you cannot underestimate them.
You recently wrote a piece comparing the government of President Weah with that of our Adama Barrow. What do these two leaders have in common?
I think they both came from poor background. They are not well-educated, although Weah has a master’s degree but he is not really educated. People saw Barrow as another hope because Jammeh had just left. And they said oh well, now that Jammeh had gone, this guy from outside will be something different but the economy is not good, people are complaining. You have two radio stations shut down just like in Liberia. The only difference is you don’t have a gas shortage.
Rodney, your journalism career has been draped with trials and tribulations and they say that is what inspired your book Journalist on Trial
The reason I came up with Journalist on Trial is because it’s not just about me; it’s about every journalist, we all go through trials and tribulations in life. I was on trial with Jammeh, in Liberia with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. I am on trial with George Weah. They always find a way to put you in a box, to suppress you, oppress you, diminish your work. And now they have the social media. A lot of these presidents use social media to go after journalists. Looks like you are always in trouble with those surrogates who are paid by the government to go after you. It’s a continuous trial process for the media.
How can your book inspire journalists to be more dedicated to their work?
I think the best thing any journalist can do now is to focus on the work, focus on the details; the how, the why, the where,the when, the who, focus on these things. Remain firm in your belief. Don’t let anybody discourage you. Don’t let even your editor discourage you.