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Monday, January 18, 2021

The president and the media

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The recent criticisms of the media by President Barrow may not be ill-intended, but as mild as they maybe, the frequency and choice of platforms, (rallies) as well as the message makes it worrisome.  At first, the president said some people, who actually are activists, are masquerading themselves as newspaper  journalists and commentators when they are  political activists.

In the same meet the people tour a few days ago, the president said some radios and TVs sometimes carry false news and accord airtime through phone-in programmes  which opposition politicians capitalize on  to criticise government  and even insult people. He also reminded journalists that the laws that oppressed the media under tyrant Jammeh are still around, though his government has never used them.

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Yes, the president as a citizen has right to complain about the media. And yes the climate now is far better than before in terms of freedom of the media and expression. And again, we must appreciate his realization that democracy comes with its own price- tolerance. Also, we recognize that there could be issues with aspects of the work and state of the media that leave much to be desired.

What we are concern about however is that the president did not seem to know that there have already been problems (we would not call them harassments) in which journalists were arrested and their media houses closed, albeit temporarily.  And indeed as the Gambia Press Union reminded him, the president must realize that each time he speaks, it has effects whether it is a joke or some serious message. To stand on a platform among supporters and attack the media can incite his supporters to cultivate hatred and in the worst scenario, a confrontation between them and the media or journalists. It is our view that the president should learn from the his immediate predecessor who started very well with promises of unfettered freedom of the press but when the honeymoon ended, he became the all mighty who would not take criticism and ended up becoming the biggest oppressor of the media in Africa. He of course paid the price- worldwide unpopularity and demonization as the killer of press and pressmen.

Although the president is very confident, and we agree, of the impressive nature of our democracy, it is comments and behaviors such as his unnecessary verbal attack on the media that undermine such an achievement. We are not saying that no one should criticise the media; in fact, everyone is free to respond or tackle any misinformation or misrepresentation in any media and that medium is obliged to carry such reactions. But verbal attack from the level of the president on political platforms is not the ideal method to address grievances or misgivings about the press. That can be incitement as President Trump did recently which incident Mr Barrow himself alluded to.

We would advise that the president put together a robust and competent team at the heart of the presidency and at the political party level that will effectively monitor and promptly reply, challenge and counter criticisms from the many opposition political opponents and parties.  The president must realize that there are about a dozen political parties opposed to his regime and each of them would jump at every media opportunity or seek every media opportunity to criticise him and journalists cannot suppress those views.

Now if there is no one in the presidency or NPP whose job is to be readily available to promptly reply to these many critics in real time, there will be an imbalance in the coverage of politics in the media and it would be unfair to blame the journalists.  In fact, what President Barrow needs is a professional media adviser or advisers who are on top of their job and who know issues and can properly coach him  on domestic and world issues, whether the occasion is here in The Gambia  or abroad.  And such people must be at State House, not far away, so that they would effectively do their job in preparing the president on world affairs so that he can be offay with issues and effectively address local and international media on appropriate issues at appropriate times.

The president must also be reminded that what the Gambian media expected when he came to power was equal treatment of all media, private or public in terms of access. We were shocked to hear him say on one internet TV platform that he had embargoed talking to the media for some time and was going to lift it first with that media. This is not encouraging, coming from a man whom the whole media fraternity hailed and welcomed so passionately at the height of the crisis leading to his enthronement. President Barrow should be the last man to pick a quarrel with the media. He was such a darling of the Gambian media, so reachable and accessible that some people think he was becoming too cheap. All media hugely admired him for this. He must not listen to people with hate messages against others or those who feel insecure and want to elbow others out who can be of more use than them.

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