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Friday, October 30, 2020

Unsung contributions of Gambian newspapers to independence struggle

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But it is rather unfortunate that one of key tools of the country’s struggle against colonial rule has largely been ignored; the media, newspapers specifically.  

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The newspapers in colonial Gambia played a central role; they were a veritable factor in the struggle for independence.  

It should be noted that Gambia’s struggle for independence first took the form of the citizens’ fight for participation in the economic front.  Business, then, was mainly dominated by European and British firms.  As a result, the few local merchants came together and set up a newspaper in 1871 called The Bathurst Times.  

The merchants started to use the newspaper to call for economic liberation, not yet political independence.

Other newspapers that also followed The Bathurst Times such as The Bathurst Observer and West African Gazette (1883) and The Gambian Intelligencer (1893) were mainly run by people with business concerns who felt that they needed a medium to defend their mercantile interest against colonial highhandedness and imperial desires.  

The most impactful and landmark event with regards to newspapers contribution to Gambia’s independence started in 1922 when Edward Francis Small, a former clerk in one of the European firms, established The Gambia Outlook and Senegambia Reporter.  

The newspaper’s credo, from the onset, was ‘to liberate Gambians from the colonial rule’.  Its editorials, news coverage and commentaries all were vitriolic anti-colonial.  

Hassoum Ceesay, researcher and historian, said all those who were opposed to colonial rule, in one way or the other, be it for economic exploitation, colonial maladministration, or political subjugation all were able to vent their feelings in the pages of The Gambia Outlook.  

As a result of Mr Small’s anti-colonial stance, the colonial administrators became so hostile to his paper; they banned civil servants from subscribing to the newspaper and deterred their loyalists from advertising in the paper.  EF Small, himself, was sent into exile in Senegal.

While in Senegal, Mr Small continued publishing The Gambia Outlook and used to smuggle some copies into Bathurst (Banjul).  He used to even send copies to London, Gold Coast (Ghana), Nigeria and Sierra Leone so as to share with people in those countries what was happening in Gambia, as far as the independence struggle is concern.

In 1934, another paper came into being; it was The Gambia Echo, first edited by John Finden Daily.  Although the Echo’s editorial policy was a bit soft, compared to The Gambia Outlook, it used to carry articles in which views critical to the colonial administration were expressed.  The newspaper launched an investigative path probing the colonial government and monitoring the behaviour and conduct of the expatriates staff in the civil service.  

Towards the mid and latter part of the 1930s, The Gambia Weekly, and The Gambia Public Opinion, were established.  Both papers were also highly anti-colonial.  

In the 1950s, another paper called The Vanguard which was also expressively anti-colonial and pan-African came into being.

Historian Hassoum Ceesay said all the nationalist parties had their own newspapers.  For example, he said, the Peoples’ Progressive Party of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara had their own newspaper called New Gambia edited by Ba Trawally, and the Democratic Congress Alliance of Garba Jahumpa and JC Faye had a paper called African Unity edited by Pierre Sock.  

The political parties’ ownership of newspapers is a clear manifestation that they were not oblivious of the fact that the media was indeed an important pillar in the fight for independence.

All the newspapers used to carry serious articles sensitising Gambians about the ills of colonial administration.  They even used to carry articles from British West Africa to show Gambians that other countries are in similar bandwagon against colonial rule.  For instance, when Ghana became independent, Gambian newspapers were in the forefront to report the events.  Similar coverage was given to Sekou Toure when he gave Guinea Conakry independence in 1958.  

After the independence of these countries, the Gambian newspapers were telling the people that Ghana has done it; Guinea has done it; Senegal has done it, we have to do it as well.  This inspired the people – the politicians, unionists, activists and even ordinary citizens – to intensify their struggle for independence.

The historian and research Ceesay said in this way, the newspapers succeeded in building and raising the consciousness and inspiring Gambians against colonial rule.  “As a result, the colonial rule suffered its deadly blow thanks to the peoples’ awakening,” Mr Ceesay said.

The editors of all the newspaper were fearless and defiant; they combined crusading journalism with militant politics and trade unionism to challenge colonial rule. 

They were uncompromising in their stance against colonial administration and wayward colonial officials. They never hesitated to expose and condemn White colonial masters who abused their powers or were racist or inept. 

However, given the literacy ratio at the colonial time, the readership of the newspapers was very small; a very small fraction of the population had access to newspapers.  But the few who had the access were very influential in society.  They were usually surrounded in village and town squares by their uneducated fellows to explain the main articles in the newspapers to them.

The newspapers were able to make it against a very harsh environment.  For example, in 1943, the colonial government decided on a new tactic by coming up with a government newspaper called the Gambia News Bulletin to offset the impact of the independent newspapers.  The editor of the paper had extra powers under the law to censor articles of the independent newspapers.  The editor, Captain Peters, had to see all the articles of the independent newspapers and he used to cut out a sentence, paragraph or sometimes a whole story which he did not like; stories that may not be to the good taste of the colonial authorities.  

As if that was not enough.  One year after the establishment of the Gambia News Bulletin, in 1944, the colonial government enacted the Newspaper Ordinance Act.  The Act made it extremely difficult for newspapers to continue in operation because it required a bond of £200 for newspaper operation.  

Besides these tactics, the newspapers were facing very serious economic challenges.  No money.  The civil servants, then, formed the bulk of the readership but they were banned from subscribing to the critical independent newspapers and advertisement which is the main source of newspaper revenue was not forthcoming.

However, the papers were able to sail through the economic hardship.

Despite the repressive media laws, the censorship and the economic challenges, the newspapers by dint of determination and commitment, most of the private newspapers were able to weather the storm and keep their heads above waters for the entire period of the struggle for independence.  The paper continued kicking with both hands and legs until after the Union Jack was lowered and the Gambia Flag hoisted.

“Without the newspapers, I can tell you that the struggle for independence would have been extremely difficult,” Mr Ceesay said.  “The struggle would have almost been impossible or the final coming of the independence would have been longer.”

Therefore, the media, newspapers specifically, deserves a central role, not just a footnote, in the discourse of the Gambia’s struggle for independence.


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