Journalism in The Gambia is in the throes of its most severe crisis in decades. A combination of censorship, unbridled partisanship and ineptitude are steadily eroding the gains that the local media realized over the past decades. Unlike the years gone by, the prime threats to media freedom in The Gambia today are from an overzealous government which has contempt for free expression.
Gambians admire the contribution of some heroic journalists, most of whom were arrested, detained or exiled—those who were made to combat dictatorship during the dark era of our history. Unfortunately however, at times we have to contend with those who insipidly toil for our emancipation. President Yahya Jammeh is a bridge that links us more to the dreaded past than the bright future.
President Jammeh is a depressing leader. While in The Gambia, we have a constitution which supposedly guarantees freedom of speech and expression, but it does not guarantee freedom after speech or expression, because the government has imposed restrictions, and this has led to a litany of laws that severely curb free expression.
While the government holds true to its dark reputation of keeping the media on a short leash with a coterie of repressive laws, some exiled journalists have launched successful online newspapers and Internet radio by providing alternative news to the news-hungry Gambians, both at home and abroad. With the advent of the Internet into homes of Gambians and the Diaspora, the government can no longer have a complete monopoly on the truth.
There is an ongoing problem of African journalists being forced to flee their countries for safety. Freedom of the press is threatened, and so are the personal safety of the journalists, putting the number of journalists in exile quite high not only from The Gambia but also from other repressive countries like Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea, as well. Recently, for instance, the Reporter’s Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2013 report stated that “Media pluralism has been whittled away,” and classified The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, King Mswati III of Swaziland, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, with other heads of states such as Issaias Afewerki of Eritrea and Ismael Omar Guelleh of Djibouti, who are members of an exclusive club of authoritarian African leaders. Some of them are merely eccentric while others are stern, and they hold their countries in an iron grasp and keep a firm grip on news and information.
Ongoing research documenting worldwide press freedom conditions reveals a worrying pattern of deterioting press freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa. Close to 10 African journalists were killed in relation to their work in 2012, the highest number since 1999. African governments should uphold and guarantee press freedom as enshrined in the African Charter for Human and People’s Rights.
In an earlier affront to press freedom, proprietors, editors and staff of one of the most vocal Gambian newspapers; The Independent, suffered a series of arrests and harassments with death threats directed at some of them, and the newspaper premises and its printing press were destroyed by fire bombs. Most of the paper’s staff are now in exile in various parts of Africa, Europe and North America. For instance, the former editor in chief, Abdoulie Sey, is in Dakar, together with Demba Jawo and Aisha Dabo, working with one of Africa’s reputable press agencies, the African Press Agency (APA).
Also, other staff members like Alhagie Mbye and Lamin N. B. Daffeh are pursuing their education in UK, while others who have had some connection with the paper, like Bunja Touray, Alieu Badara Sowe, and many other exiled Gambian journalists are also in the UK, working hard to further their education. However, some of the former Independent staff have abandoned the profession completely and are now pursuing other careers.
On the other hand, several exiled Gambian journalists have launched innovative publications and broadcast media outlets. For instance, Pa Nderry Mbai, like many others who fled after enduring several arrests and beatings inflicted by government agents, started the online Freedom newspaper and radio, which eventually became the Gambia’s leading online newspaper and radio, covering a wide range of issues relating to Gambian politics and other social issues.
However, several other exiled journalists still continue with their journalism careers, such as Ebrima Sankareh The Gambia Echo, Yankuba Jambang SenegambiaNews, Demba Baldeh and Yero Dalton Jallow (Gainako.com), Yusupha Cham and team (Jollof News), Musa Saidykhan and team (Kibarro News) and Baba Hydara, a Senegalese national, who founded Hello Gambia, collaborates with Essa Sey, fomer Jammeh loyalist now Jammeh nemesis anchor a talk show on Gambian politics and human rights violations.
Another example, the US-based Gainako online newspaper and radio, was founded and published by two dynamic young exiled journalists, Demba Baldeh and Yero Dalton Jallow. It is a relatively popular newspaper which covers politics, human rights issues and other news of interest to Gambians both at home and abroad. Senegambia News, another independent online publication, is based in Minneapolis, was founded by Gambian journalist Yankuba Jambang, formerly of the Daily Observer.
Meanwhile, Ndey Tapha Sosseh, former president of the Gambia Press Union, who was charged with treason in her home country, is currently the secretary general of the Civil Society Association – Gambia and an advisor and consultant on press freedom issues in West Africa.
Sheriff Bojang Jr. is exiled in Dakar, Senegal, and is a foreign correspondent for France International and host of other major news outlets in Europe and Asia.
Another of Gambia’s veteran broadcasters, Bora Mboge, is in exile in Sweden, which is another example of a great loss to the Gambian media fraternity.
Muhammed Lamin Sillah, former editor of the defunct The Gambia Journal online now consulting for Kibaaro News and Abdou Karim Sanneh, currently based in the UK, and a former columnist of the Observer Farmer, has graduated with a degree in Environmental Studies.
Other heroic journalists in exile and whose contribution towards solidifying free press and expansion of democratic gains in The Gambia include Mathew Jallow, president of the Gambia Press Union -USA chapter, Sulayman Makalo, Modou Nyang and Nanama Keita, all of them currently in the US, while Pa Kemo Jarju, Kemo Cham, Olufemi Peters, Yaya Dampha , Alieu Badara Ceesay, Sarata Dibba and Pa Modou Bojang are based in the UK.
While Cherno Omar Kebbeh, a former reporter with The Point is not in self-imposed exiled but he has accomplished the American dream, trained as an economist at the Bureau of Economic Analysis in Washington DC.
Neneh MacDouall-Gaye, another veteran broadcaster and former diplomat, is the founder and host of popular ‘Talking Point Africa’ in the USA, a weekly television programme airing on AIB Television.
Fatou Jaw Manneh is founder and publisher of Maafanta.com, an online magazine that covers politics, women’s issues and other contemporary issues such as human rights violations. It also seeks to expose the tyranny of the Gambian dictatorship. She has banded with other exiled journalists to provide news stories from all over Africa and the Diaspora.
The Internet is indeed a salvation for journalists in exile, and President Jammeh should be warned that no matter what he does to suppress the independent press, the Internet is always there as a way to disseminate the truth.
Other Gambian journalists have also been forced to flee since the government has tried to silence their reports of corruption, human rights abuse and other evidence of misrule. They find exile in neighboring African countries, Europe and the United States. Most are unable to find jobs in journalism and most of them survive doing menial work. Committed to their role of informing the public, many, like those mentioned above, develop online services.
Some exiled Gambian journalists have benefited from scholarships; for example, two exiled Gambian journalists (Ebrima Ceesay and Baba Galleh Jallow) have already earned their doctoral degrees and a third (Ebrima Sangareh) is currently completing his doctoral degree from a prestigious university in the UK. Three of the exiled journalists have also authored books (Ceesay, Jallow and Pa Nderry Mbai) and another exiled journalist is currently completing his book, which is expected to be published this summer.
Omar Bah, another exiled Gambian journalist based in the US, and founder of Americanstreetnews, has been accepted to the Global Mental Trauma and Recovery Certificate fellowship programme, a six month fellowship run by Harvard Medical School; he is also currently pursuing his master’s degree in Rhode Island. Bah fled The Gambia after he was declared wanted by the state.
Alagi Yorro Jallow, another exiled Gambian editor and author of this article considers himself lucky to have been supported by two journalism fellowships at Harvard University—the prestigious Nieman fellowship, as well as a fellowship with the Joan Shorenstein Centre on Press, Politics and Public Policy. He is also a Reagan-Fascell Democracy fellow based in Washington, DC. He obtained his master’s degree at Harvard in Public Administration and Public Policy.
Exiled journalists are also lucky to have Gambian lawyers like Alieu Badara Sowe and former freelance journalist Yankuba Darboe (practicing lawyer), both based in UK.
A number of exiled journalists resident in North America and Europe are currently pursuing further education, both in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, while others are involved in other professional careers.
Despite all they have been able to accomplish, many of the exiled Gambian journalists are not able to support themselves by practicing journalism. Most of those working on online publications do it part-time after they come home from jobs they must do to support themselves and their families. Most of the journalists survive on hand to mouth.
The life of a refugee is not easy. They often cannot penetrate professional journalism in their new countries of exile and so must take jobs in restaurants and warehouses in order to make ends meet. We are all familiar with the tales of émigré physicians or professors who arrive in America to find that their immediate future is delivering pizzas or driving a cab.
Among exiled Gambian journalists are people like Mahdavi, who has degrees in physics and journalism with lots of work experience, but he is stuck in a low-skill, low-wage job. Just as doctors once came to North America and could not find work, the same is now the reality for journalists.
According to John Fraser, a journalist and Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, the state of the media is so dire “that even exiled journalists looking for work will find it hard to evoke empathy here.”
No one really knows how many foreign journalists are leaving Africa for Europe and North America, although it has been indicated that hundreds of immigrants have identified themselves as journalists, editors, writers or authors. And their numbers may increase substantially in the immediate future. Exiled journalists are usually considered in North America and Europe as “freedom fighters”; and as such, the media in those countries do not accept exiled journalists.
Many exiled journalists who come to the West by chance or choice share the same sense of disillusionment. One former editor with a portfolio of published books, for example, was told that he did not have enough experience when he attempted to penetrate the mainstream media. Instead, he was urged to work in a clothing store or a restaurant. He ended up becoming a forklift operator. “It was very insulting,” he said. “If somebody comes from a different background and has something to offer but doesn’t know how, there should be a system that helps them share their potential.” It is an observation shared by many foreign-born journalists interviewed: “If only I could get a shot,” they would say. “We know our English is not strong-and that it might take a longer time to copy edit our work, but we also bring so much to the newsroom. We have contacts all over the world and unique perspectives and plenty of experience as well, even if it’s not the damned experience they’re used to.”
Gambian exiled journalists have battled to continue the work of being the voices of truth in The Gambia—they banded together to found the Gambia Press Union,-USA Chapter, which complements the parent Gambia Press Union in The Gambia by helping journalists through continuing professional training as well as giving moral and financial support. The GPU-USA is an important entity, as well, but it has a precarious existence.
Nearly 100,000 people have left The Gambia, mainly into self-imposed exile, the majority of them for neighboring Senegal. Most of them are fleeing state violence and repression as well as chronic unemployment and massive inflation. These Gambian exiles and economic migrants however continue to seek news of their country wherever they are. And some of the exiled journalists have fascinating and unexpected experiences and stories to tell; they set up independent media groups to publish political articles reflecting the Gambian realities. These online newspapers provide an alternative to those who are fed up with both the regime’s controlled news being churned out by both the Gambia Radio and Television Services and the pro-regime Daily Observer.
This ability of exiled journalists to share their messages despite many of them being far away from their homeland is a blessing. However, many of them are still struggling. After obtaining food, shelter and refugee status, further education is what Gambian journalists need most. Many do not have much formal schooling, and to work in a foreign country, they need more education. There are currently not enough programs and scholarships to offer good educational opportunities to these exiled journalists. And yet it is a good education that offers hope for their future. And these educated, capable journalists are part of the key to offering hope for The Gambia’s future.
Promoting freedom of the press among the Gambian people both in and out of The Gambia is a tough job, but after suffering years of oppression, there are many Gambians who appreciate the nobility and the importance of freedom of expression. Every day, healthy debates and professional, constructive reporting is in constant demand from Gambians living both in and out of their homeland. And the way that this reporting is made possible is through the Internet, which offers opportunities to reach people that were never available before. The Internet is a miraculous tool for disseminating news and information. The benefits of using the Internet for Gambian journalists in exile are tremendous—using this medium, they can provide better communication and better information. Therefore, President Jammeh and his government have seen that the use of the Internet by exiled journalists is a threat to his government and authority.
With the oppressive government that currently is in power in The Gambia, press freedom is virtually non-existent at this time, and most of the professional journalists are exiled and some private radio stations and newspapers have been forcibly closed and self-censorship is at its worst. The only way that news about The Gambia can continue at this time is through these exiled journalists who do their best with their limited resources to be a voice of change for this small African country. They can continue to plead their cause, with the hope that one day, their country will again have true freedom of expression and be a place where human rights are upheld.