“JAMMEH WANTS A PRESS THAT IS PART OF THE LABYRINTHINE MISCARRIAGES OF HIS LEADERSHIP”, DEVULGES CHERNO BABA JALLOWJuly 27, 2014
Mentioning President Yahya Jammeh and the Gambian press in the same breath is sure to evoke passionate feelings. And it should. Jammeh and members of the Gambian Fourth Estate don’t mix; the two are at variance with each other in their respective roles in public affairs. The Gambian press wants to inform and educate the people; and make them an informed and engaged citizenry. But Jammeh wants a press tending to his own parochialism, to be a part of the labyrinthine miscarriages of his leadership. It wasn’t supposed to be this way: a press tethered to the chains of Jammeh’s megalomaniac dispositions. In 1994, he was the darling of the press. Some editorialists and commentators heaped praises on his so-called revolution. Jammeh was accessible. Journalists went in and out of the State House with relative ease.
The recent video footage of the then Capt. Yahya Jammeh being interviewed by a former Daily Observer News Editor Ebrima Ceesay exemplified the geniality that existed between the Gambian press and the new military leaders in the State House. Ebrima, shrugging his shoulders and looking Jammeh straight in the eye, and basking in the glow of professional alacrity, asked the new military leader some pointed questions. He warned Jammeh about falling for the inducements of power, and consequently, staying longer in office than the two-year mandate for the return of constitutional rule. In these days, Ebrima can’t do a similar interview. Two reasons: one, Jammeh is inaccessible; he is no longer welcoming to the members of the private press. And two, the frills of power have eviscerated whatever goodwill he had had for the Gambian press. CLICK HERE FOR THE VIDEO
Put simply, Jammeh has now become outrageously power-hungry as to see any pungent journalistic interviews as an affront to his self-serving grandeur. More than that: Jammeh has become the human Vesuvius on the Gambian political landscape. And just as Mount Vesuvius was prone to occasional, paroxysmal eruptions, Jammeh’s perennial outbursts have been dangerous to the body polity. Gambian journalists know a thing or two about what it means to be at the receiving end of Jammeh’s threats and actions: if it is not public rants about six-foot deeps, it is about hurrying journalists to jail on flimsy reasons. For the Gambian press, it has been like a dash to the abyss. Perhaps, no other sector of Gambian civil society has endured such hardships and hurdles as the press.
Thus, to what extent can a press, faced with such intolerable, coercive conditions, perform its important roles in informing and enlightening the people on the intersections of life and event? Given the Gambian situation, the press is in perilous territory, for press freedom, like all other freedoms, hinges largely on a constitutional order: the supremacy of the constitution, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and more than anything else, the willingness of the custodians of power to submit themselves to the dictates of law and its curbing powers. This does not obtain in The Gambia today, for Jammeh has virtually become the totality of Gambian existence. Deference to law is at its barest minimum. Journalists can’t operate fully in a climate inhospitable to the integrity of institutions and values.
But broadly viewed, the constraints of the Gambian press go beyond Jammeh’s poisonous discourse and malevolent actions. It is more of a reflection on the weakness of Gambian civil society rather than the harmful effects of one man’s policies. Our institutions are weak and porous, making them easy tramplings for a leader in the mould of Jammeh. Nigerian society underwent successive military dictatorships and a civil war, but its society was still buoyed by an educated class and strong, independent institutions. The press was able to survive the Nigerian military by dint of its vibrancy and resiliency. Newspapers such as Tell,Tempo, Newswatch were muzzled, but they still survived total extinction.
In Uganda, the press benefited hugely from the intellectual output of Makerere University, which played a vital role in the dissemination of information. The late Indian-Ugandan editor Rajat Neogy, barely 26 at the time, used his Transition magazine as an outlet for intellectual commentary and insight on his society and virtually on every part of the world. The Rev. Martin Luther King, the writers Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Dennis Brutus, Nadine Gordimer, V.S. Naipul, Paul Theroux and many others contributed articles. The Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere had a number of debates with Professor Ali Mazrui on the pages of Transition. Rajat was able to survive the difficulties of Idi Amin for as long as he did because he was brave and assertive, and he and his magazine operated from strong and efficient institutions. Out of the concrete jungle of Amin’s repressive dictatorship, Rajat and the Ugandan press were still able to survive the tremors of one of Africa’s worst dictatorships and be relevant conduits for information and mass enlightenment.
This partly suggests that press freedom, particularly in Africa, does not just depend on governments willingly obliging to a friendly press climate, but also the Darwinian adaptability of journalists and the quality of their body of work. True, vibrancy is not synonymous with freedom, but for most African journalists, their freedom is greatly enhanced by the integrity of their work and the vitality gushing from durability and diligence. It is the role of the press to be the educator for society, to create the passageways for the eddies of public opinion and to protect the citizenry from the consequences of reduced and muddied understandings about matters contiguous to their lives. But it is the pity of the Gambian press to be doubly-jeopardized by both Jammeh and by its own litany of inadequacies — although the former provides more cogency towards appraising, even sympathizing with, and the current state of affairs of the Gambian Fourth Estate.
Editor’s Note: this article was first published in Gainako circa 2008.