The Gambia, ruled for the last 20 years by an eratic and brutal tyrant, is one of the worst places on earth to work as a journalist. One prominent journalist who lived under the Yahya Jammeh regime has placed on record his own harrowing experiences and those of others – plus insights into media history and operations in the tiny West African nation.
"Six armed men wearing masks came to the printing works at 2:00 a.m., fired shots into the air, and ordered the employees to lie on the ground. One of them then set fire to the new press… completely destroying it." The police didn't investigate the crime much less arrest the suspects, to one's surprise.
The incident above sums up Alagi Yorro Jallow's 'Delayed Democracy: How Press Freedom Collapsed in The Gambia'. The author is a winner of prestigious awards for excellence in journalism, and earned the unenviable distinction of being arrested over a dozen times for his hard-nosed reporting. He was in the main a co-proprietor and the managing editor of the 'Independent' newspaper, and fought with Deyda Hydara against draconian media laws in the country. Forced by death threats into exile in the United States, he studied at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, became a research fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, and is currently a Fulbright scholar teaching at a Bangkok university in Thailand.
Jallow's book addresses freedom of expression as the cardinal of all freedoms for both journalism and the nation, and gives a comprehensive account of Yahya Jammeh's despotic response to the idea as well as its application. It also provides a historical overview of media in The Gambia dating back to pre-colonial times, and a running commentary on the troubled story of press freedom in Africa. The colonial laws about the press, Jallow points out, were decidedly repressive. The British Crown didn't want the legitimacy of its rule challenged, and so handed down harsh libel, sedition and other restrictive laws from London to deny their subjects the freedoms and rights to write and speak against colonialism in favor of self-rule. Independence was supposed to change all that, except that it didn't. Jawara and his ministers, like governments everywhere, weren't receptive to the media casting them in a bad light. So they left the oppressive laws in the books and added some of their own.
Jallow's verdict on Jawara's 30 years in power is magisterial and unforgiving. The most crucial aspects of democracy, he underscores, were instituted over time and not faithfully. Corruption, impunity and abuse of the national interest and assets couldn't be checked, because the system had become too entrenched to dismantle, and it disenfranchised those who should have been empowered to reign it in. The crony state became "too massive, too intimidating, and too powerful," and therefore rendered the Constitution, the first and final word on the rule of law, dormant. The Parliament had been too enchanted with power to discharge its responsibilities. The fledgeling private media, the only institution outside the direct control of the corrupt and corrupting system, had been shoved aside. A system where the ruling party controlled all the levers of power for self-perpetuation rather than carrying out the nation's business was bound to produce undesirable elements like Yahya Jammeh as its inheritor.
The coup that brought Jammeh to power in 1994 coincided with the establishment of several private media outlets. The country's first daily, the 'Daily Observer', had hit the newsstands about only two years earlier. The 'Point', a biweekly at the time, was just about three years old. And more papers would come out since, including the 'New Citizen' and the 'Independent'. The lack of journalistic scrutiny Jawara had largely enjoyed wouldn't be true for the man who seized power on the claim to eradicate "rampant corruption" and institutionalize "accountability, transparency and probity." He would perceive in the media nothing but mortal enemies. His very first decree suspended the 1970 Constitution, and invalidated every other law that stood contrary to any of his decrees, even the ones that were yet to be conceived and written, leaving the rights and freedoms of every Gambian at the mercy of his diktats. So much for a self-imposed liberator!