With a new president in place, journalists in Gambia appear to be facing a brighter future after more than two decades of severe pressure.
In December, the small west African country saw the latest major upheaval in its brief but tumultuous political history when Adama Barrow scored a surprise upset in Gambia’s Dec. 1 presidential election, defeating then-President Yahya Jammeh.
Jammeh reneged on an initial concession of defeat, claiming there were “unacceptable mistakes” in the vote counts, but ultimately stepped down and left Gambia for exile in the face of the threat of intervention by a coalition force assembled by Gambia’s neighbours.
Barrow, who was sworn in as Gambia’s president across the border in Senegal on Jan. 19, returned to Gambia one week later. His administration marks the end of the dictatorship of His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa, Jammeh’s full honorific title, and came as a surprise to many in the country, where few expected a democratic handover of power, let alone a peaceful one.
Jammeh’s tenure as leader of Gambia was marked by an overall negative effect on development, with weakened state institutions, a centralisation of power, a deterioration in economic conditions and a low level of political inclusiveness. The latter was tied to the Jammeh regime’s heavy clampdown on dissent.
The disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh and the torture of journalist Musa Saidykhan in 2006, and the imprisonment of six journalists who spoke out on the behalf of murdered colleague Deyda Hydara, who was killed in 2004, are some of the more notorious attacks on the press that occurred during Jammeh’s time.
Hydara was a staunch opponent of a 2004 amendment to the Criminal Code that allowed prison terms for defamation and sedition, and forced newspaper owners to purchase expensive licenses and register their homes as collateral. This allowed authorities to imprison journalists without trial and keep only a select few newspapers in circulation.
Unknown assailants shot and killed Hydara on his way home in 2004 and the case remains unsolved. Observers often called for investigations into attacks on journalists, but Jammeh belittled international attention, once telling a press conference: “And up to now one of these stupid websites carries ‘Who Killed Deyda Hydara’? … Let them go and ask Deyda Hydara who killed him.”
Gambian journalist Pap Saine, an International Press Institute (IPI) World Press Freedom Hero, was one of many journalists imprisoned after Hydara’s murder. In a recent interview, he told IPI “it was a horrible and tough experience to be a journalist in Jammeh’s regime … 200 journalists fled the country, many [were] jailed and [journalists] were living in fear.”
That climate continued in advance of the election, as Gambian journalists faced harassment and arrest, while foreign journalists were expelled or barred from entering the country.
The problems Barrow now faces are multi-fold and not just because of Jammeh’s attempts to hermitize the nation. Gambia’s economy is stagnant, latent ethnic tensions – which the Jammeh regime helped fan – remain rife and the government’s relationship with the media is extremely fragile.
Saine said Barrow will need to restructure the government, particularly its finances.
“Barrow is facing serious problems because government coffers were emptied by Jammeh when he ran away,” Saine said. “[He] must try to have the support of the international community to sustain the economy.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge Barrow faces is rebuilding Gambians’ faith in government especially the relationship between journalists and the government.
Nevertheless, Gambian journalist Alagi Yorro Jallow, one of the last journalists to be sent into exile under Jammeh, says it is “not too early to celebrate”.
Throughout his campaign, Barrow pledged support for an independent judiciary, as well as increased freedom for the media and civil society. In an early statement to members of the government and media, he announced his goals of a “free and open country”, saying: “Today’s process therefore lays the foundation blocks and sows the seeds for fully transparent and accountable governance.”
Since Barrow took office, several of his pledged reforms are already well underway. Yankuba Badjie, the former director of Gambia’s notorious National Intelligence Agency, which has faced accusations of abductions and torture, has been removed from his post and charged with murder.
Barrow has taken steps to re-join the International Criminal Court and the Commonwealth of Nations, from which Jammeh had withdrawn Gambia. Barrow also released 171 prisoners from the infamous Mile Two Prison in February and another 98 in early March. Many of those released were Jammeh’s political opponents.
The new president has also made several promising political appointments.
Gambia’s new information minister, Demba Ali Jawo, is a former head of the Gambia Press Union who frequently clashed with the Jammeh regime. In 2006, the government arbitrarily shuttered his newspaper, The Independent, leading him to leave the country to continue reporting.
Former BBC reporter Ebrima Sillah, appointed director general of radio and television services, was similarly forced to flee Gambia in 2004.
Jallow described Gambia’s new justice minister as a “friend of the press” under Jammeh and noted that the interior minister “was a reporter during his student years”.
He called the appointments “good moves” by Barrow and predicted that “getting [such] people into cabinet could give a new lease on life to Gambian journalists”.
Saine echoed that assessment.
“Since Barrow took over, both journalists and Gambians in general have been [given] relief from fear and trauma,” he said. “Now people express their views freely, there is freedom of expression and freedom of the press which Gambians never enjoyed before during Jammeh’s time.”
But Jallow expressed caution, despite his optimism, and Barrow’s coalition government is already facing the first test of its commitment to greater media freedom. On March 5, government supporters at a rally attended by Gambia’s ministers of interior, foreign affairs and tourism violently attacked journalist Kebba Jeffang of the Foroyaa newspaper.
Police are reportedly investigating the incident. But for a government barely two months old, the attack “is not a good sign” Jallow said. He added that the attack “underscores the vulnerability of the private press in the country and the fragility of Gambian journalists”.