How Press Freedom Collapsed in Gambia

yoroThis is another brilliant review of Alagi Yorro Jallow’s book ” Delayed Democracy: How Press Freedom Collapsed in Gambia ” by Dr. Giueppe Mario Saccone,a  renounced scholar published  in Vol. 16 No 2,July -December 2015 Prajna Vihara: Journal of Philosophy and Religion pp.117-123.

This book is written by the renowned Gambian journalist and human rights campaigner Prof Jallow. Most significantly, the author dedicated his writing to the memory of all those who have died and/or suffered in the struggle for freedom and democracy in the African continent. And, in accordance with such a heart felt dedication, Delayed Democracy duly examines the critical role played by the muzzling and manipulation of the media in the development of autocratic rule in Gambia, the smallest state of Africa.

Prof Jallow currently lectures at the prestigious Assumption University of Thailand, after having lived for a while in the United States. However, previously when still in his country, he was the managing editor and co-proprietor of the famous Gambian newspaper significantly titled: “The Independent”. For his activity as editor and journalist, he has won many prizes, and international recognition. Alas, his newspaper, “The Independent”, has now been banned by a government that obviously, to say the least, does not value the free press. For a while, in 1999, Prof Jallow also served as a correspondent for the BBC.

It goes without saying that Prof Jallow is a strong believer in the importance of freedom of expression. But this belief for him constitutes rather than a mere theoretical assumption, what can be best described as a practical undertaking at the service of the community, and a life commitment. Accordingly, he has always been ready to uncompromisingly stand up for his professional integrity as a journalist, and for the fundamental principles of human freedom and dignity. His standing up for these noble ideals was the reason why he most likely, by sheer luck, narrowly escaped death by supporters of the local Gambian powers that be. As a matter of fact, a group of vile assailants, in December 2004, assassinated another editor of The Independent, and destroyed in an arson attack the office of the newspaper. All this, together with the circumstances leading to this brutal escalation, is well documented in Delayed Democracy.

Therefore, the events examined by Prof Jallow may eerily be seen by many as unveiling the new face of a rising more general, widespread and multiform authoritarianism, unfortunately not relevant only to Gambia. In other words, it could be argued that this journalist and author is dealing with an example of a relatively new type of autocratic or partially autocratic rule, which pays some lip service to a notion of democracy of sorts. Academics have variously defined this type of political system as “guided”, “managed”, “partial” or “semi-democracy”. Thus, Delayed Democracy examines the unfolding of a defining feature, i.e. the muzzling of critical voices, of an African instance of such a type of semi-authoritarian political system. Another way to describe this would be to say that the main feature examined by Prof Jallow is the conditions that led to the present lack or manipulation of freedom of expression in Gambia.

Now, given the special topic of the book, which deals with a case study of general interest but that specifically refers to Gambia, it may be useful to provide some very brief background information about how the situation has most recently developed in that country. People who follow current world affairs may have heard, at the beginning of December 2015 that the local regime of Colonel Yahya Jammeh has declared that the country is now governed by Islamic law, thus effectively becoming an Islamic State, even though claiming that the rights of religious minorities will still be maintained. Col. Jammeh has always been governing ever since a military coup in 1994 this tiny country of about 2 million inhabitants, predominantly poor, 90% Muslim (mostly Sunni), located in West Africa, on a river bank, and surrounded on all sides other than the sea by the larger Senegal. Allegedly, the declaration that makes Gambia an Islamic State (obviously, nothing to do with the homonymous so called Islamic State or Caliphate, headed by the by now infamous Abu Baqr al- Baghdadi, and which calls Raqqa in Siria its capital) is supposed to shed away the unwelcome past legacy of the area as an outpost of the slave trade, and as a British colony. This declaration with all its implications, which are difficult to reconcile with the values of liberal democracy, may be seen as the culmination of the process described in Prof Jallow’s book.

Indeed, Prof Jallow’s insightful writing provides ample historical and theoretical background in order to make the reader able to understand the events leading to the current situation. However, it also does much more than that. That is to say, this book about how press freedom collapsed in the Gambia, it is as well an accomplished case study of the mechanisms by which military power has managed to consolidate its rule over a small but significant West-African country. Ironically, the culmination of the process examined by Prof Jallow finally even allows the Gambian powers that be, ultimately almost entirely controlled by Col Jammeh, to be able to claim with some credibility to have legally and rightfully acquired the explicit consent of the majority of the local population. Indeed, not so long ago, aptly manipulated elections gave the ruling party, the Patriotic Front, 72% of the votes. For his part, Prof Jallow undertakes to make clear all the mechanisms, and their theoretical underpinnings, that made the ruler’s manipulations such an apparent success. Therefore, by successfully disclosing, so to speak the large numbers of skeletons (not only figuratively) in the closet of the powers that be, this book directly and indirectly provides the discerning readers with many helpful, more general and practical suggestions about how to arrange an alternative political system, with more genuine democratic credentials. This point to the necessity to conjugate liberalism and democracy, if the aim is to really make political legitimacy dependent not on manipulation, but on effectively improving the human rights of the people in this, as well as in other parts of the world.

In regard to this, the book boldly argues that the role of the free press, independent journalists, and more generally freedom of speech, thoughts and all their various public expressions, it is essential to make possible and durable a political system based on authentic liberal and democratic values. Here, reference to these values it is obviously intended in the broadest, most general, and non partisan meaning. More specifically, underpinning the defense of these values is the idea that in open societies the right to challenge conventional wisdom it is a necessary tool not only in order to avoid economic stagnation and ensure intellectual progress, but also in order to expose and propose remedies to all sorts of human rights abuses, corruption, and other wrongs.  Having made clear the importance of the free media in order to ensure transparency and accountability, nevertheless, Prof Jallow also points out that this critical role must be played out in a discerning and mindful of consequences fashion, and taking into due account of existing sensitivities.

However, given the way events unfolded in Gambia, unfortunately but inevitably, as I have previously suggested the main focus of Prof Jallow’s examination had to be the anatomy of a tragic involution or reversal of democracy. That is to say, how a strengthening autocracy has been able to largely and successfully undermine, as well as at the end of a regressive process all but entirely curtail the role and importance that independent journalists and mass-media are supposed to have in the maintenance and development of a free and vibrant civil society. In other words, there must be a synergy and a reciprocal underpinning between democratic rule and governance on the one side and a free and vibrant civil society in which the media together with other forces play a fundamental role on the other side. That a regression has taken place in Gambia is confirmed by the fact that as we are reminded in the book this country once had one of the freest and most resilient presses of the African continent. So, in order to explain how this regressive process took place, Prof Jallow brilliantly and in detail, but obviously not without manifesting his own deep sorrow, analyzes how the 1994 post-coup government applied its own version of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of the acquisition of political hegemony. But the reference to Gramsci requires another brief explanation.

Col  Jammeh’s policies, indeed, constitute a brutal, manipulative and reactionary hijacking of the original forward looking, popular and authentically democratic intentions of Gramsci’s both tactical and strategic recommendations for achieving progressive (or revolutionary) social change. Allegedly, according to the Italian political philosopher, progressive (or revolutionary) social change should be the result of making one particular ideology (Gramsci’s own interpretation of Marxism) become dominant. This means that the hegemony acquired by Marxist ideology should lead to a positive change within civil society, especially because supposedly by the establishment of this ideological dominance the oppressed will increasingly acquire a consciousness of their own individual and collective rights. That is to say, it is true that Gramsci pointed out that coercion is always important, and the capacity to exercise it defines the state as a political institution. Moreover, it is also true that he assumed that the role of the ability to use agencies of socialization, especially the press, to foist values and beliefs on the population it is absolutely crucial to gain legitimacy. Nevertheless, hegemony, state power and legitimacy were to be sought after by the masses only in order to free majorities from reactionary regimes, driven by privileged minorities. In other words, Gramsci had highlighted the importance of acquiring ideological domination within civil society in order to foist the consciousness of and liberate the oppressed majority of the population of Italy (and beyond) from the forerunners of fascism, and then from fascism itself. However, Democracy Delayed tells us that freeing the oppressed is obviously not what Col Jammeh has done (except by occasionally paying some lip service to the idea, when expedient to himself and his cronies). And this should not be surprising.

Paradoxically, and also as it frequently happens ironically, the principle that the press can be used to advance ideological aims has often been applied, including lately in Gambia, in order to manipulate the people and to make them compliant with the existing political order. This obviously runs against the original intention of Gramsci who, as I have pointed out, had formulated his theory of hegemony in order to change the existing social and political order, and thus liberate the people from political oppression and economic exploitation. It follows from what I have said so far that Jallow’s writing highlights how the regime of President Jammeh has very successfully applied from its inception to power, up to the present, a version of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony which though turns it upside down, thereby changing it completely for the worst.

So from all this it follows that not surprisingly, the history of how Gramsci’s theory has been turned upside down is indeed an all too familiar story. At its inception, ideological hegemony has been pursued and then achieved by the supporters of the present Gambian regime through a media campaign against corruption. Accordingly, Col Jammeh first used the pretext of the need to fight corruption, a still real and tragically pervasive societal ill affecting so many countries not only in Africa, as a reason for overthrowing the democratic government of then President Dawda Jawara. Jawara had ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1965 up to 1994. During his time in power, Gambia maintained its cherished tradition of freedom of expression. Moreover, because Jawara was a man of relatively humble origins who managed to become President, he made himself an avatar of the progress of the lower caste people. Quite cunningly, Col Jammeh in order to acquire ideological hegemony, first tolerated, and even wooed the press in order to highlight the shortcomings of the previous supposedly more corrupt government. He thus consolidated his power over civil society, and arguably gained legitimacy in the eyes of the majority. Once this consolidation was achieved and legitimacy secured, he has clamped down on the free media, and its policy has been to dominate, intimidate and punish any dissent or opposition. Supposedly, in this way, the continuation of political and ideological hegemony can be indefinitely maintained. (Needless to say, the fight against corruption now takes the backstage vis-à-vis other more urgent priorities, and unwelcome recent rumors about the President’s private life and marriages are actively discouraged.)

This book indicates also some possible ways out of Gambia’s human rights and democracy predicaments or “delays”. (Delays, alas, pertaining not only to this country, which though makes Jallow’s work all the more timely and interesting for the wider audience of those concerned with the recent global rise of “democratization fatigue”.) So, as for the proposed solution to autocratic, regressive civilian or military rule, in Jallow’s view, the internal civil society consciousness brought about by new social medias such as Facebook, Tweeter, and other networking sites, combined with the external pressure from international public opinion and human rights organizations offers the best hope for the necessary political change in Gambia, as well as where needed elsewhere. Perhaps, here, I may add as my own suggestion the idea that Gramsci has to be, at least to some extent, brought back again on the political stage, but with some revisions more in tune with liberal democratic principles, and this time definitely on his (progressive) head, after being for too long turned upside down by authoritarian leaders.

All in all, Prof Jallow’s writing clearly points out to the reader the role and importance of a free, independent press, as well as more generally free media, in order to expose instances of corruption and other administrative shortcomings, clarify issues, and propose solutions to the most intractable problems affecting the African continent, and many other areas of the world. With particular, but not exclusive reference to Africa, widespread obstacles to good governance, and democratic consolidation are often identified as being: widespread corruption; weak or non existent nation states; poverty; overlapping tribal rivalries; gap between urban elites and the rest of the population; persistent illiteracy in some areas; draughts, natural and man made disasters and epidemics; still incomplete infrastructures; cult of seniority and lack of competition; foreign interference and exploitation; lack of reliable and time honored mechanisms for transferring institutional power, and for ensuring alternation of different governments, thus providing peaceful avenues, through free and fair competitive politics, for different interests and identities to express themselves; etc.

To conclude, at least in my view, the fundamental lesson to be inferred by reading Democracy Delayed is that only the civic, intellectual resources of a free and vibrant civil society can ultimately tackle the above widespread obstacles to good governance in Africa, and beyond. Top down approaches without corresponding bottom up synergies from civil society will not work out. Therefore, the essential resources of civil society must be underpinned, nurtured and advanced by the mindful, social consequences aware but whenever possible publicly unhindered exercise of freedom of speech and expression (most starkly, though not exclusively embodied by the so called 4th power – the media). Time and again in the long term, whenever such an approach has been followed, it has proven to be the most fruitful way to determine the path or alternative ways by which to address obstacles to good governance and developmental issues. Autocratic, military and elitist rule more often than not constitutes part of the problem rather than of the solution. This is because by claiming to maintain an apparent superficial peace of sorts, in the long run autocracies, mostly in the guise of bringing about one sided, top down, manipulative, only apparent reconciliations, in fact increase grievances, thus aggravating conditions later leading to heightened civil strife, and in the worst case scenario even civil war. Solutions to problems, as Democracy Delayed points out, require the honest work of brave and engaged journalists like Prof Jallow, but also of social scientists, philosophers, teachers, the various experts, etc., and not the least also of ordinary citizens.
Giuseppe Mario Saccone

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