By Baba Galleh Jallow
Those of us who have for so long advocated for the radical transformation of our society will not stop advocating for it because we now have a new political dispensation in place. In fact, getting rid of the despotic regime is just the first major step in our struggle for a better Gambia. Now that the despotic regime is down and out, we must step up to the next level of advocacy in order to better contemplate our new and more delightful if equally formidable challenges. Raising our country to the next level will not come automatically, but it will prove less difficult within the context of our new democratic dispensation. And since it will not happen automatically, the logical thing to do is continue the struggle: not a struggle against despotism, but a struggle against complacency, against a very powerful tendency to fall back into politics as usual and a struggle for the actualization of those things that are absolute prerequisites for the emergence of an enlightened and empowered citizenry. Only an enlightened and empowered citizenry can prevent the emergence and entrenchment of dictatorial and despotic regimes of the kind we just kicked out of Gambia.
We are very much encouraged by the fact that the national agencies responsible for the administration of our cherished freedom of expression are now under the direction of Gambians who truly cherish those freedoms. The appointments of D.A. Jawo as Minister of Information and Ebrima Sillah as Director of GRTS can only bode well for our country, in particular for our freedoms of expression and of the press. Both men have been victims of the ousted regime’s politics of brutality and intolerance. And both men possess the requisite experience that will enable them to open up our national media space and enhance the free flow of ideas and information within our family nation. We are absolutely convinced that both D.A. Jawo and Ebrima Sillah are men of principle who will not compromise their journalistic ethics and integrity when it comes to doing the right thing in their new positions of responsibility. We can only say that the Barrow administration has done very well in their choice of candidates to take charge of these very crucial institutions of our nation-state. We are hoping that the administration will move fast to take the requisite measures to remove all the obstacles and bottlenecks built into our national constitution by the ousted despotic regime that were designed to stifle the free flow of ideas and information. The free flow of ideas and information is to the nation body what the free flow of blood and oxygen is to the human body. The nation body dies or is crippled when the free flow of ideas and information is blocked, just like the human body dies or suffers a crippling stroke when the free flow of blood and oxygen is blocked. We feel very much encouraged that the Gambian nation body no longer faces such a mortal threat to its existence under the new dispensation. That, however, is no reason to relapse into a politics of complacency.
We are confident that in the new Gambia, the politics of media relations will not be what they were under the Jammeh regime. Both GRTS and other public and private media must make it a point to enlighten and empower the Gambian people. They must assume their rightful duties and responsibilities as custodians of the supreme national interest. They must report the news without fear, favor, or any form of bias. And they must open their doors and pages to all shades of political opinion unless such opinion is of a nature repugnant to the rule of law or designed to fan the flames of religious, ethnic, racial, gender or violent conflict. As our society is now characterized by a regime of regulated political power, the media must be accorded the recognition it deserves by virtue of the essential part it plays in our country’s advancement. When the voice of the media is heard and understood by a critical mass of citizens in a country, revolutions follow; not revolutions that come through the barrel of the gun, but revolutions that pour out of houses onto the streets, outraged by the rampant corruption and related injustices perpetrated by people supposed to be their leaders and servants. Because of the transformative potential of the media, they are often silenced to prevent their voices from being heard and understood by a critical mass of citizens. Thanks to social media, this is proving increasingly difficult to do as Mr. Jammeh learned when it was already too late for him. But the reach of social media is still restricted and not a viable substitute for traditional media forms such as GRTS and our local newspapers.
Under the ousted Jammeh despotism, the media was stifled in the most blatant manner just because it sought to inform and enlighten the Gambian people. Newspapers and radio stations were arbitrarily shut down; journalists were routinely arrested, jailed incommunicado and often tortured; media houses were attacked by masked nocturnal arsonists who set their hard earned premises and presses on fire simply because they wrote stories and editorials Jammeh did not like. Witness the case of the late veteran Gambian journalist Baboucarr Gaye of Citizen FM. In August 1998, Yahya Jammeh ordered heavily armed security forces to storm the offices of Mr. Gaye’s Citizen FM radio station where the Citizen newspaper was also published. True to style, they ordered everyone out and put the institution under lock and key, never to open again. Mr. Gaye was arrested alongside his editor Ebrima Sillah and charged with failure to register a radio and newspaper under an old colonial telegraph act. Mr. Gaye was tried and found guilty as charged under this colonial law. While Mr. Gaye successfully appealed against the unjust conviction, Yahya Jammeh disregarded the ruling and forcibly confiscated and permanently shut down Citizen FM. Mr. Gaye died fighting in vain to regain his unjustly confiscated property.
Baboucarr Gaye was not punished for “operating a radio station without a license, contrary to Section 7 (1) of the Telegraph Stations Act, Cap. 74.01 of the Laws of The Gambia, 1913.” This old colonial law was called back from the dead and used to justify shutting down a bright Gambian institution by Yahya Jammeh, a man who was never tired of loudly proclaiming his total opposition to colonialism and neocolonialism. Citizen FM was shut down because Baboucarr Gaye was rendering invaluable service to the Gambian people through his radio station’s translation and dissemination of the contents of the local newspapers in the vernacular, including government publications. The news translations were rendered in all the major Gambian languages and unfailingly drew crowds of eager audiences across the Greater Banjul area and as far as his transmission could reach. Gambians who were not able to read English had always wondered what the newspapers were saying. Now they were being told through the Citizen FM translations, and they loved it. Just as they were beginning to cherish their new found mental nutrition, the Jammeh dictatorship pounced upon Citizen FM and cut off the essential information, forcing the Gambian nation mind back into a state of perpetual intellectual starvation. Radio stations like Teranga FM that attempted to render similar service to the Gambian people were invariably throttled by Jammeh and of course, colonial and post-colonial “laws” of a personal kind were always available for his “emergency” deployment. Jammeh just could not contemplate the growth of a critical mass of enlightened and vocal Gambians. He would rather preside over a nation of uninformed, unenlightened and compliant “subject-citizens” rather than informed and empowered citizens.
From now on, we hope that Baboucarr Gaye’s legacy of translating the newspapers into the vernacular would be resuscitated. Both Radio Gambia and Gambia TV must make translating the local papers into the local languages a regular and integral part of their day to day programming. The editorial sections of the papers must be given particular prominence because it is in their editorials that newspapers comment on critical issues of national concern. It is hoped that GRTS will not shy away from translating news items and editorials critical of the head of state or any members or institutions of his government. We are hoping that the Barrow administration and all future governments of The Gambia will keep an open mind and observe the requisite levels of tolerance and civility. They must be able to take both justified and unjustified criticism. And they may only respond through rebuttals or clarifications; never through arbitrary arrests, detentions, newspaper closures, or nocturnal arson attacks on media houses and printing presses. Only through a free and responsible media can we take Gambia to the next level.