By Madi Jobarteh
Wednesday, May 3 was World Press Freedom Day. This Day was delivered to the world by African journalists when they met in Windhoek, Namibia from 29 April to 3 May 1991 in a groundbreaking seminar on promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press. At the end of the seminar they issued the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media. In 1991 the UNESCO General Conference recommended to the UN General Assembly to adopt May 3 as World Press Freedom Day in honour of that seminar. The UN eventually accepted in 1993 and declared May 3 World Press Freedom Day. Hence on a day like today, all African journalists must feel proud for our historic contribution to the promotion of freedom of expression and free media in the world.
In the Windhoek Declaration, African journalists expressed the importance of freedom of expression as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the frantic efforts around the world, to protect this freedom. In that regard they also lamented the threats and risks journalists face in doing their work inside Africa. They therefore called on African governments to release all jailed journalists and also allow exiled journalists to return home. They requested African States to provide constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and freedom of association. The journalists noted the importance of an independent, pluralistic and free press to the development and maintenance of democracy and economic wellbeing.
All the issues lamented by these African journalists during that seminar and in their declaration have been issues confronting the Gambian media since independence but especially since 1994. The APRC Tyranny had consistently squeezed the independent media to ensure that it reduces its pluralism or simply make them silent at home or cause them to flee into exile. Media houses were been set on fire, while journalists were jailed, tortured and killed with impunity. The situation of the media was so severe in the Gambia that by 2017, Gambia has more media outlets outside of the country than inside. What therefore are the lessons for the Gambian journalist now that we have overthrown dictatorship and ushered in a democratic dispensation.
In the first place, Section 207 of our constitution guarantees freedom of the press. It went further to give the independent press the duty to hold the Gambia Government to account on behalf of the people. Secondly Section 208 also places a duty on the state media to give space to divergent and dissenting opinion of all Gambians. Our pressmen and women must therefore know these constitutional rights and duties given them in order for them to fulfill.
Therefore the fundamental question our journalists must ask is how do we fulfill this constitutional role. In answering this question, our journalist must remember their experience under the APRC Tyranny so that all journalists stand together and resolved never ever to allow another regime to emerge in this country that will muzzle the press. This is why I titled this piece ‘Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together’ which is a quote from a statement from that great journalist Joseph Pulitzer when he won a libel case against US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.
It is indeed refreshing that the Gambia has a new government whose president has expressed his desire to respect freedom of the media. But let us also remember that in his first press conference junta leader Lt. Yaya Jammeh had asked journalists to criticize them if his regime went wrong. But within few months, we witnessed the deportation and jailing of journalists under AFPRC Dictatorship. Therefore Gambia journalists must be sensitive to history to ensure that it does not repeat itself.
What will ensure that such history does not come back is when our journalists do what Joseph Pulitzer said in 1909 about the role of the media. He said journalists must be public-spirited with trained intelligence to know the right and the courage to do the right. This way, journalists will preserve the public good and democracy. But he said if journalists were cynical and demagogic they would only create a mockery of democracy. Hence he concluded, “The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”
Therefore let our journalists wake up and take their rightful constitutional role to hold the Gambia Government to account in order to preserve the public good. In paraphrasing Pulitzer, I would tell our journalists do not serve any party but only the people. Do not be an organ for the Coalition, UDP, PPP, PDOIS, NRP, NCP, GPDP, GMC, GDC or APRC, but be the organ of truth. Follow no caucuses but your own convictions. Do not support the Barrow Administration, but criticize it. Expose and oppose all frauds and shams wherever and whatever they are and from whoever they come. Always advocate principles and ideas rather than prejudices and partisanship. It is only in this way that you can protect freedom of the press in the Gambia and ensure good governance.
Remember the legends of Gambian journalism and what they stood for. Edward Francis Small. William Dixon Colley. Sanna Tiks Manneh. Deyda Hydara. Baboucarr Gaye. George Christensen. These were giants who stood up to tell truth to power and defended press freedom. Therefore you are following in a long and glorious tradition in a noble profession.
On this day, let us demand that Barrow Administration transform GRTS and Gambia Daily newspaper into true public media. Let us demand the Barrow Administration to expunge all draconian laws that criminalize media offenses, infringe on freedom of expression and limit free press. Let us demand a thorough investigation and justice in all cases of arson, torture, incarceration and killing of Gambian journalists by Yaya Jammeh. Let us demand the creation of a freedom of information law to institutionalize transparency in the public sector. Let us demand the Barrow Administration to provide better economic incentives and capacity building to journalists to ensure the professional development of independent and pluralistic media in the Gambia.
Happy and blesse World Press Freedom Day to all Gambian Journalists!
God Bless The Gambia.