The Gambian media for 22 years experienced all forms of harassment, abuses and threats to their work and all took place during the tenure of former President Yahya Jammeh.
In 22 years there were reported disappearances and extra judicial killings.
Some media outlets were being burnt to ashes, unlawful arrests and detention were the order of the day for journalists who were critical of the government modus operandi under Jammeh era.
The Secretary General of the Gambia Press Union Saikou Jammeh testified at the ongoing Truth Reconciliation Commission that, 140 journalists were arrested and detained between July 1994 and December 2016.
He also revealed that there were several cases of killings, disappearances and attacks on media houses.
Some detailed killings
Journalists like Omar Barrow was killed in the student strike in April 2000.
Another journalist, Deyda Hydara was also assassinated in Kanifing Municipality in a cool blood in December 2004.
And Daily Observer Journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh disappeared in 2006 without trace, just to name a few.
In 2001 Radio One FM owned by the late George Christensen was burnt down after he was arrested while the Independent newspaper was also set on fire by unknown people for being critical of Yaya Jammeh and his government.
Jammeh once said in 2011 “If I have any media outlet violate the laws, I will close it. … I will not sacrifice the interests, the peace and stability and well-being of the Gambian people at the altar of freedom of expression, or freedom of press, or freedom of movement or freedom of whatever.”
The dawn of the new Gambia
Jammeh is no more and journalists can now heave a sigh of relief as they go about their duties without any fear of harassment and torture.
Dozens of journalists who fled the Gambia for exile have now returned home.
Since the arrival of the new government expectations have been high about Gambia having a vibrant media but what’s new?
Sheriff Bojang Jr the President of the Gambia Press Union was one of several journalists who fell out with Jammeh and was in exile for more than a decade.
He told Africa Feeds that the post-Jammeh era can be described as a paradise for journalists.
According to the GPU president “in those days, there was a roof of insecurity hanging over everybody’s head, there was a constant climate of fear; journalists were arrested, illegally detained, tortured, some lost their lives and others fled into exile”.
Freedom to work
Sheriff further said “today, we are free from fear. We go around to do our work without being yanked away into darkness by the security forces.
Today we can report about issues and pry into the affairs of the authorities without being killed or disappeared.
We no longer have to flee to exile. That’s worth celebrating. I must stress though that we had some incidents of journalists being physically harmed by either political parties or security forces since this government came to power, and those cases must be addressed.”
When asked whether the media is free to be critical of government and the fear factor, he responded in the affirmative.
“There is an environment for journalists and the media to operate without fear. I see no reason for fear.
There’s the need for scrutiny and critical reporting in the interest of accountability and transparency and there is space for that.
When it comes to ‘favor’, that’s up to individual journalists and media and that’s all about integrity, honesty and dignity.”
What are the significant changes?
Sheriff Bojang Jr. also spoke on some of the significant changes under Barrow government.
“The most significant change is the fact that the climate is conducive enough for journalists to go about their business without fear, unlike before.
The Supreme Court’s decision to declare criminal defamation and false publication on the internet as unconstitutional is worth celebrating.” he indicated.
After more than a decade in exile and now back in the Gambia Sheriff Bojang Jr. told Africa Feeds how proud he was to have a new media outlet which will inform and educate the Gambians.
He is the editor-in-chief of the new online newspaper called the Chronicle.
“The idea of The Chronicle was borne out of its pioneers’ desire to give an alternative source of news and information to the Gambian consumers, to celebrate the Gambia’s diversity from Kartong to Koina and safeguard liberty through liberty,” he echoes.
Life was hell in exile
Abubacarr Saidykhan, a freelance journalist who was also in exile for 5 years told Africa Feeds that life in exile was hell for Gambian journalists who fled the country.
“When we were in exile life was tough because you always want to come home but is not possible, some died in exile, others faced difficulties but thank God we are back and things are easier now.”
The draconian laws existing in the country’s law books are still threatening press freedom though because not all the sections have been repealed.
Among these are the sedition law on section 52, the criminal code on section 178 and false news which falls under section 181A and 59 in the criminal code plus the information act 2013 which can all threaten the work of Journalists.
The Gambia media still faces a lot of challenges following the new breeze of democracy in the country.
There are still some cases of harassment against journalists but the media under the new Gambia is more vibrant than ever and should get better in the coming years.