The Grip on Independent Media Tightened in the Gambia

 

Förra veckan besökte jag Gambia för att ta reda på hur ett journalist fackförbund arbetar i ett av Afrikas mest repressiva stater. Nedan följer min intervju med Gibairu Janneh, generalsekretare för Gambia Journalist Förbund (GPU). Intervjun återges här på original språket engelska. 

What is the media climate in the Gambia?

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Emil Touray, ordförande och Gibairu Janneh, general sekreterare för Gambias Journalist Förbund

The Gambia is one of the countries where working conditions for journalists is extremely difficult. This is simply because the legal environment is very restrictive to media freedom. When we say that the legal environment is restrictive it means the Gambia is one of the countries without access to freedom of information laws. Section 25 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression and section 2 and 7 of the same constitution, which is te constitution of 2007 explicitly asserts that the press and information media shall me free at all times to uphold the provisions and that the government is accountable to the citizens. But then we have the criminal court and laws that makes defamation and libel a crime. In addition we also have the law on false publication. So it is very easy for journalists to be charged and convicted. In 2010 the state passed the law, Official Secrets Act, which prohibits civil servants to provide specific information to journalists. This makes the working conditions of journalists extremely difficult as they cannot effectively pursue their duties because the triangle of information is narrowed when civil servants are denied from speaking to the press. In 2004 there was the Criminal Code Amendment Act in which the definition of sedition expanded and with it also the penalties. In this amendment criminal libel is prosecuted and if charged and convicted journalists can be fined to pay 200 000 dalasis (40 000 SEK) or two years imprisonment. In some cases the judge can sentence journalists to both imprisonment and pay the fine. In 2004, the News Paper Amendment Act, increased the fee of newspaper registrations fivefold, from 100 000 thousand (20 000 SEK) to 500 000 thousand dalasis ( SEK) which is half a million dalasis. In a society where poverty is widespread there are no entrepreneurs interested investing in the media.

 What is the general public attitude towards the media?

Because of the high level of illiteracy, which to some extent has compromised awareness, the vast majority of Gambians do not fully understand the significance of journalists, the role of communication and development. Therefore public sympathy toward journalists is not very much forthcoming because the general public is not aware of the significance of the media in the national development process and the state media which should have been a national media is used by the state for its propaganda aims. The vast Gambians living in rural areas cannot read or listen to radio. So their major source of news is the public radio and television which constantly broadcast propaganda. Rather than getting divergent and objective information the people receive information from the government perspective. In such a situation it becomes extremely difficult for people to make any informed choices or become aware to a critical level.

What is the union’s approach in raising awareness?

If things were in order, that could have been an ambition for the union, but as we speak the union is still grappling with the basics. We are still battling with the issue of media freedom. Here and there once in a while a journalist will be arrested and charged, we have to provide legal service to them so 99 percent of our efforts is concentrated on providing journalists with legal support. Legal support is now very common. In such situation it becomes difficult to concentrate on wider plans. But what we are able to maintain regardless of the environment is to build the capacity of journalists so they can conduct their duties professional and understand what is expected of them.  Currently we are in the final stages of setting up a fully fledged school of journalism. There is no school of journalism in the Gambia so we took the bold initiative to start one.

By increasing the awareness of the public about the situation and the role of the media, do you not think the pressure on the government? Don’t you think by creating awareness among the ppl you also create more support from the civil society?

In fact we are doing conducting advocacy programs but the union does not have a radio station. There are private radio stations but they only broadcast entertainment and sports news because of the repressive media laws. The only independent radio station that retained an objective news flow was the Taranga FM which was closed down in 2012 by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). What the union is doing this time around is to run the project “Advocacy for Media, Media for Advocacy” which is supported by our Danish partners from funding from Danida. Now we want to build a common platform for advocacy with the civil society because we have realized that the union cannot sustain the campaign, neither can we make much impact.  Our approach is to bring the entire civil society network into one group and run one campaign so that the civil society can speak out in one voice. We believe that will create a greater impact than solely working alone on issues related to democracy, human rights and media freedom. Alone we will not have the bargaining power so we we are now collaborating with local NGOs and the umbrella organisation of the civil society, Tango. We also utilize any other mechanisms that can aid us in our endeavors for media freedom. For example it is difficult for the union to set up its own radio station but we try to create awareness once in a while on the community radios. We raise issues related to journalism and why it is important for journalist to work independently. But then again we do not have enough media coverage in the rural areas.

How assertive is the independent media?

We have about ten independent newspapers though currently as we speak only the Foraya, the Daily Observer, the Voice and the Point provide news on a constant basis. However, the circulation is not wide, it is purely urban based. All the papers produce on a daily basis one 1500 copies, it is only on rare occasion that papers will exceed 1500.

What is the cause for the limited circulation? Poverty?

I do not think it is because of poverty only. It also has to do with the culture of reading. We have realized that as many as thousand people will read one copy of a newspaper. I will give an example, every morning a copy of these newspapers reach this office. You will realize that all those inside the building will read the same copy of the newspaper, you read it, another person picks it up, that is how it will continue. It circulates around and when visitors come around they will read it as well. So it is a combination of poverty and the culture of reading in the Gambia. People are not interested in buying it and keeping it.

What share of the circulation of newspaper do the public media have?  

That will be difficult to ascertain because the public media consists of the national broadcasting, GRTS and the newspaper Gambia Info. The Gambia Info is produced on Monday and Friday every week by the Department of Information services but is not a paper for the market. Once it is published it is circulated in offices so in that situation it is difficult to estimate the performance of the private media against government media because the government does not have a fully fledged newspaper. The paper that takes on this role, which legally is private but editorially pro-government, is the Daily Observer. And like the other newspapers the Daily Observer is producing 1000-1500 copies a day.

 

One thing that the union avoids is to categorize the media into private and public. For us the media is the media, because each of these medias, either public or private has a role to play in the development process. The GPU views the media as the media regardless if it is state or private run. All media has a role to play in the democratic process so when it comes to benefits and service the union provide we do not marginalize the journalists. We provide the services to all journalists from all media houses. We do not want a situation where the press union will be the source division. We want to bring the media under one umbrella and we want the journalists to have a sense of belonging and understanding that we are journalists regardless of who our employers are. We have responsibilities and ethical standards to meet. Once the journalists realize this they will effectively uphold the ethics of the profession.

 What are the critical issues journalists are being punished for?

Sedition and criminal libel are common place. Since 2009 we have not had a case of sedition. In 2009 8 editors and journalists were charged with sedition and convicted for two years imprisonment but they were pardoned by the president after one month. The background was a speech the president made in which he spoke recklessly about Deyda Hydara, the journalist that was shoot dead in December 2004. The Union reacted very strongly against those remarks and issued a statement. The following morning the government went into action by arresting all union executives and the editors of the newspaper that had published the statement. Since then we have not had a case of sedition. It is not only journalists per se, but anybody giving false information to public officials can be charged and convicted. Hardly a month goes by without receiving stories about somebody facing trial for giving false information to public officers. If ordinary citizens can be dragged to court for giving false information to public official what about the journalists that publish that information? This the reality for journalists in the Gambia.

 

Given the present media climate how can ethical standards be upheld in the Gambia?

This is a good question. The suppression of the media has given rise to online journalism. We have a significant number of journalists in exile. Most of them have set up blogs and are now writing what could not have been written in the country. This is one effect. The other effect is that because the environment is very draconian, media professionals have engaged in self-censorship. Media houses avoid publishing information they deem critical. The media laws are not only limited to journalists. These laws are extended to publishers and the printing house.  In essence it means everyone involved in the release of the information can have problem. To avoid that most media houses restrain themselves from publishing information they deem critical. Journalists attempt working in line with journalism ethics but self-censorship is common. Recently, few years, ago we had a series of complaints from the Department of Social Welfare on the way media handle stories related to children. What the union did in response to this criticism was to develop a code of conduct for reporting on children’s stories. We shared this document with the media houses. Since then we have hardly received any complaints from the Child Protection Alliance or the department of social welfare. Ethically, I believe journalists are doing their job to uphold the ethics to the best of their abilities. Another factor is that poverty also give rise to the practice of self-censorship. Journalists in the Gambia are paid starvation wages and do not want to risk losing their job. In situations like this journalists do not have many alternatives.

Can self-censorship be justified?

I do not think self-censorship is justified in any way. We should not censor ourselves but instead exert pressure on the president to relax the repressive media laws. We should be striving for democracy and not encourage an authoritarian style of governance. We encourage the media houses to publish information once it is accurate, once it is factual, once it is reliable. Self-censorship allow the repressive system to thrive so what the media really should be doing is to continue be critical of the government. Therefore the information should be truthful, reliable and accurate. Once these facts are assured I do not see a reason why the media should censor itself.

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Journalist studenter i debatt

We are facing the challenges on two fronts. One is the capacity deficit in media houses. The other is the arbitrary nature of the state towards the media. For the capacity problem we have been building capacity and over the years accumulated skills and experience. Now we want to graduate our capacity efforts into a fully fledged school of journalism. Hopefully it should be a stepping stone for critically addressing the major capacity deficits within the media. The problem, however, is the reaction of the state to the media. Recently we made a comprehensive analysis of selective media laws in the Gambia and made recommendations for why they should be repealed. We have a good collaboration with foreign ministers of countries of the US and British embassies and the European Union delegation and as mentioned we are now building a network of the different organizations in the country. We have also had a series of meetings with government officials in which we have put our case forward. Currently we are looking at the possibility of establishing a self-regulatory media authority to press the government to revisit the media laws.

 

What are your hopes for the future?

Of course, one fact is fundamental. The human society is in constant motion. Those who do not realize this are simply paying a blind eye to reality. Gambia will brace up for democracy. This is undisputable. Once the people are enlightened they will become organised and organised people are a determined people. It is only organised people that can demand for their rights and their liberties.

 

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