The umbrella body for Gambian journalists, the Gambia Press Union (GPU), has declared 2016-2026 as the decade of campaign for press freedom and freedom of expression in that West African country.
Mr Saikou Jammeh, the Secretary General, announced this declaration on May 28, during his organisation’s national day of unionism.
The event which also featured the GPU’s maiden National Journalism Awards brought together more than two hundred people, among them, media veterans, government and security officials, civil society actors, diplomatic community and a large pool of journalists.
“If you know our history,” Jammeh told them, “you’ll know that we mean business when we make declarations. When we declared a decade of capacity building in the late ‘90s, we built the first journalism institute in the country.
“Therefore, you’re all called upon to lend support to this campaign. We’ve already started. In the coming months, we will begin to reach out to the legal and legislative branches of the government for frank talks to be able to reach common grounds on the media situation. And, we will request to sit with the executive for talks on a comprehensive media reforms.”
Hostile media space
The Gambia is described as one of the hottest spots for press freedom violations on the continent. There are not only laws and practices that restrict free speech, but also impunity prevails over previous cases of violation – murder, enforced disappearance, tortures, arson attacks, and arbitrary closure of media houses.
Jammeh said that despite the GPU’s ‘mature and confident leadership’ in efforts to change the current landscape, much remains to be desired on the environment for press freedom.
He said: “We’ve brought about professionalism where there was amateurism when we established the first journalism institute in the country. We’ve defended freedoms where there’s fear when we condemn violations on press freedom. We’ve promoted understanding where there was misunderstanding when we dialogued with the government and sensitised security forces on our work. We’ve challenged laws where they are not desirable when we filed a suit before the Supreme Court for the repeal of sedition and false news. We’ve made a case for journalists where their plight was not known when we took platforms before the United Nations and African Union human rights mechanisms.
“Yet, the environment is far from desirable. There are laws and practices that take away from us the very rights and freedoms given to us by the constitution. There are taxes that are designed to cripple our businesses. There are wounds that are yet to be healed when, after many, many years, we still do not know where is Chief Manneh or who murdered Deyda. There are hundreds of thousands of Gambians who’re ignorant of contemporary events because the media is unduly restricted. There are hundreds of our kind who have fled the country because the space is constricted. There are those that the union trained and fed, yet when asked to give back so little to the institution that has given them so much, they hide behind their positions of political compromise. Is it not regrettable that a country that prides itself as the most peaceful in Africa scores worse than war-torn countries on press freedom?”
According to SG Jammeh, the GPU is committed to its renewed efforts to enhance the space for press and speech. Besides the decade of campaign for press freedom, he also went on to declare that the Week of May 3 of every year will henceforth be Journalism Conference and Award Week in the Gambia.
He said: “The idea is to have a day set aside for conference; a day for exhibition, a day for awards and we want the President of the Republic to appear before journalists on May 3 of every year to answer questions on issues of legitimate public interest. Please, DPS Jones, this is our proposal for you to take to the presidency.”
In spite of enduring troubles for journalists, the GPU secretary general sounded positive about the future. According to him, the “end to the undue suffering for the media in Gambia is near.
“Yes, there are clouds of political and economic uncertainties. But what we need is hope and hope we have in abundance. We have hope because we genuinely believe that the president’s appointment of seasoned journalists like Malick Jones and Sheriff Bojang at the Information Ministry is for them to correctly interpret our behaviour to the executive. We have hope because we now have the GPU School of Journalism and the Faculty of Journalism at the University of the Gambia. We have hope because we’ve learnt from history that the press, free press always prevails.”