By Ebrima G. Sankareh, Editor-in-Chief
Regrettably, less than a month after President Adama Barrow was officially sworn in a colourful ceremony at the Independence Stadium on February 18, 2017; an event that sparked renewed hope and unbridled optimism that the Sir Dawda K. Jawara era of press freedom and a latitude of democratic liberties were on track, three senior ministers in the Barrow government, themselves victims of Yaya Jammeh’s remorseless barbarity, are now caught in a raging firestorm of politically cataclysmic proportions as a barrage of international condemnations hits Gambian Embassies worldwide as well as the desk of President Barrow himself.
Among the list is the much-respected Paris-based Reporters Without Borders- RSF, whose terse letter to President Barrow condemning the sad assault on Journalist Kebba Jiffang of the Foroyaa newspaper and copied to this editor, is the subject of this report.
In the wake of unrelenting debates, allegations and counter-allegations of political tremors that threaten to obliterate the fragile opposition alliance that ended Yaya Jammeh’s 22-years authoritarian regime, a Barrow Cabinet trio representing three parties in the alliance—Tourism Minister, Hamat N.K. Bah, Foreign Affairs Minister, A.N.M Ousainou Darboe and Interior Minister, Mai Ahmad Fatty, hastily organized a press briefing to explain their proposed Tactical Alliance come the Parliamentary elections next month.
However, during the question and answer session preceded by a deafening crescendo of politically-charged sarcasms and name calling, the Interior Minister, Mai Ahmad Fatty, could be seen and heard on video footage castigating the troubled reporter as a rival political party—PDOIS militant, which apparently infuriated their supporters resulting in a shameful melee. In the end, the journalist, Jiffang, had his shirt tattered as a battery of angry supporters of the trio bulldozed into the crowd, seized him by the neck and pummelled him mercilessly with raging profanities directed at him and his alleged principal, Halifa Sallah of the PDOIS party.
Kebba Jiffang, Foroyaa Newspaper reporter assaulted by UDP, GMC, NRP supporters
Paradoxically, that political leaders who have one time or the other faced death threats and spent painful nights in ghetto-like jails for speaking up against tyranny and now Cabinet colleagues in a regime that supposedly symbolises peace, unfettered freedoms and democratic pluralism, will without the slightest provocation bear witness to this administrative balderdash, is unbelievable.
Ominously, that the Interior Minister, himself a firebrand leader of the opposition Gambia Moral Congress, a fellow who with no hyperbole implied, was until last night, in self-imposed exile in Dakar, Senegal; a compelling Jammeh victim who spent the last decade as a globetrotting political celebrity, fiercely advocating for the liberation of the Gambian people could be so visibly complicit in this dastardly act, is quite frankly unnerving and potentially, sets a dangerous precedent for Adama Barrow’s young and innocent regime; a regime one must add, that unlike its autocratic predecessor, came to power through the ballot box without which, Mai Fatty would have still been in Dakar and numerous other returnees consigned to European metropolis in search of an elusive El Dorado.
Like Mai Fatty, his colleagues Messrs. Darboe and Bah and especially, Hamat Bah, whose clownish bravado at the said press briefing was schoolboy-like, must be reminded that The Gambia has changed and nobody, no matter how powerful, could turn the tides of history without the expressed will of the Gambian people. Like the Israelites, our people have seen the light and there is no turning back to the old order because that “old order changeth yielding place anew.”
Beyond and above the raucous façade, accusing Kebba Jiffang as a PDOIS militant as he was poised to pose his now irksome question, sadly epitomizes a lackadaisical disposition emanating from none other than our compatriot against Yaya Jammeh treacherous regime; a regime that disappeared, murdered, jailed and tortured several of Kebba Jiffang’s colleagues, both old and young. Therefore, this spectacle is a rude awakening that comes like a kaleidoscope from Yaya Jammeh’s museum of human misery reverberating with nauseous nostalgia, reflecting and magnifying the dark past of a merciless tyrant who saw journalists as his arch enemies.
After all, since when has reporting for a news medium tantamount to being a robot for that organization? I am reminded of a similarity in my professional life that resonates Kebba Jiffang’s predicament. In the past, I had worked for Radio Gambia; an institution that was notoriously monopolised by the state but that never meant that I was an agent of the PPP regime of Sir Dawda Jawara and therefore, any and all questions I asked were sympathetic to the Jawara regime. As a matter of fact, Sir Dawda never gave a damn who asked what, where, when and how it was asked and could not have therefore, been associated with a reporter’s personal questions fired at elements of the opposition, because to do so, would have amounted to meddling into minutiae.
Lest we forget, journalists Deyda Hydara, Chief Ebrima Manneh and Omar Barrow (R.I.P) were murdered by Jammeh the tyrant as well as several others; both civilians and members of the security and armed forces and with his defeat and banishment to hell, we expect nothing less than a free and conducive landscape where all journalists are free to push their pens, rattle their microphones and hit their keyboards to tell their stories unfettered, unblemished, unhindered and unencumbered, period!
Below we reproduce, verbatim, the RSF’s letter to President Adama Barrow appealing to him “to demonstrate a strong commitment to media freedom by condemning the intimidation of journalists by his supporters.”
In this open letter, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) asks Gambia’s newly elected president, Adama Barrow, to demonstrate a strong commitment to media freedom by condemning the intimidation of journalists by his supporters. RSF also urges him to continue his initiatives with regard to justice and the search for the truth about the murders and disappearances of journalists under his predecessor.
President Adama Barrow
State House of the Gambia
Paris, 9 March 2017
Dear President Barrow,
Your election has raised great hopes of democratic change in your country and it is with this in mind that Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international organization that defends media freedom, would like to draw your attention to a recent physical attack against a journalist.
\Kebba Jeffang, a reporter for the newspaper Foroyaa, was violently attacked by your supporters during the press conference that your foreign, interior and tourism ministers gave on 5 March. Your supporters ejected him from the room, hit him and tore his clothes because he asked a question about the possibility of a split in the ruling coalition in the run-up to legislative elections.
This kind of arbitrary behaviour cannot be overlooked because it would mean tolerating violence against journalists and allowing it to go unpunished, as was the case under your predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, whose long years as president were marked by many violations of human rights and freedom of expression.
We ask you to condemn this act of violence in an unequivocal manner so as to send a strong message to your supporters and to all Gambians. We think it is essential that your fellow citizens do not doubt that a new era, marked by respect for media freedom and the rejection of any violence against journalists, has begun under your presidency.
Your country is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index and your predecessor was on RSF’s list of press freedom predators. Under his regime, freedom of information was repeatedly flouted, communications were cut or censored, and journalists were attacked, arrested, tortured, sentenced to death or murdered. Some, such as Chief Ebrima Manneh, disappeared without any proper investigation by the authorities, leaving families deeply wounded.
In this regard, we welcome the fact that you have shown a desire to investigate these abuses by announcing a Truth and Justice Commission and, on 2 March, by arresting a soldier suspected of having had a hand in the 2004 murder of Deyda Hydara, co-founder of The Point newspaper and correspondent for RSF and AFP. We urge you to ensure that these initiatives are more than goodwill gestures and that they produce concrete results.
We also hail your choice for the position of information, communication and technology minister, Demba Ali Jawo, a former journalist and head of the Gambia Press Union, who has promised the necessary legislative reforms.
In this respect, we insist on the urgent need to repeal the law on sedition, which has too often been used to imprison journalists and restrict free speech, and on the need to amend the information and communication law and the penal code (which were made more restrictive in 2013) in order to ensure that journalists can no longer be imprisoned in connection with their work.
We are aware of the extent of the challenges you face and the wounds that the Gambian people must heal in order to move forward. Deep transformation is essential in order to turn the page on the Jammeh era and to restore Gambians’ trust in state institutions.
This is first and foremost your battle but journalists also have a key role to play in a country’s democratic life. The men and women of the media must be able to work freely in order to rebuild trust between Gambians, democracy and the rule of law. To this end, we hope they will have your full support.
Reporters Without Borders