Reports have emerged recently that the Barrow State House will henceforth subject journalists covering the presidency to background checks and screening from the notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA), now State Intelligence Service (SIS). The Gambia Press Union (GPU) quickly reacted, urging all journalists “not to comply”. The GPU said it will engage the Directorate of Press and Public Relations (DPPR) at the presidency. But while that dialogue maybe on, I wish to offer Mrs Amie Bojang Sissoho and State House five reasons to shelf the screening plans.
Background checks vs screening: It is worthy of note that there is a little difference between conducting background checks and screening. Background checks is part of due diligence and I will be shocked if it has not been part of your accreditation process thus far. So, given the homogeneity of our country and the tiny nature of our media industry, screening is almost irrelevant. We almost all know each other enough to provide invaluable counsel as to the fitness (or lack of it) of individual journalists to be granted accreditation.
Limited or Unlimited Access: Accreditation to cover the presidency does not and should not equal unlimited access. Journalists as well as other visitors and staff should have designated access levels. Just because you carry a press card with a State House seal does not mean you can loiter around or lurk into any and all offices. The DPPR’s office can accommodate a press pool for reporters. And you do not have a “West Wing” kind of space and room; you can create an annex in any of the neighbouring ministries and allow journalists into the press pool as and when necessary. With this option, you really don’t need screening.
Media reforms: The Barrow administration has made significant policy pronouncements aimed at deregulating and reregulating the media to conform to international standards. Press freedom and freedom of expression indexes have all hailed this as huge progress given the trying times we endured under Jammeh. The Gambia’s scores improved in many indexes, from Freedom House to Reporters Without Boarders analysts saw the pronouncements as significant commitment toward media reform. This improvement should be jealously guarded by the administration and if anything, work on implementing your previous positive pronouncements. It is time to move from commitment to action in our media reforms agenda.
Fear of Intimidation: Given the history of harassment of journalists in this country, it is a bad idea to subject journalists to another form of screening. Our media professionals have gone through so much for a lifetime. The idea of screening alone has the potentials to produce chilling effects on journalists and their reporting. So in the interest of public service journalism, State House should abandon the screening project.
Torture chamber: The rebranding of the NIA into SIS is an ongoing process. Just because we have renamed the organisation and pursued a few reforms including staffing does not mean the rebranding is complete. In fact, while we may have repainted the premises, many Gambians, particularly journalists still see the NIA/SIS premises and the organisation as torture chamber. So even if screening (and I don’t mean background checks) maybe extremely necessary, the NIA/SIS is the wrong option.
I hope you hear the loud cries for freedom of the press and other media.
Demba Kandeh is a lecturer at the University of The Gambia and head of training at the Media Academy for Journalism and Communication (MAJaC).