It’s a clichéd phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” but its message is typified in the growing repression and meets growing resistance of Gambian journalist’s more than two decades-long political editorials, emotional stories, exposing corruption and writing campaigns for human rights champions. The Gambian journalist’s culture of activism and advocacy Journalism on the frontline of our struggle against kakistocracy evoked this phrase again by paying tribute to some of the Gambian journalists who have risked their lives to ensure that corruption and human rights violations are exposed. The historical significance of political editorials and the power of words, journalists serve as a canary in a coal mine in response to growing struggle against President Yahya Jammeh’s twenty-two years of repression and kakistocracy rule.
For ages, the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” has come to define the power of the written word in statecraft. Those words have since stepped out of the pages of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Conspiracy, a play written in 1839, to become words on marble.
At the heart of this notion of the might of the pen is the idea that the course of a nation or people can be determined at the stroke of a pen. Nations can be built, and nations can be ruined; generations can be made great, and generations can be rendered wasted; civilizations can be birthed, and civilizations can be buried – at the stroke of a pen!
At the stroke of a pen, millions of Africans were “legally” transported across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and became the property of slave owners. At the stroke of a pen, the slave trade was abolished centuries later and emancipation was proclaimed to former slaves, thus formally criminalizing an immoral enterprise. At the stroke of a pen, the kingdoms and city states of Africa were partitioned and transformed into the estates of European monarchs. At the stroke of a pen, cultures were dismembered, nations were balkanized, and territories were amalgamated into colonies and protectorates. Decades later, colonies and protectorates became independent states – at the stroke of a pen.
We have seen frameworks become supreme law and proposals become policies that make or break nations; we have seen elections validated or annulled; we have seen presidents sworn in, some by convention, others by the doctrine of necessity – all at the stroke of a pen. Families are consolidated or dissolved, enterprises are incorporated or liquidated, convictions are obtained or upturned, and life and death could hang on a simple but weighty sentence, held in the balance by a pen waiting to be wielded, particularly when the ink that runs through the pen is propelled by the force of the state.
We have also seen world changers who, when the pages of history parted for them to emerge, proceeded on their journeys without the backing of the state and forcefully turned the wheel of civilization at the stroke of a pen. At the stroke of a pen, the doctrinal chains that held the church and the nations in a stranglehold were dismantled when a German professor of theology, Martin Luther, reminded the world that the just shall live by faith. Here, I am referring to the “Ninety-Five Theses” he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517.
At the stroke of a pen, the people of Great Britain began their journey to freedom from the tyranny of monarchy to parliamentary democracy – history calls it the Magna Carta. At the stroke of a pen, the people of the United States declared their independence from the colonizing power of the British Crown – they called it the Declaration of Independence. At the stroke of a pen, the people of France broke the spell of an oppressive monarchy and took control of government – history records it as the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen. At the stroke of a pen, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sparked the flame of revolution among the proletariat of Russia and Eastern Europe – they called it the Communist Manifesto.
The likes of Edward Francis Small, Kwame Nkrumah, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara and other Africa’s founding fathers armed with no other weapon, mobilized the Queen’s language in the struggle for independence from the Queen. They fought their battles through such media as the Gambia Outlook and Senegambian Reporter, West African Pilot, Accra Evening News and The Nation, The Tribune.
Decades after independence, the longest serving democracy in Africa, the Gambia, a tyrannical dictatorship held sway, the Gambian independent media took up the baton and contended against the sword of oppression by deploying the armory of words and vocabulary. Independent journalists having fought for the nation’s independence and stood diametrically opposed to continued kakistocracy rule and insisted on the country’s return to civil democratic rule.
To achieve this, Gambian journalists extensively and effectively with a stroke of a pen on daily basis chronicled relentlessly on anti-military editorials, publications, reportage and exposing human rights violations and mega sleaze mostly at the risk of losing their lives to expose the evil and misrule of kakistocracy in order to mobilize the civil societies against the military juntas.
This resulted in series of episodes of arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists, nocturnal arson stacks and intimidation, political assassination, extra-judicial killings, abuse of human rights, closure of media houses, seizure of publications among others, the Gambian journalists keep their resilience in the anti-despotic struggle.
If journalism is the first draft of history, then independent Gambian journalists are surely its most daring composers. Along such celebrated and high-profile figures of Gambian journalists, there exists a stratum of journalists self-employed, working under dire conditions, and with minimal resources who often place themselves at the frontline of confronting dictatorship. In this gripping account independent journalists, and the daily challenges they face confronting dictators, hostile military, and plain clothes security agents. Unfettered by any ties to those in positions of power, these Gambian guerrilla journalists are often the first on a story whether reporting on corruption, human rights violation or sexual scandals in, organized crime in in the country accordingly face the brunt of their subject’s wrath.
Relying on interviews, professional contacts, and our own experiences, Journalists explores the dilemmas and strategies of journalists who persevere in the face of repressive governments, and criminal aggression, with emphasis on the role of the Internet. At a time when journalism is increasingly a profession under siege, Words of Fire forces into the spotlight a more positive side of the profession, those who pursue journalism not for profit or fame but as a personal crusade.
By the might of their pens and labors and all other actors who fought for democracy and good governance they enjoy today without using arms and ammunitions.
‘The Pen is mightier than the sword’ holds great significance with simple yet profound meaning. It suggests that Gambian journalists leave a greater influence on people than the soldiers; for Gambian struggle recognizes the name of several famous journalists such as Deyda Haydara, Baboucarr Gaye, Ebrima Ceesay, George Christensen, Momodou Musa Secka, Alieu Badara Sowe and Abdoulie Sey, but very few will be able to recognize the names of great soldiers of the Gambia National Army, etc. For ages, pen has been creating wonders as written information gets spread as knowledge which is preserved with people for their lifetime. The proverb clearly indicates that journalists are more influential than the mighty fighters and the sword cannot build such impact which writers can.
Writing can unite people to stand against social or national evil. Mahatma Gandhi through his preaching and knowledge united the citizens; he didn’t fight but won the nation with his power of wisdom and will. A war may result into victory to one party and defeat to the other at the cost of several lives; but a book can enlighten the world without harming even a single person, without any bloodshed.
Pen is the weapon of writers, which they can use to create history. Pen is constructive, while sword is destructive. A pen has the capacity to write political editorials and emotional stories. Writing is regarded with respect and writers are always considered as the strong pillars of society as they have the power to change the world through the magic of their writing.
One will totally agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson that “talent alone cannot make a writer: there must be a man behind the book.” Gambian editors, journalists, and their ilk have proved themselves over the years to be real men and women. In addition, by deploying their skill against tyranny, the members of the press have aligned themselves with a biblical truth that recognizes authorship as an instrument of battle as the “author of salvation.”
As a publisher who understands that a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ve become a journalist by vocation, and a consistent conduit of wise counsel to the leadership of our nation. I am glad to see some of our writings compiled for the present and posterity in books. And like Winston Churchill who said, “half my life time I have earned my living by selling words, and I hope thoughts”, may other Gambian journalists prosper by their words and thoughts. When the leader of our nation failed to heed his counsel and warnings, Gambian journalists could not fold their arms and watch the nation go down the drain. They momentarily dropped their pens and jumped into the fray. As men irrevocably committed to the people, Gambian journalists pitched their tent with a union that had been instituted by a defender of the people; men and women upon whom the people had already conferred an award no government award could ever match.
At this critical moment in our national life, the words of the French emperor and warrior, Napoleon Bonaparte, are worthy of mention. He said: “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations. Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” I sincerely pray that all the stakeholders, especially the press and the intelligentsia, will play a pivotal role in setting the agenda for the polity in our new democracy.
The writings of some Gambian journalists have, over the years, addressed some of the fundamental issues facing our nation. I am confident, as well as other opinion influencers, will intensify efforts to ensure that the welfare and security of our people, as well as the overall development of our nation, become the main discourse at this pivotal moment. This is the purpose of any government worthy of the name.
In new Gambia of political war and reconciliations; we need more pens than swords. The fact is that men are more influenced and guided by ideas than by the fear of sword or physical forces. It is true, that the command of the sword is restrained to a particular time period, but the influence of pen is immortal and universal. The journalists must use this power with utmost care, for their writing can either make or break the image of huge personalities, because pen is mightier than sword.
We’re the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. To live a life that sucked, that triumphed, that soured up, that found the light, that stopped without an ending, that had a neat finish. Storytelling finds all worthy of telling, without judgment, without favor, without fixing to suit our desired story lines. Storytelling validates the bum and the prince, the cruel and the compassionate, the meaningless and the purposeful, all of it a true reflection of human existence.
Recognition of journalists work on such a large-scale, we indicated, what we hoped would come of our persistent satire of dictatorships over the past years. By using humor and story line to minimize the dictators’ legitimacy, we empowered Gambians by showing them that these ‘powerful’ dictatorial regimes deeply fear the true power of the people. We released editorials, included above which hurts dictator Yahya is afraid of a pen! Indeed, the attacks on Yahya Jammeh highlighted the powers of words to scare even the most feared people. Our courage was incredibly admirable national and international. We never published of the attacks beyond his grateful surprise that it did receive international coverage.
From now on, any time the name of journalists and host of other pen warriors – are mentioned with full honors, it is an honor first to the men and women who paid the supreme price to pave the way for the Gambia’s democracy, and then to the heroes and heroines who stood up behind them, including those in the Fourth Estate of the Realm who marshalled the written and spoken word against tyranny.
Efforts should be made by government and stakeholders to sustain the gains by creating enabling environment that would strengthen the capacity, independence, and security of private media practitioners as way of safeguarding and consolidating evolving democratic institutions.
Finally, to a nation in the throes of violent agitations, to the people of our nation who want their fair share, and to young people running out of patience, the lesson from Gambian journalists is very clear and simple: spill the ink, not the blood; paint an indelible picture of the nation you desire, and work tirelessly to ensure its realization, knowing that the greatness of our nation depends on it. If we follow that counsel passionately, we shall, by God’s grace, see a nation that works in our lifetime.
Alagi Yorro Jallow is a co- founder and former managing editor of the Independent, The Gambia’s only private newspaper before it was banned by the government in 2005. He is an award-winning journalist of the 2005 for the International Press Freedom Award and twice awarded the Human Rights Watch Hellman/ Hammet award in 2000 and 2004. He was in residence as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC. He was also a fellow at the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard Foundation for Journalism.