Between the Press and State House: Separating News from Propaganda
During the Yahya Jammeh regime, access to the State House (the presidency) was only enjoyed by journalists from the state media or Jammeh’s media (in the case of Daily Observer). Even with that privilege, the information they received from the presidency was always manipulated, one-sided and concocted mainly for propaganda. Press briefings or one-on-one interviews with Jammeh were almost impossible.
When Adama Barrow joined the race for presidency in 2016, local journalists were assigned to his campaign. Throughout the entire campaign period, he relied on these journalists to boost his little-known image and sell himself to the electorate. By the time the election was over and he won the race, Barrow already built solid personal relationship with some of these journalists, a reason he and his officials recruited them as State House communications officers at the time.
Committing himself to the promotion of press freedom and the free flow of information, the president started a biannual dialogue with the press in 2017. Through the initiative, journalists (both local and international) would sit down with him to ask him any questions they wanted to ask. The initiative was largely lauded and hailed by the media. It wasn’t without queries and reservations though. The most popular complaint you’d hear journalists say was that the president ‘understood the questions but he didn’t know the answers.’ Despite these reservations, he was opened to one-on-one interviews and that was widely commended, especially in consideration of the fact that his predecessor did not only deny the private media that accord, but he also often threatened to bury journalists six-feet deep.
Then last year, President Barrow’s dialogue with the press stopped. The last time he faced the media alone, he was visibly angry and he responded angrily when he was asked a question by journalist Lamin Njie about what political science lecturer Dr. Ismaila Ceesay said about him; that he lacked intellectual pedigree. There were assumptions that the question pushed State House to put a stop to the president’s dialogue with the press.
The alternative press briefing also held periodically by his Director of Press and Public Relations, Amie Bojang-Sissoho was also stopped. On Tuesday, Mrs. Bojang-Sissoho presided over the resumption of the briefing at State House, and she cited busy presidential schedules for the decision to stop the president’s dialogue with the press. But not all journalists are buying into this.
“At the beginning, the momentum was very high. People were very impressed when the presidency started the dialogue with the press,” said Sankulleh Janko, a presidential correspondent for Dakar-based West Africa Democracy.
“It looks like they were trying to give us false hope at the beginning. Now I’m disappointed.”
As an alternative, State House put in place a communication team to disseminate information about the president and the presidency to the media. Journalists are not impressed.
“Most of the news and information from the State House are either already known to the public by time they got to journalists or they are not difficult to get elsewhere,” said Sankulleh.
Muhammed S. Bah, Foroyaa newspaper’s presidential reporter at State House said although the presidency has provided platforms where news and information are shared, the critical information are restricted and hidden from the media.
Omar Bah, The Standard newspaper’s State House correspondent rated access to information from the presidency as ‘relatively fair but not very good.’
“The information coming from State House, apart from media briefings is somehow curtailed in a way that looks like propaganda. Let’s say since the president stopped his six-monthly press conferences they’ve been sending us press releases time after time.”
According to Bah, “those press releases can only be called propaganda because they do not discuss the real issues sometimes and when we come up with our questions, they are not answered to our satisfaction.”
For Sankulleh, the way forward is for the presidency to give journalists direct access to State House to get their own information, instead of the presidential communications team “feeding us with information we cannot verify.”
Recently, State House announced plans to use the State Intelligence Services (SIS) to screen journalists who applied for accreditation to cover the presidency. The plan was aborted after public outcry and the intervention of the Gambia Press Union (GPU).