Gambia’s New Political Dispensation Inspires Massive Interest in Journalism
It’s a Media Law and Ethics session in a classroom at the Media Academy for Communication and Journalism (MAJaC) in Fajara. Isatou Chaw and her colleagues bombard their lecturer with questions about the president’s powers to hire and fire appointees and other legal issues making national headlines outside the walls of the classroom.
Isatou, 21, is in her second year at the academy. Her passion for journalism started a few years ago but when she told her family that she wanted to study journalism and pursue it as a career, the answer was simply No. She was a brave young woman who never hesitated to speak her mind and speak out against anything she felt was wrong. That was during the Yahya Jammeh era and her family members were worried those characteristics were incompatible with the dictatorship in the country. In those days, journalists were arrested, detained and tortured.
The more Isatou pushed for her family to let her pursue journalism, the more they were determined to stop her, and she gave up temporarily.
“My brother in particular didn’t want me to go near journalism at all. He told me that Jammeh would kill me because of my nature. When I see wrong, I say it. I don’t mince my words. I’ve always been like that and that’s what scared him,” Isatou tells The Chronicle.
“It didn’t also help that journalists were being arrested, taken to court and imprisoned for no reason.”
When Jammeh lost the December 2016 election and the two decades of his dictatorship eclipsed into history and paved the way for the new political dispensation, Isatou celebrated the change and renewed her interest in pursuing journalism. With Jammeh gone, her family finally allowed her to study journalism.
Isatou enrolled at MAJaC in 2018 first as a foundation student and now a certificate student. “I can see the changes. The Gambia has changed. I can say journalists are now free. They are no longer afraid.”
Isatou did a three-month internship at QTV and she now wants to become a TV journalist after graduation in 2021 because of that experience.
“I feel television is powerful. People can watch you and listen to you at the same time. With that power, you can change a lot in the society.”
Landing Ceesay, 25, is in Isatou’s class. Like her, he enrolled at MAJac in 2018 after failing to convince his family to let him pursue journalism during the regime of Jammeh. Growing up, Landing idolized some of the Gambia’s finest journalists and even befriended them. He wanted to study journalism immediately he finished high school in 2014, but there was a problem. There was dictatorship and his family wouldn’t let him become a victim, like many journalists who pried into the affairs of the powerful APRC regime.
“I loved journalism from the bottom of my heart. It was my only dream,” he says. “My parents and the entire family didn’t want me to pursue that dream. They reminded me about journalists who were harmed and they felt it wasn’t worth my life.”
After Jammeh left for exile, Landing headed to MAJaC to study journalism. Though his parents are still reluctant to accept that he’s on the verge of becoming a journalist, he’s determined to make a breakthrough into print media.
“My parents are still worried that the system we had in the past can repeat itself. They’re not sure of my safety and security. But I tell them that things are different now and there is press freedom. It feels good to be associated with journalism in this country today.”
When Alimatta S. Bajinka wanted to become a journalist, it was clear to her that there was a roof of insecurity hanging over every journalist’s head.
“I knew journalists were being arrested and maltreated. Some were locked up for merely revealing information the public wanted to know.”
As a result, she was scared to pursue journalism. She thought of practicing journalism that wouldn’t get her into trouble. But on the second thought, she gave up. But with the new political dispensation, the 21-year-old finally had the guts to enroll at MAJaC to study journalism in 2018.
“I’ve seen a lot of difference. It’s so exciting to study journalism knowing that you’ll graduate and go practice without any fear of being harmed. This is so exciting.”
The Director of MAJac, Sang Mendy confirms that in the Jammeh days a lot of parents wouldn’t want to see their children anywhere near a journalism training school or a media house for security and safety reasons. He says “within one year after the end of that regime, the school was able to move from enrolling just twenty students every two years to 110 a year.”
As The Gambia joins the rest of the world to mark the World Press Freedom Day Friday, Sang pays tribute to the young people for their dedication to journalism.
“I want to believe that the future of journalism in this country is very bright for the simple reason that young people are coming to the classroom to learn the trade before getting into the newsroom. When they get to the newsroom they’ll get the right coaching. So when you combine the two, the future can only be bright.”