Murdered, tortured, disappeared without a trace, incarcerated, and sent into exile, Gambian journalists, including women victims, are putting solid expectations on the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission regarding their plights ahead of preparing and submitting the final report to the executive for implementation.
The TRRC was established by an Act of Parliament to investigate the right violations in all forms throughout the 22-year-old administration marred by Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorship. Media and journalists, arguably being the hardest-hit sector in the country, the Commission had dedicated and began its institutional hearing with the institution to unearth the extent of its victimization. It relied on journalists who got brutalized. The Gambia Press Union has an extensive report on atrocities against the sector.
One of the darkest moments of rights violations against journalists was in June 2009 when the Gambia Press Union’s breastfeeding executive member was arrested and incarcerated with her baby at Mile II prisons, along with several journalists. Their crime was for producing a statement and publishing it in the local newspapers to react to what was termed ‘insensitive and disrespectful remarks’ by the former President directed at the slain journalist Deyda Hydara.
In a recently caught up with her, the U.K-based Sarata Jabbie said they were aware of the consequence of what they were doing, but they had a duty to protect journalists and their integrity. Apart from her advocacy role, she was the women’s affairs columnist at The Point newspaper, co-founded by Deyda Hydara. They were charged with seditious publications and conspiracy to criminal defamation. Sarata and her colleagues were tried, convicted, and incarcerated, but Jammeh later released them due to international pressure.
“I felt so devastated. The atmosphere at the remand wing was so terrible because the size of the building was small for the number of people who were there,” she recalled the horrifying moments at the State’s Central Prisons, Mile II.
Twelve years down the line, and after testifying at the Truth Commission two years ago, she is now putting the strong call on the TRRC to find a lasting closure for her and other victims. She also suggested the need for solid recommendations that will concretize press freedom in the Gambia.
Remembering those moments, Sarata said journalists, particularly those working for independent media, were viewed as enemies of the state and recalled multiple family’s advice for her to quit well before being involved in the problem.
“So, to avoid all such horrifying experiences again, I think the TRRC, which is a brilliant initiative, I expect to see the establishment of truth and closure for victims. I also expect the TRRC to come up with public policy recommendations for the prevention of the same kind of wrongs and atrocities against innocent people, and the media in particular,” Sarata said.
Sarata and her colleagues were arrested when Ndey Tapha Sosseh was the GPU’s President in absentia as she controlled the affairs from exile. She decided to make a public statement to react to what she described as Jammeh’s insensitive remarks towards the late Deyda Hydara. Jammeh’s killer squad gunned down Hydara in 2004. Ndey remained in exile until after the change of government in 2017, as she was declared wanted during Jammeh’s days.
Ndey says she is afraid that draconian media laws will remain in the book despite the strong verbal commitment by the new administration.
“I see that because of the transition and the so-called freedoms that we have, people tend to forget about the importance of [putting pressure on the government]. But we are still living in a country where the same old media laws, the same old criminal code exist,” she told the TRRC in her closing remarks in 2019.
“So, these are all the things we should be seeing journalists talk about because once the transition period disappears, many of the things are going to stay. And it means that never again may not never be again. I am afraid.”
And as she feared, things remained the same to this day. There have been physical assaults perpetrated by President Adama Barrow’s supporters and the police against the journalists. Practitioners were arrested under the President’s watch and were placed under illegal detention at unknown locations for days before the GPU succeeded in its pressure on the government to disclose their locations and free them. They were never charged. The journalists involved have had their radio stations illegally closed for nearly a month, the exact actions that journalists experienced under dictatorship.
Meanwhile, the current President of the Gambia Press Union, Sheriff Bojang Jr., has called for justice for the victimized journalists under the dictatorship.
“There’s not a single institution in The Gambia which has more victims of the Jammeh dictatorship than the media. Journalists went through hell, and the TRRC testimonies confirmed that. Therefore, when the TRRC prepares and submits its recommendations to the executive, journalists must get justice. Nothing more, nothing less. Justice is all we ask,” said Bojang.
As far as the TRRC recommendations are concerned, there is so much at stake for journalists – including how the State will be delivered justice to the victims, what kind of recommendations will be made to prevent another blatant violation of their rights, and whether the government will implement those recommendations.
An emerging broadcast journalist Banna Sabally did not experience some of these abuses as she only completed high school after the fall of the dictatorship. But to ensure the painful experiences she later learned about her senior colleagues, Banna calls for strong recommendations that will ensure that press freedom is properly safeguarded, especially the protection of female journalists.
“We have seen numerous right violations that have been portrayed at the TRRC, which were even unknown to some of us. Now that this information is available especially considering the involvement of female journalists, I expect the TRRC to come up with strong recommendations related to press freedom. I am also expecting that the executive will fully implement these recommendations that will protect journalists, including women journalists”, the West Coast Radio reporter said.
Research done by the Doha Center for Media Freedom in 2009 indicated that about a whopping 20% of the Gambia’s practicing journalists were working in exile.
In its recommendations to the TRRC, The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has recommended that the TRRC consult with women victims on the long-term impacts of the violations they suffered to determine a reparations program that would address their needs and ensure they receive fair reparations.