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Press Freedom is Under Threat – Gambian Journalists

Gambian journalists particularly those who were subjected to harassment and assault by the state believe that freedom of the media has been threatened by the government.

The Gambian journalists joined the rest of the globe to commemorate the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) on Sunday. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic that calls for social distancing and the ban on public gathering, the day could not be celebrated through symposia as it used to be in the country.

The country since the change from dictatorship in 2016 has enjoyed commendations from different angles locally and internationally in terms of improvement it registered on the press freedom. But in 2019 and 2020, concerns have begun to overshadow those progresses following a physical assault meted on some journalists during the nation-wide presidential tour.

“…the supporters of President Barrow attacked me together with my colleagues whilst we were executing our job as journalists. It is something that I will never forget in my entire life. I was traumatized for almost a week by the attack. I barely have enough sleep during the first week of the attack because of the pain I was going through. The pain didn’t stop for almost one week,” Landing Ceesay, a reporter of Paradise FM radio tells The Chronicle.

     Landing Ceesay

Landing was assigned by his medium to cover the presidential tour to feed the daily newscast for public consumption.

“I felt so bad and I’m still feeling bad about it. Because, even up to date, I am still feeling pain in my chest where I was hit by two supporters of president Barrow and nothing is still done about it. I do feel pain in my chest from time to time even today because I haven’t gone any proper medical examination that can really help me to treat my chest. I still believe that Journalists are not safe in this country under President Barrow.”

He is not satisfied with the manner the Barrow-led government handles his case and that of his colleagues.

In January, three journalists were also arrested and detained for three days and their radio stations were shut close to a month following the violent demonstration by the pressure group that was asking the president to leave office after his three-year promise in office was ended in January 2020.

“This is one of the worst things that happened which we were not expecting from this government. We were not really expecting that president Adama Barrow’s government would close down the radio stations much more to arrest its managers and put them behind bars,” Kebba Camara, former local newscaster at King FM radio tells The Chronicle.

     Kebba Camara

Apart from the newspaper review in local language, Kebba also hosts ‘talk to the president’ show which is considered to be critical of the regime. Although he was not arrested, two of the radio staff including the manager were detained for three nights and the radio was shut by the police. Many believe it was due to the program he consistently anchors. According to him, the radio management ended his service shortly after the station was reopened due to self-censorship.

He now works at Paradise TV. “Personally, I am still not comfortable practicing journalism here because any day I go home I tell myself that maybe today they will be coming to arrest me.

“I still feel that they are targeting me because if the police could order for my radio station to be closed down and arrest my manager, then anything can happen to me. If you ask me to compare the two governments, I will tell you I still see myself in the box of the 22-year rule because I am not protected working in this country as a journalist.

The proprietor of Home Digital Radio, Pa Modou Bojang was also detained and the radio was taken off-air on the orders of the government. Shortly before the police picked him up, the radio was broadcasting the violent demonstration.

         Pa Modou Bojang

“As far as I’m concerned, we have press freedom under Barrow’s government but it’s under threat. But we have to do everything possible to be resilient, neutral, impartial and to make sure we inform the people with not only reliable but factual information,” he said.

“It’s surprising that his honeymoon relationship with the media did not go so long as expected. When he started changing, we noticed his remarks towards the social media and then he went further to accuse the mainstream media for disregarding his achievements but only reporting shortcomings.”

Pa Modou states that journalists must refuse to be silenced and intimidated in order to retain press freedom and not to edge into dictatorship again.

Meanwhile, The Gambia Press Union has issued a statement marking the World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, the content among others has highlighted the concerns of the threat towards the media freedom in the country.

Read the full statement of the GPU below:

GPU re-echoes call for journalism without fear or favour

Banjul, May 03: Today marks the 27th edition of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD). May 3rd has been set aside by the United Nations to pay tribute to journalism and journalists who have been killed in line of duty.

It is also a day to remind governments of the need to uphold the values and principles of press freedom while providing a platform for media professionals to reflect on the freedom and responsibility of the media.

This year’s commemoration comes at a time the world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, which poses enormous challenges to the freedom and development of the media.

Dozens of journalists have already been killed in pursuit of stories by the virus, besides nearly two dozen journalists who have been killed in the first quarter of 2020.

About 250 journalists are currently in prison and at risk of coronavirus. To complicate matters even more, the coronavirus pandemic is being used by governments around the world to stifle press freedom and the right of the citizens to exercise freedom of expression and access to information.

The GPU president, Sheriff Bojang Jr., said: “Journalism has never been more endangered. Not only are journalists being killed but also media houses are overstretched in human and financial resources terms.”

    Sheriff Bojang Jnr, President Gambia Press Union

He added: “But this is also the time for the media to persevere and rise to the challenge. Information has never been more of a life and death issue, but misinformation can be as dangerous as the lack of information. So, we have to up our game.”

Meanwhile, the theme for this year’s commemoration of World Press Freedom Day is ‘Journalism without fear or favour’. In this view, the GPU calls on journalists in The Gambia to honour their social contract with people, more so in these trying times.

We call on the public to support journalists, bearing in mind the words of Nelson Mandela that “none of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced.”

In the wake of the rising number of coronavirus patients in the country, we wish to renew our call to the government, through the Ministry of Health, to provide support that is critically needed to promote effective reporting and protect journalists from COVID 19. Reporters are frontline workers who are putting their lives at risk in order to keep the public informed.

The GPU notes with appreciation the improvements that The Gambia has made in the latest world press freedom index released by Reporters Without Borders. Out of 180 countries surveyed, the country has been ranked 87 in 2019, up from 92 in 2018.

Despite the improvements, the year 2019 is particularly remembered for the attack on the four journalists by supporters of the President. This incident, like dozens of similar incidents that happened since the new government took over in 2017, was never investigated as promised by the authorities.

The Union remained deeply concerned by the new wave of attacks in 2020, including the arbitrary arrest of four media workers and the unlawful closure of two radio stations over coverage of anti-government protests.

We therefore call on the government to address the issue of impunity for crimes against journalists and carry out the media laws reforms with speed and purpose.

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