Gambia: Caught red-handed
Gambia might not be the only country whose rights situation was reviewed in Geneva recently, at the 7th session of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR), but thanks to a largely unfavorable press and an unhelpful attitude of indifference on the part of the leadership to the media attention it gets, the country's highly debatable human rights record remained prominently in focus. Even countries with equally moot reputation had the courage to preach, cautiously though, to the government of the 'Smiling Coast' about the need for a free society.
Perhaps the only country in the world that appears to closely rival Gambia in terms of this attitude of pretence of coldness towards external criticism is Eritrea, another highly isolated nation. This, however, does not mean these are the only countries on this continent which are mostly wanting in their responsibilities towards ensuring free society. There is Ethiopia which, shamefully, happens to be de factor capital of the feeble African Union. There is also big brother Kenya; needless to mention Libya. And the list goes on and on and on.
The situation under which any society operates is influenced mainly by the prevailing laws. Amply convincing evidence abound, the world over, to show that under hash prevailing circumstances people are bound to adjust to ensure that life goes on.
Politics wise, repressive moves by droopy governments have always galvanized strong-minded and purposeful societies to resist unfair domination. We have seen it in many countries, communist China being a perfect example, where, for instance, citizen journalism has provided salvation for an oppressed people. China's protégé, communist Cuba, is another perfect example where the power of online journalism has provided opportunity for much needed divergent views to be heard. There is also Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, etc.
What prevails in these above mentioned nations is no different from what is going on in many African countries today, Gambia very much included. And therefore you would expect no different response from any of the people concerned.
And it was the honorable Justice Minister Marie Saine Firdaus who had the unpalatable task of defending the human rights record of The Gambia! In a sense that is supposed to be a humbling assignment, but certainly not when you are up for such a huge global hostility as it became obvious for Gambia even as delegates headed for Geneva. From the look of things, the experience can be liken to that of a minor who is caught red-handed in a punishable act, and the only way out is to flirt with irrelevant obvious available excuses. The Justice Minister clearly blatantly ignored reason and patched up all sorts of unwitty excuses for the actions reportedly meted out to Gambians under her government's watch. For an emissary of Yahya Jammeh who wants to keep their job, you will obviously have to do nothing less. Present rumor though doesn't suggest a good performance of the Justice Minister.
Marie's denial of the well documented human rights issues the Gambia government stands long accused of is not the issue here, the fact that she appeared to blame it all on ''irresponsibility'' on the part of the independent press is.
Now, this is where the problem about today's Gambia lies.
There has been too much ruckus about the manner in which the Gambian media operates today, yet very few people appear concerned about the events leading to the current situation. If the Gambian media has disregarded the rule of engagement it is because the government itself, which now operates more or less on the principle of gangsterism, has thrown the very laws it made into the trash bin.
A heinously misguided anti-independent media policy engineered by devious elements within the early July 22nd 'Revolutionaries', many of whom today hide behind pro-democracy organizations abroad, after fallen victims of their own perpetration, unfortunately remains a reality up to this day. And every indication are that this situation is likely to remain until there is a total sluice of the system. This might well mean total regime change. How the latter is attained remains an exclusive decision for the Gambian people, and none else.
Today, a purely independent media operates only outside the Gambia. And, as a matter of fact, this part of the Gambian press has been largely guilty of foul play only in light of its reporting of mishaps in government. The Gambian press appears to be guilty only when it report a witch hunting spree headed by members of the presidential brigade at the behest of the president, or when it reports political interference in the judicial process of the country, or when it reports unlawful arrests, extra judicial killings, unfair treatment of voiceless opponents of the regime.
The Gambia government's accusation that journalists deliberately engage in sensational reporting only accentuates its guilt of thoughtlessness, for it clearly doesn't appear to see that it is partly responsible for the prevailing situation.
Minister Firdaus cited the Gambia's 1997 Constitution, which indeed guarantees free speech and free flow of information, to defend the government's commitment to those ideals. But it is a well noted fact that the problem of Africa's democracy is not necessarily constitutional deficiencies; it is mainly the culture of manifest disregard for constitutions. What is the essence of putting clauses in the constitution when they do not hold in reality? What is the essence of one thousand media outfits if they are not free to operate within the limit of their constitutionally guaranteed rights anyway?
And to attribute ''false and defamatory'' reporting to lack of training on the part of journalists tantamount to self indictment for any responsible government which is committed to its democratic responsibilities. It is a shame that the Gambia government would say so, when it has done all it can to choke any effort to strengthen the press, which include frustrating efforts to creating opportunity for training.
Justice Minister Marie Saine Fredaus'denial of Yahya Jammeh's widely documented alleged pronouncement of the death penalty for human rights defenders also explains her and her government's bigotry and lack of respect for the free flow of information aspect of the Gambian Constitution, contrary to what she claimed in her report.
In a free society, the first thing the citizens would have expected was official refutation of allegations of such magnitude. But that is not Yahya Jammeh's Gambia. He feels so condescending that he would not respond; he simply doesn't care about what the [Gambian] people think. Isn't that itself a clear indication of the kind of man that is ruling the Gambia? Doesn't it give an idea about the kind of 'democracy' Gambians are enjoying?
So how the independent press in Gambia can be responsible for all this remains unanswered.
How the independent press could provoke the callous acts that resulted in the killing of soldiers alleged to have attempted to remove a government that itself usurped power by the barrel of the gun only God knows; how the independent press could be responsible for the merciless and murderous act of killing dozens of innocent school children who were exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights, demanding justice for the killing of their colleague by demonstrating is also a question worth answering by the Gambian authorities.
Was it also irresponsibility on the part of the independent media when the government that resulted from the illegal military regime unsuccessfully attempted to stifle the press with the introduction of the National Media Commission Bill, 1999 ("NMCB, 1999")? And how does the subsequent murdering of the man who championed the successful fight against that destructive bill, Dayda Hydara, has to do with the ''irresponsibility'' of the independent media in Gambia?
What about the missing journalist, Chief Ebrima Manneh – could he have been engaged in what the government call irresponsible journalism to warrant his arrest and continued detention? And also the opposition UDP supporter, Kanyiba Kanyi - was his kidnapping by armed men the fault of untrained journalists? The 'witches' who had witch hunters set upon them, under the watch of Yahya Jammeh's presidential guards, did that have anything to do with irresponsibility or lack of training on the part of the Gambian media? When the six journalists where arrested was it because of unprofessionalism or the uncanny and irresponsible remark by the president against someone whose death this very government of his virtually stands accused of?
Basically, the focus has always been on the Gambian media because it provides the strongest of challenges to the remaining of Yahya Jammeh's dwindling influence by revealing the excesses of his government.
When the political opposition in the country showed tangible signs of effectiveness in the embryonic days of the 'July 22nd Junta', Lt., later Capt., and then Rt. Col. Yahya Jammeh's rhetoric used to be directed to 'unpatriotic groups' who did not aim well for the country. The unsuspecting Gambian population quickly bought into that, as it were. The result is that even though they were and are still a minority, those who viewed Gambian opposition as enemy, with the aid of the APRC dominated media at the time, succeeded in wrongly portraying a majority view. Coupled with the effect of the internal damage caused by infiltrating destructive elements within the opposition, the likes of Lamin Waa Juwara, as his eventual switch in allegiance suggests, the opposition lost its essence. This left the baton in the hands of the independent media. At least that is what it appeared to be as the government directed every bit of its energy towards undoing the free press, which was clearly the only remaining means for Gambians who shared a divergent view to express themselves. No wonder the Gambian media has become the perceived 'enemy' of the Gambian [Yahya Jammeh's] people.
When a people are confronted by the woes of a government that is on record disregarding the rules it laid down, itself, the only way out of such mess is by ignoring those very rules, because they obviously do not count. That is the situation in Gambia today, and it is the principle by which the truly independent Gambian media, which only exists outside the country, operates.
Just for the record
Make no mistake; Yahya Jammeh very well cares about what the international community feels about his record, contrary to the message his speeches tend to convey. And this explains his attitude towards the independent press which doesn't appear to be an admirer of his style of governance. Yahya Jammeh also believes in the power of the media in shaping the minds of the masses, and he has made sure of using it much to his advantage. This is a fact the present disorientated opposition doesn't seem to realize.
I am speaking out of experience. Jammeh detests seeing images of Gambian opposition figures on newspapers, and he has made sure of this, at least, with regards to the state controlled media. You are sure of seeing images of opposition figures on either the Daily Observer or GRTS only when there are bad things to report about them. Jammeh himself make sure of this.
The press, after all, can be fair, depending on the person judging. That is if it toes their line.