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June 18, 2010 | News

Yahya Jammeh vs. The Free World: Will he get away so easily?

Ndey Tapha SOsseh
Ndey Tapha SOsseh

Many people, very many people believe the answer to the above question is: yes. With an unenviable record of alleged murder of opponents, witch-hunting of the old and feeble, forced disappearances, massacre of school children, etc., this argument can't be simply dismissed.

Perhaps the most traumatized segment of Yahya Jammeh's constituent of the oppressed in Gambia is the press. And indeed this is easily explicable for a leadership with such an unimpressive record. Who else pose the greatest threat to his 'monarchy'? He is on record asking journalists, in 2004, to obey his government or “go to hell.” And the following year, Jammeh was quoted as saying on the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) that he had allowed "too much expression" in the country.

But the rest of the international community shares in the responsibility for what Gambians are going through presently.

What, for instance, is ECOWAS's view of how the Gambia is governed? The sub regional body is itself a perfect reference subject of ridicule in the hands of the government of Yahya Jammeh whose continued disregard for a 2008 ruling by the ECOWAS Community Court in the case of missing Journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh remains blatantly ignored. Mr Manneh was detained by close allies of Yahya Jammeh since 2006, and until now the government continues to deny knowledge of his whereabouts. Since when did the Gambia become a jungle, where people can go missing without trace?

But like the head of the beleaguered Gambia Press Union, Ndey Tapha Sosseh, put it: “… if member states are undermining the constitution, what steps should ECOWAS take….there is a protocol on good governance and democracy, there is protocol on freedom of expression at the ECOWAS level … and this is a member state … What are you going to do…?

As the head of the umbrella body of Gambian journalists, Ndey Tapha embodies the reality of the average Gambian journalist. Because of her uncompromising stance against the government's excesses, she leaves in exile.

“If one thing to speak the truth and one thing to do my work as a journalist means me going to prison, I will go to prison a hundred times over,” she told reporters at the fringes of the recently concluded World Congress of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in the Spanish city if Cadiz.

Fears of self censorship
There have been expressions of concern about the effect on Gambia's democratization process of the current level of self-censorship by the media. While this is understandable if you were operating as a journalist in the Gambian environment, in the view of Ndey Tapha, it only “creates a sense of winning for the government.” She believes a “broader support” from the international community will do the trick in putting pressure on the government. She cited the widely condemned jailing (on sedition charges) and subsequent release of six Gambian journalists, last year.

“Broader support internationally has worked, even though the government pretends not to care about what is happening,” she said.

“The release of the journalists had much more to do with international pressure than anything else,” she added.

The Gambian press maybe one of the most, if not the most, susceptible to Yahya Jammeh's penchant for hate, but it is also his greatest fear; which explains why he would never allow a free press in his reign. And there is a lot to show for this: there is the issue of the killing of Dayda Hydara, the arrest and continued forced disappearance of Journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh, the banning of Citizen FM radio and the burning and subsequent banning of The Independent Newspaper, among a host of other anti-press activities carried out on his behalf.

Interestingly enough, there are those who view these developments as a sign of bravery on the part of the former army Lieutenant, but to many others it in fact a sign of “cowardice.”

“Genuine and democratic leaders do not curtail free speech; rather they exploit it for the greater benefit of all,” said a Gambian journalist on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “We in Gambia only know democracy by definition, not in reality.”

My anonymous contributor likened the situation in Gambia to what obtains in the legendary Animal Farm by the English writer, George Orwell. “You can't get a fear picture of the unpopularity of a pretentious dictator until the day they fall down,” he said. In Gambia, anything goes fine, it is sure to be associated with Yahya Jammeh and when things go bad, other people take the blame the hard way.

Since the arrest of the six journalists, Gambia has become a well placed reference point for everything that represent repression, especially of the press. This is a fact well noted by the entirety of media organizations across the globe.

Khady Cissé, the Secretary General of the Senegalese Press Union, in giving an optimistic view about the human rights situation in the West Africa sub-region, singled out Gambia as the only odd one out. She described it as “the school of pestering of journalists and repression of the press.”

There are innumerable exiled Gambian journalists in Senegal, having been forced to flee by the predatory attitude of close allies of Yahya Jammeh. Senegal of all countries has a big stake in the Gambian predicament; needless to say that any problem in its next-door neighbor is sure to spill over.

But it is not only Gambia's bigger neighbor that can help in this situation. The rest of the world, especially Gambia's development partners, can sure help as well. And the support of sister press unions will be very vital in this.

The head of the Gambian journalists body suggested the launching of a campaign through the IFJ to put pressure on governments and other donor agencies that “are giving money to the Gambia government based on a certain set of criteria, components of which are totally missing” in the country; to ask these governments “why they continue to give these money.” According to her, journalists, especially those from the EU zone, have an important role to play in this regard.

She said: “If journalists are putting their government to task about putting their tax payers' money in a country that has no respect for freedom of expression, that has no respect for its citizenry … once they (Gambian government) start feeling the pressure this will help…”

The exiled head of the Gambian journalists questioned the rational behind continued funding for the Gambian government (a Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) which depends a great deal on donor funding and resources from outside for its development programs) by development partners like the EU which often have set criteria as basis for extending such financial supports.

She pointed to the Kotonou Agreement, which states that for a country to benefit from EU funding, they must meet a certain set of criteria which “include press freedom and it includes democratic processes and that is non existent in the Gambia…”

Aren't there a set criteria bordering on democracy and good governance as regards the funds Gambia gets from Taiwan? This is a question Ndey discussed with her Taiwanese colleagues present in Cadiz. But as hard as it is to acknowledge, her “broader support” call is not likely to work across the board. Certainly not in the case of Taiwan, whose obsession with the Gambia is an open secrete to the world, which of course comes at the expense of a dedicated service in the form of campaign, on its behalf, by Gambian officials, including President Yahya Jammeh himself at the level of almost every major international institution like the UN. Such a symbiotic relationship at the level of the two governments is certainly impenetrable.

Despite acknowledging the fact that Gambian journalists can not do it alone, Sosseh challenged her Gambian colleagues to take the lead.

“… above and beyond all that it is up to us Gambian journalists to take the lead,” she said.

And she added: “It is bad going to prison, it is bad being beaten, it's bad having to live in exile, but that is the least we can do.”

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