As the international community marks World Press Freedom Day, The Gambia’s journalists are finally able to return to work without fear of intimidation following two decades of dictatorship and repression.
A man of eloquence, fearlessness and of strong character. This is how Gambians describe veteran journalist Sarjo Barrow. He has dedicated his entire life to a career in journalism.
Barrow, 65, is a famous newsreader and newspaper translator in the local Mandinka language. He started his career in 1979. When President Yahya Jammeh took over in 1994, Barrow became the most hated reporter in the country. President Jammeh often singled him out and mocked him, but still he stood firm. “I was highly monitored and followed by secret agents. They thought I was part of the opposition journalists in the country,” Barrow told DW, adding that Gambian journalists had to be careful during the military rule.
When Gambians went to the polls at the end of 2016, Barrow was optimistic that President Yahya Jammeh would be defeated. And he was. But just days later, Jammeh changed his mind and made a shocking statement denying the poll results and calling for a fresh vote. Because of his language proficiency, Barrow was summoned to the president’s office to translate the controversial statement that was originally made in English into the local language, Mandinka. “I was so bitter, but I could not say no to them. Everyone was seated at the State House staring at me,” he told DW. Two months later, President Jammeh could no longer stand the local and international calls demanding him to peacefully hand over power to Adama Barrow, a man who had neither political capital nor military muscle. After the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened to remove him by force, Jammeh accepted the result and left, taking with him a fleet of expensive cars, money, and aides.
A new dawn for The Gambia press
When Jammeh came to power through a military coup in 1994, he slowly silenced the country’s once-vibrant media sector. One by one, stations went off the air, and some of The Gambia’s most critical reporters either went into exile or left the industry. More than 110 journalists were forced into exile. The Gambia’s constitution guarantees freedom of the press. However, under President Jammeh’s rule, this right was not respected in practice. His government used numerous repressive laws to thwart critical reporting. Journalists often faced harassment and intimidation, mainly from members of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which operated under his command.
Over a year after his fall, freedom of expression and the press has returned to the West African nation. More than 30 reporters have also returned, according to The Gambia Press Union (GPU). Veteran Journalist Barrow can finally do his job freely, he says. “Everybody is free. The media is free. In fact, we have got our freedom to such a level that some [of us] are even abusing it because now you can say anything you want.”
Barrow’s statement corroborates the latest index from Reporters without Borders. The France-based media watchdog says that under the new leadership of President Adama Barrow, Gambian media is changing. The country has seen the most significant improvement in press freedom, rising 21 spots up to 122 out of 180 countries.
However, this newfound freedom of the press requires an increase in properly trained journalists in the tiny nation. This worries Gibaru Janneh, a professional media trainer in The Gambia. “The journalists don’t understand the rubrics of the profession. They cannot differentiate between the professional angle of the job and one’s personal opinion,” Janneh told DW. This, added Janneh, impacts journalists’ capacity to report a story well. “A well-trained journalist will know what the limitations are. They will know know what do’s and don’ts are.”
GPU is, however, aware of the problems facing its members. While they continue to press for the decriminalization of press offenses, the union’s secretary general, Saikou Jammeh, is concurrently preparing training courses for journalists. Since reporting on national affairs was a prerogative of the state media, some journalists are overwhelmed and don’t know how to cover the news, from current affairs to serious political programs, professionally.
“Now that Jammeh has left, all [journalists] want to cover politics, they want to cover business and trade. They want to cover almost everything,” Jammeh said. “It’s a new thing for them. Therefore, some of them are making mistakes,” he added.
The Gambia’s constitution guarantees freedom of the press. However, under President Jammeh’s rule, this right was not respected in practice. His government had used numerous repressive laws to thwart critical reporting. Journalists often faced harassment and intimidation, mainly from members of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which operated under his command since 1994.