Saturday, September 12, 2009

Freedom or development?

Someone once said to me, purely as a word of admonition rather than confiding in me, that if one wanted to make an acclaimed journalist in The Gambia they were better off not identifying with any side of the political divide, and that they must endeavour to refrain from taking part in discussions of issues of popular public interest. Although I couldn’t figure out which category of conventional journalism that would fall under, between me and God, I knew that they were putting forward a solid point, taking into consideration the prevailing situation in the country - a fearfully charged political atmosphere with a consequential air of silence often erroneously interpreted as suggesting content. This prevailing air of silence is rather like a latent pandemic with potentially catastrophic consequences for the entire nation.

Last Tuesday’s BBC Africa Have Your Say programme, The Gambia: Paradise lost?, discussing the country’s rather wobbly human right situation, clearly accentuated this point. Although we heard a handful of views in favour of the status quo, the dissenting views exceedingly outnumbered the former. And the complete absence of the voice of the Gambian authorities further adds on the emphasis of fear censorship on information sharing has inflicted on our rather paranoid society. But the fact that the BBC could not convince any Gambian government official after placing about 15 telephone calls, as it said, never came to me as a surprise though. That is a familiar terrain for me as a journalist in Gambia. But again, come to think about it - what would any sorry soul have to say in defence of an indefensible state of affairs in the country?

The disturbing realisation about all this is that Gambians appear to have resigned to this ill-fated situation. It must be borne at the back of our minds, however, that we can never achieve the development we desire in the absence of a free press and freedom of expression. Apart from the fact that we need alternative views as to what development areas need prioritisation over others, there are so many questionable dealings surrounding public institutions and officials which need discussing if we can surmount the obstacle they pose to our collective progress. And, most importantly, when you suppress a people’s right to expressing themselves freely, you augment tension in society, and such a society remains constantly on the brink of instability. Anytime this awful state of indignation in the masses exceeds its elastic limit, the consequences are bound to be unyielding. This is a point no sober minded Gambian will attempt to dispute – in government or outside government.

The existence of silence might induce an illusory thought of content when in actually fact there is a state of overwhelming discontent. That is the situation in The Gambia presently.

In my rather short stint as a journalist in The Gambia, I have received numerous warnings from oodles of people, especially from within my family circles, majority of whom would rather I did something else for a living. Their worry is that I could get arrested and arraigned on false information or related charges, or even go through the path of the disappeared journalist, Chief Ebrima Manneh.

But I wasn’t doing journalism for a living, because doing journalism for a living in Gambia means an altogether shoddy business; it means not only selling one’s integrity but also, most importantly, trading the actual purpose of the profession for the promotion of individual and illicit corporate interests. It is quite a viably tempting alternative to pursuing the rightful line of the profession.

But like many of us would say about our professions, I took to reporting out of the love for it; in response to a smothering urge to discuss the teeming societal issues that abound in The Gambia. I see the profession as a way of correcting wrongs in society. Not to make money.

But oh dear! Ours happens to be a different country. The culture of silence is disgracefully entrenched at every level.

Contrary to general feeling among the so-called independent press in the country, accessibility to information has been a prickly task for all regardless of who you work for – government or the private media. I worked for the Daily Observer, a pro-APRC government newspaper. But my experience has been by and large discouraging. While many people turn down request for comment on relevant issues on genuine grounds, must are part and parcel of the totalitarian trend in the country. Sometimes you get the feeling that it is a crime to share information. They refuse to talk to you either because they have done something wrong and they fear you might discover it and inform the world, or they might not be qualified for the position they hold, as is the case for a considerable number of people, especially at senior government level, and they fear that you might expose their unbecoming incompetence and cost them their undeserving integrity.

To give an idea about how fearful some public officials are to give out information, I will narrate my experience with a particular public offical. As editor-in-chief of the Daily Observer newspaper, I got a mail from a reader of our online edition of the news through the official inbox. The person simply wanted us to help get an email address across to him from a particular ministry. There was this article we had on our website which this reader was interested to discuss with any authorised official at the ministry.

After marathon telephone calls (as a matter of fact I had to use a junior staff who used his family relation to get hold of a number for a particular senior official), I got in touch with the permanent secretary of this department. The discussion went on smoothly until at the point where I mentioned my profession as a journalist.

His response was: ‘‘how did you get my number?

I couldn’t disclose that because the Good Samaritan who gave us the number had warned against disclosing his identity. Imagine public officials keeping their contact details from the people they are supposed to serve! That is a familiar practice in Gambia.

Anyway, on narration of my mission, this particular PS, as we call them, suggested that I wrote a letter, formally requesting that he shares his email with me. I seriously had to restrain the surge of anger I felt in me. The thought that came to mind immediately was to bang the telephone on his ears. But I was quick to realise that going off without letting him know how I felt wasn’t the best way to deal with the situation.

‘‘Me write to you on this?’’ I asked, trying as hard as I could to sound as disappointing as possible.

‘‘Yes’’, he insisted, ‘‘because you journalists these days write whatever you feel like.’’

As my last words, I said, ‘‘For God’s sake, I am just the editor of the Daily Observer, a Gambian newspaper in the service of national interest. We published a story that concerns your department, and a particular reader of our online edition, probably a potential investor, wants to get in touch with you, and here you are asking me to write to you…?’’

Before I could complete that statement he suddenly made a U-turn and read out his personal mail to me. The anger and frustration led to my misplacement of those details and I couldn’t get back to him.

I have had even more nasty experiences than this as a journalist in Gambia. The moment you disclose your identity as a journalist, loads of excuses are thrown on you. What many of us lack in Gambia is initiative…many have become used to being told what to do.

The right to information is a fundamental human right and it is crucial to our development. One thing is quite clear, and that is that if you do not offer information voluntarily, it will be usurped, because natural law demands that information must flow.

As to whether I would give up my right for the so-called development, well, development itself is broader than just building airport, roads, schools or providing people with electricity. Awareness is an essential aspect of the development of the human being. Now, tell me, how on earth can one get aware when they are starved of information? What is the essence of teaching me about freedom of speech when you will not allow me to practice it?

Let me conclude this piece with a question: is it possible to do journalism without having to touch on issues that affect government or the public? Well, I will let you decide for yourself.


Anonymous said...

Just want to say be brave and keep up the work. But be warned that will have to put up with strong challenges, that is what being a dissident journalist is all about.
Justice for the press is a welcome addition to the much needed struggle against the dictator ship that holds our country hostage.
But I will urge you to not only repent but also apologise to Gambians both at home and abrod for your part in the injustices at the Daily Observer. Thank you. Keep it up.
SS Kamara

Anonymous said...

I am not convinced that you are genuine, because you only took to this kind of writing after you fall out with your former colleagues.How can you convince us that your crusade, like you claim, is genuine?
The Dictator must go though.