This month marks the sixteenth anniversary of the military takeover in The Gambia, in which President Yahya Jammeh ascended to power via coup d’état. A former wrestler and soldier, Jammeh has proven himself a tough man to deal with, as the Gambian media has discovered.
Before the military takeover, The Gambia was known as the “smiling coast,” a place of sunshine, hospitality, and generosity. It was home to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, as well as the African Center for Democracy and Human Rights. It represented one of the oldest multi-party democracies in a continent beset by military take-overs and despotic regimes.
All of this changed in July 1994, when a group of junior army officers overthrew the thirty-year government of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. The officers first installed themselves as military overlords, and, in 1996, rigged the constitution and fixed the presidential elections in favor of their contender. At that time, Yahya Jammeh purported to transform himself into a civilian candidate, campaigning on a platform of anticorruption, transparency, and decency in all manner of governance.
Western reaction to the coup was swift, and foreign aid dwindled. In search of new allies, Jammeh and the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council made overtures to Libya, Taiwan, Cuba, Nigeria, Iran, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Kuwait. These overtures came to form the basis of the country’s foreign relations under Jammeh.
Jammeh assured Gambians that he welcomed their ideas, challenging the press to “criticise us where we are wrong and contribute where you can contribute.” In practice, however, the regime targeted private media and freedom of expression from the outset. On August 4, 1994, Jammeh promulgated Decree Number 4, which denied Gambians the right to discuss political views and express themselves collectively as members of political parties. The government also conducted regular raids on the independent press, subjecting journalists to harassment and deportation.
In the years that have followed, the scale of such attacks has only increased. Government actors regularly wage violence against private media outlets and journalists that publish articles deemed inaccurate or unfavorable to the junta. Such violence can take the form of harassment, detention at the hands of National Intelligence Agency officers, arson and destruction of property, arbitrary arrest, torture, and even murder. As a result, Gambian journalists have little choice but to practice self-censorship in their daily work.
Despite national and international concern over the climate of fear and repression in The Gambia, not a single police investigation has culminated in the successful prosecution of anyone responsible for crimes against the media or opponents of the regime. Ebrima Chief Manneh, a reporter with the pro-government Daily Observer, has been missing since July 7, 2007 and is said to be held by the National Intelligence Agency. The agency has repeatedly denied holding him, but reports from local media confirm that Manneh has been held incommunicado in different locations, including the Mile 2 Central Prison and, most recently, Fatoto Police Station.
Newspapers have been transformed into mouthpieces for the ruling party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), or otherwise subjected to heavy censorship. Reports on Gambia Radio and Television Services focus on Jammeh’s “achievements,” including his farming skills and his so-called treatment of HIV/AIDS, while ignoring the most newsworthy national events. The president has virtually succeeded in breaking the backbone of the independent media, either by illegally closing down media houses critical of the regime or by reducing them to mere singers of praise.
President Jammeh himself has not held a press conference since 1994. He normally talks only to handpicked representatives of pro-government media houses, and most members of the independent press are routinely left out of state functions and other newsworthy events.
After sixteen years of rule under the leadership of Jammeh and the APRC, The Gambia has descended into chaos. Its citizens live in a fear of reprisals and harassment by government lackeys, its economy is in tatters, its media have been muzzled, and the social fabric of this once peaceful land is in danger of disintegration. A free press is unlikely to emerge in The Gambia unless and until the country adopts and sustains a solid democratic culture, an independent judiciary, and a respectable, apolitical military that is eager and willing to serve under a democratic commander-in-chief.
Alagi Yorro Jallow is founder and former managing editor of the Independent, The Gambia’s only private newspaper before it was banned by the government in 2005. He is currently in residence as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.