The issue of press freedom raised by the World Bank Managing Director, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who concluded a two day visit to the Gambia recently as part of a sub regional tour, is one of the most important issues of our time, although it does not appear to make a popular subject of national discourse.
It is interesting that the visiting World Bank official came up with the issue just as Gambia was about to defend its human rights records, where the issue of press freedom naturally surfaced.
It was also an interesting coincidence how the head of the Gambian delegation to the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Marie Saine Firdaus, overlooked her reputation as custodian of the justice system of a whole nation only to make brazen denials of what is obvious to the rest of the world.
Let’s give Marie the benefit of the doubt.
However, to say that the present Gambia government respects the existence and necessity of a free and independent press is a hugely flouting assertion. As a matter of fact, most of the problems faced by the media on this continent have more to do with already existing legislations than nonexistent ones.
Gambia’s constitution, for instance, might have provided for the free flow of information, like Marie rightly told the UPR, but what is the essence of such a law when it is not followed to the letter anyway? How do we explain why it is only the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), which is government controlled, and the Daily Observer, which belongs to Yahya Jammeh, which are given access to State House and any information that has to do with the State?
Imagine a visit as highly important as that of the World Bank Managing Director being micromanaged such that only government controlled media are allowed access to cover! This obviously leaves the independent media in the dark, and the tendency is that speculation becomes the obvious.
Another point is that, what difference does a ‘‘free flow of information’’ legislation make in the presence of another law deliberately engineered by the same government to counter the usage of information at liberty? Such is the case with the libel and sedition laws that have rendered the independent media in Gambia today virtually worthless.
There is also the unwritten privilege enjoyed by certain individuals in Gambia, which makes it more or less lawful for them to act in every way that can obstructs not only the free press, but also the ordinary people’s freedom. Take a look at the recent move by the head of the Gambian police, who categorical told reporters not to ever venture into reporting on an issue of public interest.
There are very many unreported cases of similar bearing. This is what most stop and then journalists in Gambia will be left with no excuse to speculate; that is if they actually are speculating.