|Jammeh, Ministers and Media Chiefs (pix by The Point)|
In a rear move, the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh met with media chiefs of privately owned newspapers on Wednesday March 16, 2011 at State House in the capital, Banjul.
The meeting with the Independent Media is aimed at strengthening government-media relations and to address concerns such as access to information and government functions by the independent media. The meeting followed an earlier invitation to State House extended to media chiefs.
Speaking on the occasion, President Jammeh expressed his commitment to his oath of office and noted that some members of the press may have interpreted his attempt to reach out to the press as a public relation exercise or an attempt to appease the press due to the uprisings in other countries.
However, he said the reverse is the case. He said the meeting is neither a public relation exercise nor meant to appease the press and does not expect the media to shower praises on him. He said he is not moved by the ongoing crisis in North Africa and he is not in office to pleased anybody, but to served the Gambian people in their best interest with Allah’s supervision.
He also indicate that some media heads appear to be at war with him and do not want to recognise his status and that he would held press briefings with those who would observe the normal protocols observed elsewhere.
Apart from Allah (Almighty God), he is answerable to the Gambian people, noting that he will not compromise with the peace, security and development of the country to the detriment of freedom of expression and of the press.
Anyone who wants to jeopardize the peace of this country in the name of freedom of expression and of the press, you are looking for trouble. There is freedom of expression but there is no freedom for lies.
Sensational Journalism, Access to Information, Free Expression
President Jammeh said sensational journalism will not be accepted in The Gambia, calling some media houses in the country as mouth pieces of opposition parties.
He said: “I have always made it clear from 1994 to date that whatever I do write it, but if you write what I didn’t do I will deal with you even if the sky is to explode. You will have to tell me where I did it, if not we have to go to Court. Write what I do. It is not because I am the President that I can trample on anybody’s rights, no, but also you are a journalist doesn’t mean that you can write whatever you want to write knowing it is not true.”
According to him, there is no law that prevents public officials from speaking to the press to certify or address matters in their offices. “My government has no law that public officials are not allow to speak to the press. I want to be very clear. When you contact a public officials and he or she tells you that we are not allowed to talk, ask that person to put it into writing and sign on it, and ask the person to disclose the name of the person who authorize him or her not to speak to the press,” he stated.
He said freedom of expression is a “believe of the West” and that Western countries that are campaigning for it are the same countries that are violating it. “As far you do not endanger the peace and security of this country, you are free. If I want, I can close any newspaper or radio station. I will not do it. Do you think that I am stupid to close down a newspaper or radio station that my government licensed to operate?”
“The press is very significant in the development of any country, but do not sit in your office or hide somewhere and write, saying reliable sources, knowing very well that your information is wrong. Get your information right,” he said.
Deyda Hydara and Chief Manneh
On the assassination of the late Managing Editor and Co-founder of The Point Newspaper Deyda Hydara and the missing Daily Observer Journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh, he said his government has no hand in it.
He said his government could not properly investigate the killing of Deyda Hydara due to the lack of witnesses. The two ladies (Ida Jagne and Nyang Sarang-Jobe) who were in the car with the late editor were transferred from the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul to Dakar, Senegal, he explained.
He explained that when government investigators traveled to Dakar, to interview the witnesses, they were instructed to get permission from the Gambia Press Union (GPU) before conducting their investigations.
He said the investigation into the killing of Hydara was damaged because the two ladies were not interrogated. He also explained that when he sent a government delegation to sympathize with the family of the late editor, they were greeted with anger.
For Chief Ebrima Manneh, he said his government is innocent as well as the disappearances of other Gambians. He also noted that Gambian journalists refused to be part of set-up of a Media Commission, while noting that the establishment of the Commission was going to address the problems faced by journalist and media institutions.
Dr. Isatou Njie-Saidy, Vice President, Minister of Women’s Affairs and Head of the Security Council said since 1994, the Government of The Gambia has achieved a lot by improving the country and even changing the constitution.
She said there was no Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and that the electoral body in the First Republic was part and controlled by the Government of the day.
She urged journalists to think and act responsibly; saying the assassination of character and false information is not part of the ethics and principles of journalism.
“We need standards for the Gambia and it is not everything about the government that should go on the mass media. Information to the public and what the press needs to know is essential and independent opinion is critical but it should not be seen from one side. Responsible journalists and season journalists who undertake research is what we need,” she said.
“Nobody is not saying that do not write about the government, what we need is constructive criticism and responsible journalism,” the Secretary General and Head of the Civil Service Dr. Njogu Bah said.
Media Chiefs Demands
Mr. Suwaibou Conateh, Publisher of the Gambia News and Report Magazine urged the government to repeal certain media laws in the country, some of which he said are colonial laws and now we are in the 21st century.
He recommended that the government should provide regular press briefing and press conferences at the office of the President, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Interior Ministry.
He said he was optimistic that the Executive will not use the occasion as a public relation exercise, that he welcome the invitation for a dialogue to address mutual concerns that would lead to the protection of freedom of expression and of the media.
He urged the executive to decriminalize free speech; revoke the laws on sedition; decriminalize libel and as well revoke the law on false publication; and enact a Freedom of Information (FOI) law.
He also noted that a mare declaration by the President that public servants are free to talk to the media does not suffice to make them free. “There should be a formal circular to that effect,” he stressed.
The Co-publisher and Director of The Point Newspaper Mr. Pap Saine stressed that his paper adhered to its mandate. He also demands from the Executive to ensure access to information and as well revoke what he described as “anti-media laws” such as libel, sedition and the Newspaper Amendment Act.
He also urged the government to provide training opportunities for journalists, revoke the education levy as far as newspapers are concerned, reduce taxation on newspapers, and renew its subscription to newspapers with timely payments.
When he took his turn, the Managing Editor of Foroyaa Newspaper Sam Sarr delve into the Constitution citing Section 207(3) to have read: “The press and other information media shall at all times, be free to uphold… the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people of The Gambia.”
This, he said is what Foroyaa uses as its guiding principle while asking the Executive to explain their position on this mandate. He noted that Section 208 of the Constitution on state owned media calls for the affording of fair opportunities and facilities to express divergent views and dissenting opinions, asking the executive to express an opinion on this.
“Without pluralism, holding the government accountable to the people will be meaningless. To hold the government accountable, there must be access to information which is currently a problem,” he said. “There must also be freedom of expression, thinking about going to jail when editing tantamount to self censorship which is inimical to freedom of expression.”
He stressed that it is needless for the government to appear uneasy whenever the death of Deyda Hydara and the disappearance of Chief Ebrima Manneh are mentioned as it should be the concern of both the media fraternity and the State.
For his part, the Publisher and Managing Director of Today Newspaper Mr. Hamid Adiamoh emphasized that though he carries a Nigerian passport, he considers himself a Gambian.
According to him, The Gambia enjoys peace and stability which many countries do not enjoy. He told President Jammeh that media personnel in The Gambia do not harbor any ill will against him.
He said there are those who accused the Government of The Gambia of being hostile to press freedom, while stressing that practice should be improved to dispel such machinations.
The meeting was facilitated by the new Director of Press and Public Relations (DPPR) at State House, Fatou Camara.