|Madi Jobarteh of TANGO|
In a country where the press is muzzled, ordinary citizens are not spared by the tyrannical clutches of state authorities who hide under the pretext of ‘national interest’ and ‘state security’ to suppress people’s god-given rights. In spite of this, however, the crusade for freer Gambia has been left for journalists alone to shoulder. KISSYKISSYMANSA reports on GPU’s recent move that seeks to woo the civil society to join the crusade that has already claimed the lives of some of its men and exiled many while those who remain in this tiniest country in mainland Africa, Gambia, continue to come under mounting attack.
Perhaps when Mr Babanding Fatajo uttered that neighbouring Senegal will attack The Gambia, he had never thought he would be arrested for just thinking aloud to a fellow trader in his market stall.
The trader’s ‘ordinary market gossip’ came in the wake of The Gambia government’s claim that Senegalese president, Abdoulie Wade is an ‘enemy’ who bore nothing, but hatred towards The Gambia.
The Gambia government’s allegations followed reports in Senegal that alleged Gambia-bound controversial arms shipment from UN-sanctioned Iran seized in Nigeria’s Lagos seaport was in fact bound for The Gambia for onward delivery to three decade long independence-seeking rebels in southern Senegal, Casamance.
Offering his legitimate opinion in a typical market gossip over an issue that was the most topical in town at the time, trader Fatajo was arrested and detained for days before he was put on trial on bogus charges of ‘breaking the peace.’
After months of legal battle at the magistrates’ court in Banjul, he was convicted and sentenced with a fine, which a friend of him paid into the coffers of the state and saved him from going jail.
But Mr Fatajo, who is a trader at Albert market in Banjul, the capital, happens to be just one in the line of many ordinary Gambians who though in the exercise of their right to discuss issues of legitimate public concern, nonetheless fell victim of their harmless utterances.
Even a mere petition to the Gambian president by aggrieved citizens has landed many in the courts of law. Majority of the petitioners never come out clean at the courts.
Yet the campaign to create the right environment in which every Gambian will enjoy his or her god-given constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech has been largely left for journalists to shoulder.
It is seen as a matter for journalists, who have already lost some of their men and money to the struggle while the civil society and the broader Gambian society played indifferent even though none is spared.
“Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. It is not a matter that is primarily for journalists. It concerns all of us,” says Mr Madi Jobarteh, deputy executive director of TANGO, the umbrella association of NGOs in The Gambia.
Madi Jobarteh was addressing about 30 civil society activists drawn from various Gambian civil society bodies during a day-long consultative forum between The Gambia Press Union (GPU) and NGOs recently.
With the technical support from Article 19, UK based international rights body that has its regional bureau in Dakar, Senegal, and funding from European Union (EU), the meeting seeks to drum up support from the civil society to join the crusade to promote freedom of speech in The Gambia, who currently occupies one of the rock bottom spots in media freedom index.
The meeting could by all means be rated successful. The participants have undertaken commitments to: include thematic of freedom of expression into their agendas, challenge any violation of freedom of expression and form a block of freedom of expression advocates to operate as first line of promotion and protection of breaches of the right to freedom of expression in The Gambia.
But this was not before ‘pragmatic’ Madi Jobarteh wooed them on why the civil society in The Gambia must not continue to be indifferent to the unabated stifling of people’s right to speak on issues that affects their lives.
“Imagine you make your annual newsletter and you are charged for false publication because your highlighted the level of poverty in Central River region or the level of gender based violence in North Bank region of The Gambia.
“If you are not familiar with the laws of The Gambia, there are possibilities that you can be charged and convicted for doing just that. But if we don’t do these evaluations, how do we know there is progress or otherwise,” Mr Jobarteh rhetorically quizzes his fellow civil society activists.
For him, freedom of speech has a direct linkage with the work of development workers. For without it, there is no way that they can contribute in determining the manner of governance.
“So freedom of speech is our interest. It concerns us, too,” he says, noting that “It is about time that TANGO sees GPU as an integral part of the civil society.”
He went on: “Imagine GRTS is closed, The Point newspaper is closed, The Daily News and Foroyaa and all those media outlets are closed down; can you imagine how that society would be?
“When we talk of freedom of speech, freedom of media, it is not primarily about journalists, it is about the citizenry.
“We know the problems The Gambia media goes through and for most of us, we take it as problem for journalists. But it affects us too.”
Bai Emil Touray, the president of The Gambia Press Union shares Madi Jobarteh’s view.
He said: “Freedom of expression as enshrined in the country’s constitution is fundamental for everyone to enjoy. But this is misconstrued by many as an issue entirely for media practitioners. And this is a wrong notion.”
Meanwhile, for Madi Jobarteh freedom of expression goes beyond the right to speak freely on issues of public concern. It also has to do with accountability.
“WANEP for instance, should be able to go to The Gambia Armed Forces or the police to get information about the incidence of armed robbery and they would be bound by law to provide the information. But we all know the problem of getting data in The Gambia.” Here, Madi is talking about lack of access to information.