You either speak “the government truth” or keep quiet, write authors.
By Lamin Jahateh & Modou S. Joof
Journalists and religious leaders, in this case Imams, have different but similar critical roles in enlightening the people on various issues and cultivating a culture of understanding – putting every issue into its right context and perspective.
Imams are expected to tell their congregations about religion, ethics and current affairs particularly those that have bearing on Islam. Gone are the days when Imams would be called on only to lead prayers five times a day. People expect more and more from their religious leaders.
Being teachers of morality, Muslim clerics are under both divine and social duty to speak and if possible write against the ills in the society. They have a moral responsibility and also the authority to speak out on any issue that affects their congregations.
Similarly, journalism has evolved from the traditional mere news reporting; journalists and the news media are now said to be agenda-setters. In modern society, journalists are the chief purveyor of information and opinion about public affairs.
To effectively and efficiently do any of these works in the tiny West African country of The Gambia objectively is increasingly becoming a difficult thing to do for almost two decades now. While that of the journalists is endemic, the trend of that of the Imams is also becoming disturbing though the majority of the population is Muslim – over 85%.
After completely taming all the local publications in The Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh’s government has now turned its attention to the outspoken Imams in the country. Imams who preach burning issues in the country that may have bearing on politics in the country. Imams who talk about issues that the political Imams dare not talk about – as if they are oblivious of the realities.
Islamic leaders in the country are now divided – not among different school of thoughts but along political lines. There are the loyalists of President Jammeh who believed that the President’s leadership is ordained by Allah and also anything that his government did there is justification for it in Islam. There is the other sect whose ideology sometimes conflict with that of the President and his government. They have to speak the truth that favours the government or keep mute.
Tribulations of religious leaders
More than ever, outspoken Imams are at risk of becoming victims of possible humiliation, unlawful and sometimes secretive custody as the Jammeh regime is increasing tightening its grip on religious freedom and on all avenues of freedom of expression.
Renowned Islamic scholar and Imam, Ba Kawsu Fofana has fled The Gambia because of persecution. He left the country in August 2012 and has since being living in Casamance, southern region of Senegal, where he sought refuge.
Imam Fofana is a critic of President Jammeh and his government and of the Supreme Islamic Council, the SIC.
His abrupt leaving of the country is prompted by an attempt by officers of the National Intelligence Agency, NIA, to re-arrest him on 14th August 2012. He was first arrested on 31st May, 2012 and detained for 9 days without charge. He was allegedly tortured while in detention.
After his release, there was a meeting convened at the Office of the President in Statehouse where President Jammeh insulted the Muslim cleric saying even his shoes are better than the man. The worst insult in recent history directed to a religious leader.
Another outspoken Imam, Baba Leigh, was released on 10 May 2013 from custody where he spent over five months without being brought to court talk-less of being charge for committing any crime. He was detained incommunicado – without access to family, friends, relatives and a lawyer.
The prolonged detention was not just a violation of the rights of the scholar, but it breaches Gambian constitution, which prohibits detention of suspects, even of a common criminality, beyond 72 hours. Yet more shocking is the government’s failure to give any genuine justification, legal or moral.
The Gambia government has all along refused having detained the Imam only to surprise the nation by parading him on the state TV that he is given a presidential pardon even though he committed no crime.
Imam Baba Leigh’s arrest is linked to his heavy criticisms of the executions of nine death row inmates by the government in August 2012. He had contended that the killings were un-Islamic and should be condemned by God fearing Muslims though other key Islamic propagandists of the government argued that it is Islamic.
In releasing him, President Jammeh said Imam Baba Leigh should not involve himself into anything he has no business with and that he should not say or do anything that does not concern him.
Imam Baba Leigh like any other religion leader or any ordinary citizen has legal rights to free speech and association by the laws of the land. Therefore, speaking against political excesses is Imam Leigh’s moral duty as a religious leader, as well as his citizenship rights.
Instead of condemning the arrest, a panel of prominent Imams – who have a moral responsibility to stand together and denounce categorically derision, outright bigotry directed against any other religious leader in the country – appeared on the state TV praising President Jammeh for his mercy for pardoning of Imam Baba Leigh. They all blamed the Imam for offending President Jammeh. However, the Imam categorically made it clear that he made no mistake.
This further portrays the scandalous exploitation of religion in The Gambia for political ends.
Imam Baba Leigh and Imam Ba Kawsu Fofana are great social justice advocates. But they have been singled out and received unjust discrimination and have been made the objects of scorn and animosity by President Jammeh’s government.
However, their case is not the only case of humiliation meted to Islamic scholars in the country though it set a worrying trend and also reinforce the issue of religion freedom in The Gambia.
In similar cases, Imam Sheriff Sirifo Samsudeen Hydara of Foni Wassadu escaped arrest in 2006 from the notorious NIA when he was ordered to be arrested because he is believed to be an opposition sympathizer. He fled to Senegal, where he too is currently in self-imposed exile.
Imam Alhayba Hydara of the Banjul International Airport was arrested and detained without charged. Imam Ismaila Manjang of Gunjur Mosque was also arrested, detained, and held incommunicado without charged. Imam Alhagie Karamo Touray of Brikama Central Mosque was sent to Mile 2 prison and had a protracted trial.
All these arrest were done not because the Islamic leaders are suspect of being terrorists, as it would have been in the West, but because the government or the president felt aggrieved by these people doing work for one reason or the other.
In contemporary Gambia, religious leaders who may have different views on a certain social issue that may have a bearing on politics are to suppress their views as if they have absolutely no role to play in the politics or proper governance of the country.
However, there is the Supreme Islamic Council and its executive members who are purported to be instruments of government propaganda. They ‘Islamicise’ everything that President Jammeh and his government do.
The council gave Jammeh the title, ‘Nasiru Deen’. This is among the greatest titles reserve for great Muslim scholars or those who are living their lives by supporting Islam in various ways.
Worse ordeal for the media
The tribulation and humiliation meted to Muslim clerics in The Gambia is nothing compared to that of the journalists.
There is no free press in the West African nation of The Gambia since the coming into power of a military-turned-civilian ruler Yahya Jammeh, in 1994 through a coup.
Jammeh has over the years been silencing the small independent press corps in his country. Though it was a tough and heinous battle, he succeeded.
He resorted to enacting repressive media laws that force journalists to practice self-censorship. President Jammeh unlawfully closed down seven media houses critical of his administration during the span of 19 years in power.
Last year alone, he arbitrarily closed down three media houses. No reason was advanced over the closure of the three media houses but many attributed it to their coverage of Jammeh’s execution of nine death-row prisoners in August 2012.
All these media houses were shut down for their critical reportages. They could not survive in their endeavour to hold the Jammeh regime accountable to the people.
Journalists who dare to hold Jammeh and his government accountable are heavy-handedly treated.
Still pending is the uninvestigated assassination of leading editor cum publisher of The Point newspaper, Deyda Hydara. Also, the 2000 gunning down of reporter Omar Barrow of the defunct Sud FM radio and the 2006 disappearance of Ebrima “Chief” Manneh of pro-government Daily Observer newspaper.
Last year alone six journalists were kept behind bars for a day or more. “This is undermining media freedom since it has the potential of cowing journalists from doing their jobs,” the President of Gambia Press Union, Emil Touray, has said.
Just recently, Abubacarr Saidykhan, a freelance Gambian journalist, and Fabakary Ceesay of the Foroyaa newspaper go into exile for fear of their lives in the country. Ceesay was investigating the numerous detentions without trial in the country by the government.
Journalists can be detained on loose interpretations of the criminal law. In one case, two journalists were arrested for sedition when they applied for a permit to hold a peaceful demonstration.
The provisions in the Criminal Code regulating the work of journalists gagged media freedom. These laws have forced several journalists to either engage in self-censorship or resort to covering and reporting less controversial issues, such as sports and health related issues.
It is crystal clear that in The Gambia the roles of journalists and religion leaders should be evaluated, redefined and utilized to a greater extent if the country is to develop.
The present situation in the country is like religious leaders, and journalists – particularly those working for the private media outlets – should only talk good of the government or keep quite. Though, there are others who are busy propagating the lofty ideals of the Jammeh government. They can talk anywhere at any time, even ridicule those they may have different views with. The journalists and Imams whose reporting or preaching, respectively, conflicts with that of the loyalists, are to keep mute or behave as they are blind of the realities in the country.
The authors Lamin Jahateh and Modou S. Joof are Gambian journalists and bloggers, and co-founders of Front Page International (FPI). They are the publishers of Gambia News Online and The North Bank Evening Standard (TNBES).