Local journalists in Banjul have described the death of Mr. George Christensen, the founder and proprietor of Radio 1 FM as “a big loss and a sad day for The Gambian media.”
Mr. Christensen, 64, died on June 3, 2016 when he returned to Banjul after attending the second ‘International Civil Society Forum on The Gambia’ in Dakar, Senegal ahead of the ECOWAS Summit.
The veteran radio journalist, commonly referred as Uncle George by young journalists, trained some of the finest journalists, and bloggers in The Gambia –some of whom owned radio stations and online multimedia news organisations.
Survivor of press violations
In 1990, George Christensen and his wife established Radio 1 FM – the first private FM station owned by a Gambian.
Radio 1, which broadcast on the frequency modulation (FM) band 102.1, became the second private radio station in The Gambia – following the establishment of Radio Syd in 1970 in Banjul by Swedish inventor Mr. Wadner.
Radio Syd, a former pirate radio in Sweden, was the first independent radio station in Africa and broadcasted on the medium wave (MW) band.
Mr. Christensen was known to be an ardent advocate for press freedom and freedom of expression and had endured burns and questioning in attacks including arson on his radio. Like journalists of his generation, Mr. Christensen has been a survivor of violations of press freedom.
The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in a 2007 publication, The Gambia – Violations of Press Freedom 1994-2006, documented the following: “On August 10, 2001, unknown assailants attempted to burn down Radio 1 FM. In the process, Mr. Christensen sustained burns on his body and was hospitalized for days…”
His radio station has never fully recovered from that attack and has been off air since. Attempts to return on air didn’t last long. Also, journalists working for Radio 1 have faced arson attacks and death threats.
“Shortly after that [attack on Radio 1], one of the staff, Alieu Bah who earlier received a letter threatening his life had his house set on fire while he and his family were asleep inside. Neighbours helped put [off] the fire before it caused serious damage.
“In May 2001, Seedy Ceesay, a reporter with Radio 1 FM, received a death threat sent to his postal address by an anonymous person. The envelope contained a drawing of a big hand holding a head, with the message ‘Seedy, leave this work now. You’ll soon be in this state’”.
Thirteen days after the assault on his radio, on October 23, 2001 “George Christensen was arrested and taken to the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). He was released a few hours after being questioned about his radio station’s financial situation.”
Shock and disbelief
Mr. Christensen served as vice president of AMARC – World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters and served in its Africa and international boards between 1997 and 2006 with special responsibilities for media technologies.
Until his demise, he was AMARC’s special envoy on conflict resolution in Latin America and Africa. He was also the founder and pioneer chairperson of The Gambia-based Centre for Media and Development Research in Africa (CENMEDRA).
His death sends shock waves across Gambian media and abroad. Tributes have been pouring on via social media from individuals and organisations since his death became public on Friday night.
One of such tributes reads: “The Board of Trustees and management of CENMEDRA mourn in shock and disbelief the untimely death of Mr. George Christensen, founder and pioneering chairperson, who passed away suddenly on Friday, 3 June 2016.”
Mr. Christensen did not only make a generation of “fine” radio and TV journalists, he helped change lives.
Gambian tech savvy journalist and blogger, Mamadou Edrisa Njie said: “It’s sad that Uncle George is gone. It’s under his generosity that I was trained on blogging; and today, I can say that I am earning my living together with my family and colleagues in blogging. May the Almighty God grant him Jannah. He was someone who always shared all he has to benefit others.”
Principled but also jovial
Mr. Christensen was known to be a principled and truth-telling man but was also quite jovial sometimes.
Zainab Faal, a Graduate of the Gambia Press Union School of Journalism, said Mr. Christensen was a “truly inspiring and straightforward man.” Ms. Faal described him as a “legend” who earned respect for speaking his mind no matter what the circumstance.
In the latest capacity he served the Gambian media, he was chairperson of the Panel of Judges of the Gambia Press Union National Journalism Awards 2015.
Haddija Jawara, a journalism trainer who had worked with him, said: “He was really helpful during the journalism award, I remember a day he worked up to 2a.m., and when he told me so, I jokingly told him he is working too much. He just laughed and said: just don’t serve me cold chicken on the day of the award.”
In February 2015, Mr. Christensen chaired the graduation of the first batch of the Gambia Press Union School of Journalism. The best student, Gambian journalist Talibeh Hydara, remembers him.
“His words to me after receiving my valedictorian prize were: “congratulations young man. You have a bright future in journalism. Keep working hard.” I have always remembered these timeless words and I will always remember them, Mr. Hydara said.
He described Mr. Christensen as a “cardinal figure” in the strengthening of the Gambian media – having trained a lot of people who have turned out to become outstanding in what they do.
“He was a symbol of hope and resilience in the media. It is sad times for journalism in the country. I pray the lord watch over him wherever he is, for he had left an indelible mark on all of us. It is an irreparable loss!” he said.
Children over airwaves
The late Mr. Christensen also used his radio station to expose school students as young as 10 years or even younger to host children’s programmes especially on International Children’s Day of Broadcasting.
Binta Ceesay recalls: “My earliest memories of any journalism training, even when I didn’t consider it as such, kicked off from his platform at Radio 1 FM during the Lend A Hand [Society] talk show. I was 10 years old or less.
“And during International Children’s Day of Broadcasting he would always excitedly be there coaching us and letting us take over his airwaves. He has indeed made an impact in a lot of present day successful Gambian broadcasters like my former bosses Lamin Manga and Fatou Camara.”
“Gambia has really lost a pioneer of broadcast journalism. He will truly be missed. Rest eternally George,” said Ms. Ceesay whose interest in studying journalism is driven by her experience at Radio 1. She led a career in broadcasting for six years in The Gambia and is currently pursuing a degree in journalism in Ghana.
Words of wisdom
Dakar-based Gambian journalist and blogger Sainey M.K. Marenah was with Mr. Christensen hours before his death. He wrote: “Today, at around 12pm, I was with Uncle George in Dakar after spending nearly three days with him looking healthy and able.
“His last words to me: Keep working hard and always aim higher and keep your head up. You’re stubborn (laughs) but an intelligent young man and I have no doubt you will succeed if you remain focus. Uncle George told me not knowing that he is giving me his final words of wisdom.”
The way to go
“If everyone would go this [Christensen’s] way, I wouldn’t hesitate to go,” Italy-based Gambian journalist Alagie Jinkang said, describing the late broadcaster as a “patriotic, professional and selfless person.” Mr. Jinkang said the nation is proud of him.
George Christensen, who was born on 17th September, 1951, will be laid to rest at the Banjul Cemetery on Friday, 10 June, 2016.