Gambia Alert: Authorities Shutdown Media Critical of New Government

14 Jun

Some local journalists concerned with press freedom argue that the move is an assault on the media and freedom of expression. The country’s first daily since 1992 is shutdown by Gambian authorities over non-payment of tax in the region of D17 million (Photo Credit: Access Gambia).

By Modou S. Joof

Tax collectors on Wednesday shutdown the tiny West African country’s leading daily over allegations of non-payment of taxes in the region of D17 million.

The Daily Observer is the most widely read newspaper ad has been in operation since the first Republic (1992) when it was set up by Liberian journalist Kenneth Y. Best following consultations with the then government and Gambian foreign affairs minister Omar Sey.

Since then, the paper has moved from being independent, pro-government and now somewhat pro-opposition running views critical of the new government.

“Today, more than 90 men and women, some heavily responsible family heads at the Observer Company, publisher of the Daily Observer Newspaper has been redundant of their job when Gambia Revenue Authority -GRA- ordered for the country’s leading newspaper to cease operations,” Amadou Jallow, an editor at the paper wrote.

‘This is in connection with the company’s none payment of tax due to GRA accumulated over years.”

Attack on the press

Some local journalists concerned with press freedom argue that the move is an assault on the media and freedom of expression. Other journalists, most of whom, aggrieved former employees of the paper and a former President of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) have joined some ordinary Gambians in welcoming the closure of the paper. This is a serious concern for press freedom and has the potential to fuel more public discord towards a local media that has endured endless vilification by a previous dictatorial regime.

“Daily Observer has a delicate history with the largest number of disgruntled former employees who (understandably) maybe glad the paper’s past is catching up with it,” wrote Demba Kandeh, editor-in-chief of Front Page International (FPI).

However, a former editor at the paper, Omar Bah, calls it an “attack on free press” – giving a breath of hope that clearly spells that not all ex-employees of the paper want to see it systematically disappeared from the newsstands.

Only a genuine supporter of press freedom, free expression and plural media would recognize a violation when they see one. What is wrong with a payment plan? How can Observer pay when they are closed? What will happen to all those family people working there?

“Yet a lot more people could be potentially unemployed as a result of the order,” Kandeh said.

Election promise not fulfilled

Following the closure of Taranga FM (radio), The Daily News and The Standard newspapers in August and September 2012, many young journalists have been without jobs for more than one year.

For instance, at The Standard newspaper where up to 51 people were employed most of them young journalists were left jobless; and at The Daily News 14 young journalists were put out of work.

The move by GRA does not in any way pursue a legitimate aim under the three part test for the closure of media houses under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). GRA is not interested in Observer paying, if it does, it would have entered into some agreement.

It’s a violation of free press, and by extension pursuing the wish and aim of this new government to silence opposition, critics, press freedom, and shut the public’s right to know and divergent views.

Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow has vowed that his government will respect press freedom and freedom of expression – an election promise yet to be fulfilled as it maintains draconian media laws. Officials in his government have also uttered statements hostile to the media leading to the harassment and assault on one journalist, Kebba Jeffang.

Recently, another journalist, Baboucarr Sey, was singled out, arrested, detained and charged with involvement in a protest that has not been sanctioned by the regime. He is awaiting trial. His right to freedom of expression, that includes the right to hold peaceful demonstration, is being curtailed.

The closure of the Daily Observer and the above scenarios means the honeymoon for media freedom is being brought to an end by the new government as has been the case with the previous dictatorship.

Following a brief honeymoon marked by the opening of media houses during the military junta, massive violations of press freedom and freedom of expression followed.

From 1994-2006 there were 103 violation-related cases on press freedom and some of the most notable hostile acts towards journalists and their institutions were the closure of media houses, harassment, arrests and detentions.

According to Kandeh, while the GRA’s order [to close Daily Observer) may be without any prejudice, it will carry a negative impact on any assessment of media freedom under the new administration.

“And given the level of (low) political trust in government and our dark recent past, it is unwise for any government institution to take such drastic measures,” he wrote under the article The Daily Observer Closure: An Assault on Press Freedom?’

Silence the critical press

Governments in Africa have used various means to silence the critical press by whatever “legitimate avenues” in their views. But the underlying motive is usually meant to kill the critical press by these regimes intolerant to criticism, dissent and the dissemination of divergent views especially those coming from the opposition.

In June, the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) shut down the Post Newspaper demanding $6 million in unpaid taxes. Journalists in that country said the move was meant to silence the paper and an attack on press freedom. The Post is known to be critical of the government of Zambian President Edgar Lungu.

It is unarguable that the right to free expression, from which all other rights are derived, is fundamental in the human, economic and political development of a country.

Thus, the government of The Gambia has to ensure it creates the space for people to be able to express their feelings and opinions on political, cultural, social and economical issues affecting them.

This cannot be realized in any situation where the media is not free to carry out its watchdog role – holding government and its officials accountable to the public – to promote democracy, good governance, and greater transparency.

The authorities must reopen the Daily Observer and pursue means that will not lay precedence for the arbitrary and systematic closure of media houses. This already creates a chilling environment in the media circles and could have a spillover effect.

Modou S. Joof is an award winning freelance journalist. He is a journalism trainer, a stringer for the Voice of America (VOA), and a news editor at FPI. He is a former Managing Editor of The Voice newspaper in Serekunda. His writings have appeared on Africa in Fact Magazine in South Africa, and The African Voice newspaper in Ireland. He is the publisher of The North Bank Evening Standard (TNBES). He tweets @JoofMS and @thenorthbankeve.

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