The Daily Observer Closure: An Assault on Press Freedom?

14 Jun

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 Demba Kandeh

Reports have it that officials of the Gambia Revenue Authority (GRA) on Wednesday 14th June 2017 ordered the Daily Observer newspaper to cease operations. Multiple sources have noted that the order is in connection with the company’s arrears in taxes as accumulated over a period of about twenty (20) years. The Daily Observer is the country’s first national daily and is one of the most widely circulated newspapers. The announcement on the closure of the paper has attracted a fierce commentary from within and beyond the media fraternity in The Gambia. Some view the order for closure as an assault on press freedom while others sympathize with the Daily Observer but welcome the move as warranted. This article will contribute to this discourse with the objective of trying to reconcile these two opposing views. If you’re still reading, bear with me as it gets more interesting from here.

Wrong vs. right

In principle, GRA is doing its job by going after tax defaulters. Tax evasion is a major problem in many countries around the world, including the socalled developed ones. If we have learned anything from the Panama papers is that tax evasion and its partner tax avoidance are part of global web of corruption challenges worldwide. Part of the conversation on the closure of the newspaper seems to focus on whether it is right or wrong for GRA to order the closure. Sadly for press freedom activists, GRA has the mandate to (temporarily,  my emphasis) halt the operations of any profit making businesses found wanting. And needless to say that the Daily Observer is wrong to evade tax, it is actually immoral for the company to evade tax. However, the fundamental question one should ask is: whether or not the GRA decision was wisely informed. Have they tried other measures, namely: a payment plan, buyout plan, takeover plan, or even threats of a court order, etc.? Ultimately, closing down any businesses, especially media houses should be a last resort. The decision to shutdown the operations of any newspaper, not just the Daily Observer has far-reaching consequences. So while it is wrong and immoral for the newspaper to evade tax, it is not wise for GRA to close down the paper. And this is all the more important given the current fluidity of the country’s social, economic and political environment.

Government vs. self-regulation

The order for closure is indirectly part of a larger debate on external versus internal regulations of the media. Any attempt(s) from outside the media to regulate the media has the potentials to inflict ripple effects. Supporters of government regulation will argue that a proportionate and transparent government regulation with proper oversight is a good option. And added to that is the fact that government has the power to enforce regulations. But for many independent journalists, any outside attempt to regulate the media will have some chilling effects. Thus, proponents of self-regulation within the media will see the GRA decision as an attempt to silence journalists. GRA’s order may be without any prejudice but it will carry a negative impact on any assessment of media freedom under the new administration. This is largely because whereas it may be difficult if not impossible to point out any evidence that the GRA action is directly linked to the Barrow administration, it is not inconceivable. 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. Certainly, there are more questions than answers as far as the closure is concerned. For example: how did GRA arrive at the decision? Which other media house(s) and or private business(es) has(have) tax arrears? Will GRA close other media houses found wanting? Is the Daily Observer targeted? If so, why? Who benefits from targeting the paper? Is closing the paper the best possible option? Was there any forewarning? So many more questions!

Finally, we should reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of closing down a newspaper. The Daily Observer is certainly not my favourite newspaper in town (probably the opposite) but the reality is that it adds to a plurality of views and opinions. By closing down the paper, GRA is also compounding the problem of unemployment, especially among young people. 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. Yet a lot more people could be potentially unemployed as a result of the order. Therefore, in the interest of national development GRA should lift the order for temporary closure immediately and resort to other options for recovering the lost revenue.

Photo Credit: Globalisation Is You

The author, Demba Kandeh, is a researcher, journalist and blogger. He is the Editor-In-Chief of FPI, a media and net freedom advocate, and the publisher of The Global Guide. He is also a regular contributor to Global Voices Online. He tweets @saadems. 

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One Response to “The Daily Observer Closure: An Assault on Press Freedom?”

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  1. Gambia Alert: Authorities Shutdown Media Critical of New Government | Front Page International - June 15, 2017

    […] “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?’ […]

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