By Kebba Jeffang
The commemoration of the former Daily Observer Newspaper’s presidential affairs reporter’s disappearance was inundated with calls on the Gambia government to facilitate the United Nations investigation on the matter.
The ceremony which was held at the Gambia Pastoral Institute hall along the Kairaba Avenue, was attended by both parents of Chief Manneh, media chiefs, political figures, civil society organisations and the entire media fraternity. The government was not represented though the organisers said an invitation was extended to them.
Speaking at the programme, Saikou Jammeh, the Secretary General of the GPU said Chief Manneh’s disappearance clocks 9 years with no consistent comment from the top government officials. He said Chief Manneh was picked up in broad day light at the observer’s office in Bakau on 7 July 2006.
He said the issue of Chief Manneh’s disappearance is among lots of atrocities committed against the media and it’s workers in The Gambia without any investigation and legal action taken on their behalf. He said notable heinous crimes against them included the two times burning down of The Independent Newspaper and the killing of Deyda Hydara two years before Manneh’s disappearance in 2006.
He said media reports disclose inconsistent positions of the government on the disappearance of Chief Manneh.
“Some said he is alive but don’t know his whereabouts, some said he has gone through the ‘back way’ while others said he is in United States which the family strongly denied,” said Jammeh.
Sarjo Camara Singhateh, the Assistant Secretary General of GPU in reading the GPU statement at the ceremony said his whereabouts and health condition have since remained largely unknown to his family and colleagues despite tireless efforts to ascertain the circumstances surrounding his disappearance. She however expressed delight with the Gambia government’s invitation of the UN to investigate his disappearance three years ago even though no known step has yet been taken.
“It is therefore our hope that after today, the government will move to facilitate the coming of the UN investigators into the country. We further hope that the government will also make a firm commitment that the investigators will be allowed to do their work without any undue hindrance. We call on the international community not to hesitate to give any assistance requested in order to embark on this long-awaited journey,” she said.
Mrs. Camara stated that with the enforced disappearance of Manneh an atmosphere of insecurity has been injected in Gambian journalists.
Mr. Ahmed Aloa Alota was the first to present a paper. He spoke on “Economic Dynamics affecting independent and pluralistic media in Gambia”. Before proceeding to make his presentation, Mr Alota first sympathised with the Father and Mother of Chief Manneh for their missing son.
In his presentation, he decried the lack of independent journalism in the country citing that objectivity and balance reporting is missing in many reports. He attributed this to the ‘ownership’ of a particular medium as the determining factor. He distinguished between public and private media. He said public media are government owned while the private ones are owned by individuals or a company. He stressed the importance of pluralism of the media as it will bring the availability of more media in the country. He said pluralistic media calls for media coverage diversity which he said is very important in the society because with diversity a paper or broadcaster can be able to report from all the angles without restrictions and can give opportunity to all sides equally.
Mr Ahmed Alota
On the issue of economic dynamics, he said, “Economically, the sources of income for newspapers are sales and advertisement. I am not sure there is a newspaper in the Gambia that has up to 5000 circulation. To my knowledge there may not be a paper that has more than 3000 circulation in The Gambia, so therefore their income in that sector is limited. Ownership structure of a newspaper also determines the income generation in the area of advertisement. Low pay of reporters and editors is due to the nature of income generation. When a journalist lives in abject poverty, he or she is vulnerable to political and economic interests because the temptation is so high,” remarked Alota.
The former Gambia press house man advised journalists to venture into online journalism by creating blogs as a source of income. He said with blogging, information can be passed without big expenditure since printing cost is not required. He said newspaper space is also another problem compared to a blog that can give opportunities to all the views of the people.
“Newspapers are running at a loss and therefore are collapsing, looking at what they gain from sales as well as bad laws in place governing the media in the country. Media in The Gambia is plagued by poverty; the media is fragile and vulnerable because getting adequate revenue earnings to settle workers is a problem. It affects their sense of objectivity because when you are poor you are vulnerable to manipulation,” Mr. Alota pointed out.
However, Sam Sarr of Foroyaa Newspaper did not agree that the media is collapsing. While reacting to the statement of Alota, Sarr said, “media in the Gambia is besieged and has lots of difficulties but it is not collapsing. It is these same media that have been speaking the truth, defending the people and that’s why people are attracted to the media. Arrests, detention without trial, disappearances, criminal trials, assaults and arson attacks have not deterred their resilience. Taranga FM radio is consistently facing closure and arrest of staff but the transmission is still effective. So the media in the Gambia is not collapsing.”
He said there are challenges as mentioned by Alota himself and that’s true including economic and lack of freedom of expression issues. He said prices of commodities are hiking such as printing materials while the price for a copy of a newspaper remains at fifteen dalasis (D15) and the circulation is not expanding due to poverty.
“About the independent nature of the media, it is difficult to make balance report in the Gambia because public officials also do not speak even if you approach them for their views on issues. Sometimes there will be an issue and when you press the particular institution responsible for information, instead of giving it to you who seek it, they will take it to another paper as advertisement. Officials and even private individuals quite often decline to speak when given the opportunity. We do not deny them their right to speak. Freedom of expression is a stumbling block in the Gambia,” reacted Sam Sarr.
Mr George Christenson made a short presentation indicating that he did not wish to bore his audience. His presentation was on “Safety for journalists: Addressing impunity for enhanced protection”. He also indicated that the issue of security is very broad and the topic was rather vague. He presented six articles for journalists to make use of to enhance their security. He indicated that journalists must avoid leaving traces when they use their computers or the internet and even as they move about.
Mr George Christenson further urged journalists to make best use of technology by using protective soft wares when using the internet for any purposes. He said with certain soft wares you can be online doing your work for longer hours without anyone detecting it. He said journalists can also use modern protective internet browsers as browsing history cannot be traced. He said with this browser your email will not be intercepted by anyone.
Mr Christenson began by extending an emotional message to the father of Chief Manneh. He said, “We feel for you. We know that it had never occurred to you that you will go up to 9 years without seeing your beloved son. It is indeed an extra-ordinary situation. Your name has spread around the world in the pursuit of freedom of expression. We assure you that the struggle is not only Chief Manneh but even your other sons and grand sons to ensure that the situation is stabilised. We know that you are lonely and you are always thinking about this but God is there. The truth shall prevail one day. We will stand together and pray until our wishes come true.”
Mr Omar Jallow, the party leader for the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) also spoke from the floor.
Mr. Jallow said that before the Gambian president thinks of inviting the ICC to conduct investigation on the EU for the increasing loss of life of African youths through illegal migration as reported earlier, he should take care of issues that are happening under his regime as charity begins at home. He said this includes the murder and disappearance of journalists and other people. He emphasised that it is the president’s responsibility to protect the lives and properties of people as head of state.
He encouraged particularly young journalists to remain committed to their work by amplifying the voices of the people.