Since you have been sent to Banjul to cover the African Union (AU) summit, Reporters Without Borders suggests that just for a few moments you put yourself in the place of a Gambian journalist and try to imagine the suffering they endure at the hands of the government of Yahya Jammeh.
Because if you were Gambian, like the journalist on the privately-owned biweekly, The Independent, Lamin Fatty, a police commando could have turned up at your home and arrested you unceremoniously, on 12 April 2006. In defiance of every legal procedure, you could have been questioned about the content of one of your articles, along with the manager and editor of your newspaper, who had already been held for two weeks, with no right to see a lawyer, in a cell at the HQ of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) at the end of a street leading to the presidency. Like him, you would probably not have known that while you were in custody, on 25 May, the Gambian justice minister, hand on heart, swore to general amazement, before the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, meeting just kilometres away that “no journalist is currently in prison” in Gambia.
If you were Gambian, you could have been rounded up in a police operation to shut down your paper, like Madi Ceesay, chairman of the leading journalists’ union, the Gambia Press Union (GPU), and managing director of The Independent, or Musa Saidykhan, his editor. Like them, you could have been held for three weeks in a cell, before being released as though nothing had happened. Like them, you could have gone to the head offices of your newspaper, on 28 March to find the doors locked against you and illegally guarded by uniformed men. With no income, no newspaper and under the threat of being sent back to the cell if you made the slightest attempt to speak openly, like them you could have vainly called on the government to guarantee your civil and political freedoms.
If you were Gambian, like the exiled journalist Pa Nderry Mbai, former correspondent in Banjul of US public radio Voice of America (VOA), you could found yourself the target of a computer attack and hijacking of your email, designed to slander you and to terrorise those who subscribe to your website. Like many Gambians in exile, you could dream about returning to your country one day, when there is an end to the fear and brutality which forced you to flee.
If you were Gambian like Pap Saine, managing editor of the last independent daily in Banjul, The Point, you could have had to mourn the murder on 16 December 2004 of your childhood friend and associate Deyda Hydara, cold-bloodedly gunned down by unknown assailants a quarter of an hour after the party you organised to celebrate the 13 anniversary of your newspaper. Like him, you could have been shocked at being summoned by the NIA a few weeks later, questioned about your newspaper’s accounts and treated as a suspect. Like him and the Hydara family, you could have been sickened by the sole official statement by the investigators, whose first conclusions, six months after the murder, suggested that Deyda Hydara, whom it termed a “provocateur”, could have been killed with your complicity or because of some completely trumped up sexual case. Like all those who knew Deyda Hydara, you could have been revolted by these insinuations, while this fine journalist was regularly threatened and was under NIA surveillance, including on the evening of his death.
If you were Gambian, like the former BBC correspondent, Ebrima Sillah, you could have been woken in the middle of the night on 15 August 2004, by a gang breaking the windows of your house before setting fire to it. Like him, you could have found out that two weeks earlier your employer received an email marked “final warning”, advising caution in your coverage of news in Gambia. If you were Gambian, you could, like him, have felt anger and impotence, realising that the message was signed by the “Green Boys”, a group of militants belonging to the presidential party, dealing in threats and violent operations against the press and the opposition. In the threatening message you received, they boasted about having “given a lesson” to The Independent, whose premises and printers were torched a few weeks before.
But you already know these stories. Reporters Without Borders and other international organisations have been sending them to you for years. We won’t therefore go back any further in time, but you know that we could have filled so many pages that you would have finished by swearing never to be a Gambian journalist. So, while you are staying in Banjul, go to see these people. Tell them about the solidarity of all of us towards the appalling working conditions they suffer and their courage in the face of them. Tell them too that you have not been fooled by the ‘Potemkin village’-style charade being played out at Brufut where the AU summit is being hosted. Tell them from us that we are all doing our utmost to see that they get justice.