On Wednesday, 16 March 2011 The President and some members of the Cabinet were engaged in a frank and open exchange of views with the media fraternity at state house which lasted for three and half hours.
Those who spoke on behalf of the Executive were President Jammeh, Vice President Madam Isatou Njie Saidy, the Minister of Communication and Information Technology Mr. Cham, the Minister of Health Madam Fatim Badjie, the Minister of Finance Mr. Mamburay Njie and the Secretary General and Head of the Civil service, Dr Njogu Bah. The Heads of Media Houses who spoke were Mr. Swaebou Conateh of News and Report, Mr. Pap Saine of The Point, Mr. Sam Sarr of Foroyaa and Mr. Hamid Adiamoh of Today.
The meeting emanated from the initiatives taken by the new Director of Press and Public Relations, Mrs. Fatou Camara to facilitate dialogue between the Executive and the Media. She first invited heads of media houses to a meeting at state house to explore ways and means through which the executive could enter into dialogue with the media in order to address their respective concerns. The media houses that went to state house for the meeting were The Point, Foroyaa, Daily News and Today. Mrs. Camara took the concerns of the media personnel and promised to report to the Secretary General and the President. In less than a week after the meeting she again called to schedule a meeting with the president which took place at state house on Wednesday 16 March 2011.
In this edition, we will publish a summary of the issues raised but a full report will be published in the next edition.
The President opened the meeting with general comments on his commitment to his oath of office and his desire not to trample on the freedom of expression of Gambians. After the Media heads spoke he implied that some members of the press may have interpreted his attempt to reach out to the Press as a public relation exercise or an attempt to appease the press because of the current happenings in the World.
He therefore changed his tone by emphasizing that he is not engaged in a public relation exercise and is not trying to appease the Media and does not expect the Media to praise him. He observed that some Media heads appear to be at war and do not want to recognise his status and indicated that he would have media briefings with those who would observe the normal protocols observed elsewhere.
He emphasised that he is working for the interest of all Gambians and for the peace and stability of the country. Apart from Allah he is answerable to the Gambian people and he will not sacrifice the peace and stability of this country in the name of freedom of expression. If a publisher violates the law he will deal with him/her according to law. According to him being a journalist does not give one a license to write anything one likes.
He indicated that no one is stopping public officers from talking to the media. The executive has not issued any directive preventing public officers from talking to the media.
He or his executive has not killed any journalist and the fact that many convicts are in the death row; he has never killed anyone sentenced to death shows that he would not kill anyone unlawfully, especially since he has sworn to uphold the constitution and the law. He emphasized that his government has no hand in the killing of Deyda Hydara or the disappearance of Chief Manneh.
Mr Swaebou Conateh, expressed the hope that the Executive would not use the occasion as a public relation exercise and welcome the invitation for a dialogue to address mutual concerns that would lead to the protection of freedom of expression and media. He called on the executive to do the following:
1. Decriminalise free speech
2. Revoke the law on sedition
3. Decriminalise libel and revoke the law on false publication
4. Enact Freedom of Information law
5. Ensure Regular press briefings at state house and occasional press conferences
He observed that a mere declaration by the president that public servants are free to talk to the press does not suffice. To make them free there should be a formal circular to that effect.
Mr. Pap Saine emphasized the need for the point newspaper to adhere to its mandate and added his voice to the following:
1. Access to information
2. Revocation of anti-media laws (libel, sedition and the newspaper amendment act)
3. Provision of more training opportunities
4. Revocation of education levy as far as newspapers are concerned
5. Reduction of taxation on newspapers
6. Government renewing its subscriptions to newspapers and making timely payment
Sam Sarr of the Foroyaa cited section 207(3) of the constitution: “The press and other information media shall at all times, be free to uphold …… the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people of The Gambia.” He told them that Foroyaa uses this as its guiding principle and asked them to explain the executive’s position on this constitutional mandate.
He also referred to section 208 of the constitution on the state owned media affording fair opportunities and facilities to express divergent views and dissenting opinions. He asked them to express an opinion on this. He told them that without pluralism holding the government accountable to the people will be meaningless.
He further told them that to hold the government accountable there must be access to information which is currently a problem. He cited a host of examples. There must also be freedom of expression, noting that thinking about the threat of going to jail when editing tantamount to self censorship which is inimical to freedom of expression.
He told them that there is no need for the government to become uneasy when the death of Deyda and the disappearance of Chief Manneh are mentioned as it should be the concern of both the media fraternity and the state.
Mr. Hamid Adiamoh emphasised that though he carries a Nigerian passport, he considers himself a Gambian, noting that The Gambia enjoys peace and stability which many countries do not enjoy. He assured the president that all those media personnel that he knows in The Gambia media do not bear any ill-will against the President. That there are some who accused the government of being hostile to press freedom and that practice should be improved to allay such machinations.