The Gambia Embarks On Change
The new government in the Gambia has made a serious commitment to reform media regulation and back a free press. It is a laudable and overdue ambition. For too long Gambian journalists have been harassed, bullied, driven out of the country and even killed.
Local and regional media organisations are trying to develop a comprehensive plan of action. Government policy, media regulation, criminal legislation, the state broadcaster all need to be considered together to ensure that the right environment is created for the media sector to flourish.
If it works, this initiative has the potential to foster stability. A free media can provide outlets for frustration and forums for debate on difficult issues. It can underpin Gambian democracy, which was newly invigorated by the election of Adama Barrow, after 22 years of increasingly oppressive leadership of Yahya Jammeh. It can also make a significant contribution to economic growth. It can support any honest government’s attempts to make life better for everyone.
This will not be easy. Much can go wrong along the way. It is difficult to stamp out bad habits. One newspaper has been suspended and one journalist arrested on criminal charges since the democratic transition. But there is genuine hope in The Gambia that President Barrow intends to change things for the better. By seizing the momentum for change and thinking big about a free media, he has made a good start.
Through it all, the new leadership must remain strong in its commitment to a revitalised policy that backs the principles of freedom of thought, encourages freedom of expression and invests in education. That is an enormous challenge for politicians. It is a challenge that gets harder the longer they remain in power. Speed is essential.
Even at a time of positive change, the media should not shy away from its job of reflecting all opinions, not just those of the government. Among those opinions will be criticism of the government and of Ministers. No politicians like criticism. Opposing views can be inconvenient. The temptation is always strong to clamp down on the media.
However, Gambia's leaders should stay focused on the great social and economic benefits that can flow from a flourishing media sector. If they do not, the danger is they return to the bad habits of suppressing criticism and inconvenient truths. If they do that, they will repeat the mistakes of Yahya Jammeh. They will risk becoming cut off from the general population and fail to understand the impact of policies they introduce. Without a free media to reflect what is really happening on the ground, political leaders get progressively out of touch and ultimately founder – isolated and alone.
Managing Director, GMT Media Ltd