Hellish For Journalist to Work Under Jammeh regime
By Fatou Dahaba
Demba Ali Jawo had been a prominent journalist both in the first and second republics, including being President of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) for two consecutive terms. He was appointed the first Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure in the new government formed by President Adama Barrow after the defeat of the Jammeh regime in 2016.
In June 2018, during President Barrow’s first major cabinet reshuffle, Mr. Jawo was among five cabinet ministers that lost their jobs. He has since been a bit out of the limelight and Daily News located him to find out what he had been up to since he left government and his views on several contemporary issues. Below are excerpts from that interview:
Daily News: You were a prominent journalist prior to the change of regime in 2016, and you later served as a Minister under the Barrow regime, what are you doing now?
Demba Ali Jawo: Apart from doing some consultancy work, I have not been engaged in anything permanent. I am retired and as such, I do not intend to engage in any tedious work.
DN: We understand that you were arrested by the police under the Jawara regime and by the NIA under the Jammeh regime, what were you accused of and how were you treated on both occasions while in detention?
DAJ: I was arrested during the Jawara regime after I published an article in The Nation newspaper accusing the police of corruption. I was detained at the CID office of the Banjul Police Station but I was never treated harshly. I did not even spend the night there but I was granted bail to be reporting daily.
With regards to my arrest by the NIA in 1998, it was a different story. As News Editor of the Daily Observer, my arrest was in connection with a story we published that angered the government and I was detained at the NIA headquarters for two nights under very harsh conditions and at the mercy of the mosquitoes. On both occasions, I was never charged or taken to court.
DN: As a former Information minister under the Barrow administration and a journalist during both the first and second republics, can you give us a situational comparison of the two in relations to the current regime?
DAJ: Obviously, the two situations were quite different. While the media under the Jawara regime was not as developed as it was in the second republic, but journalists were allowed to do their work without undue harassment. However, under the second republic, it was a different scenario. Journalists and their media houses were constantly subjected to intimidation and harassment by the security forces and other state agents. As a result, journalists were frequently arrested and their media houses arbitrarily closed down. This eventually led to the fleeing into exile of many Gambian journalists.
However, with the advent of the New Gambia, the atmosphere for free expression has improved considerably and barring a few incidents, Gambian journalists have been enjoying their freedom.
DN: You were once quoted in one of your writings to have said it was hellish to work as a journalist under the Jammeh regime, can you elaborate on that?
DAJ: Just like I said earlier, the Jammeh regime was quite hostile to the media and as such, it was quite dangerous to practise journalism in this country during that time. Rather than treat journalists like partners in development, the Jammeh regime instead saw and treated them like enemies who were constantly being subjected to intimidation and harassment.
DN: What is your opinion about what had been happening at State House when groups of people are often being mobilised to converge there to express support for President Barrow, urging him to go for 5 years instead of the 3 years that he promised, and how does that compare with the Opinion Leaders that used to urge Yahya Jammeh as AFPRC Chairman to resign from the military and contest elections as a civilian?
DAJ: Indeed, there is a lot of similarity between what goes on at State House under President Adama Barrow and what used to happen during the days of the military Junta when people were encouraged to go to State House to “convince” then Chairman Yahya Jammeh to leave the army and stand as a presidential candidate. On both occasions, state resources and facilities were being used to promote the political agenda of an individual. That is certainly not compatible with the democratic pluralism that Gambians fought for.
DN: Having served under President Barrow as Information Minister, what type of a leader is he?
DAJ: President Barrow, as an individual, is quite a nice man. However, being the political novice that he is, it appears that he is not getting the right advice and as such, he seems to be deviating from the promises he made to Gambians while campaigning under Coalition 2016. It appears that he has either not got the right calibre of advisers or they are not giving him the right advice.
DN: Would you have continued to serve the Barrow administration even after he had reneged on his campaign promise to step down after three years?
DAJ: The question is hypothetical and it would not be easy to categorically state here that I would not have continued to serve as minister after President Barrow reneged on his promise to step down after three years. As far as I am concerned, that was a purely political decision and as I was not a political appointee, I don’t think that would have influenced my decision.
DN: How would you rate the New Gambia that Gambians voted for in 2016?
DAJ: Of course, like many Gambians who risked everything to vote out Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorial regime in 2016, I feel a bit disappointed that things have not gone the way we all had anticipated. It appears that President Barrow has allowed his political ambitions to overcome him. Rather than concentrate on the reform agenda that Coalition 2016 promised the people, all his actions and programmes seem to be geared towards consolidating himself in power.
DN: In a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate the Barrow administration and what are your reasons for giving it that score?
DAJ: Taking into consideration that President Barrow and most members of his administration lack public service experience, it would not be fair to heap all the blame on the government. They are trying their level best to deliver, but certainly, their best is not good enough. Quite a lot of things could have been done differently, and as such, I would give the government 5 over 10.
DN: If President Barrow were to re-appoint you in his cabinet, are you ready to go back?
DAJ: As it is said, “never say never” but under the circumstances, I would not anticipate ever getting back to the type of situation that prevailed when I left the government. Therefore, I consider my removal at the time it happened as a blessing in disguise because of my experiences while in government and how things seem to be moving.
DN: How would you rate President Barrow’s chances in the 2021 presidential elections?
DAJ: It is often said that in politics, even a week is a long time. Therefore, it would not be easy to forecast President Barrow’s chances in 2021. Political fortunes change with circumstances. However, looking at the trend, it would be quite an uphill task for him to convince Gambians that he is the right person to lead this country for another five years.
DN: You were a critique of both the Jawara and Jammeh regimes, but you seem to be sparing the Barrow regime, why?
DAJ: It is not a question of sparing the Barrow regime, but you should understand that as I was a member of the administration until 2018, it would be disingenuous on my part to immediately start criticising the very regime that I was a member. That would look like venting my anger for my removal from office. I am however by nature a critic and therefore, I am not ruling out criticising the regime or anything else I feel not being done right.
DN: What are your views on the new draft Constitution; compared to the 1997 Constitution?
DAJ: Like everyone else, there are certain provisions of the draft Constitution that I would have wanted changed or removed, but generally, despite all those shortcomings, I feel that it is a good document that reflects the aspirations of Gambians. It is a big improvement on the 1997 Constitution, which was tailor-made to suit the whims and caprices of former President Yahya Jammeh.
DN: Finally, what is your take on the current hot debate on LBGT?
DAJ: I really feel quite disappointed that rather than concentrate on more relevant issues, Gambians are tearing each other apart over a non-issue. Certainly, LBGT is not a problem in this country that we should even discuss let alone going to the extent of insulting each other. Probably all those making noise about it are not aware that the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2005 criminalises homosexuality in all its forms and as far as I am aware, no one has openly advocated for its legalisation in this country. What is all this unnecessary noise about, one would wonder.