Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: Perhaps one day, an ex-Independent newspaper staff member or freelancer will become the Gambian President. When that day breaks, the cycle will be perfect in its completeness. A political newspaper manifesting its name in real practical terms will be an experience to feel. From about midnight of July 5, 1999, until it was extra-judicially closed by Yahya Jammeh’s government on March 11, 2006, the Independent saw it all. Its story has been an example of how to make the years count.
A child’s head may swell with the size of his very rich wardrobe, but can he have as many old, priceless wears as the elderly? So I am taking my eyes off the dirt in sweet-smelling places from the Greater Banjul Area to everywhere. So, instead, I want to speak here about the human and value contents of the Independent’s eight good years of existence. The Independent newspaper, the Gambia’s youngest newspaper, has produced leaders in virtually all spheres of the Gambian life and on the global stage – except having a Gambian president in its kitty. Furthermore, I look forward to that happening. Before you ask what difference such a President would make in a challenging environment, please take a look at a count of ex-Independent newsroom journalists and editors as well as its former auxiliary staff today created a culture of recognition and, above beyond, their achievements,tenture, or service. The Independent celebrated its anniversary by producing a team with organic academic, research, interdisciplinary performances, and professional accomplishments on their resumes ranging from professional and personality and intellectual growth from Bachelor’s degrees to doctoral degrees who left for The Gambia because of persistent persecution of the paper’s staff.
Fatoumatta: Today, the Independent would have been 22 years. The short and long years from 1999 is packed history in its most intriguing details. When a mahogany tree’s luck and toughness make it escape wanton woodmen and their murderous chain saws, its roots will firmly intermarry with those of others in the forest. The Independent’s vital fluid flows in veins across key newsrooms in the Gambia and abroad. The ex – Independent editors and journalists because they needed to go back to school. Until a few years elsewhere, it gets even more enjoyable intellectual journalists, scholars, communication experts, press officers in government and non-governmental organizations, university lecturers, program officers, development officers, entrepreneurs, editors, and master prosaist columnists, and I move to count one, two, three, four, five other scholars, professors, administrators, IT experts, lawyers and who were here as reporters and writers and other accomplished individuals both men and women in the Gambia and the Diaspora did their freshman the very first university graduate to work in the Independent newsroom as a reporter and a journalist. Since his coming about 22 years ago, there has been no looking back in knowledge acquisition. Today, 95 percent of Independent journalists have at least a Master’s degree. The list is long and lengthening moving forward. There are currently three Ph. D with a promise of at least two more in the next 12 months, all Independent origins.
Fatoumatta: It is not everyone who wants to live long and well who has his prayer answered. The long years of the Independent endure with unforgettable memories. There are many more in high places with stories to tell in varying tastes and textures. Gambians all spoke of the courage, resilience, and pro-people stance, and newspaper content. Each of them knew the whole meaning and import of what they said. He who feels it knows it. When fortune smiles on a man, and he escapes dying young, his mortal enemies of a million years will become his friends. That is the story of the Independent.
The Independent ran an editorial on its Second birthday promising “to stay with the people. This is a dangerous time to live in the Gambia and make a solemn promise of courage. There is a government here that dishes malicious actions to whomever it fancies. The same government hints the hurt not to dare flinch or becomes guilty of hate speech punishable by death. Visceral intolerance and insults rule our public space, and they say we must live with them. You saw how senior officers were appointed into top-sensitive positions that came from the ruling APRC party members. The gasps and murmurs of disbelief at such audacity have since been swept away by this season’s unceasing rains of disaster. We run a government of three masquerades managing six bean cakes for the nation. One takes two, and the other two masquerades have shared the remaining four cakes between themselves. The people’s plate is empty”.
The editorial continues, “there is peace. The nation can sleep empty and hungry. It is the luck of the multitude to thirst endlessly for justice. Around the power in our country is the aura and mantle of the Third Reich. The copyright of today’s eerily dense don’t-talk rhetoric belongs to Benito Mussolini. His descendants must sue the copycats in the Gambia for plagiarism on behalf of their long-gone fascist patriarch. The Banjul orchestra plays for a dance of darkness – and it cannot end in what is not disastrous”.
Fatoumatta: Someone looked at the struggling media in the Gambia and quipped that you can choose to stay with the people and their aspirations but what if they do not stand with you? Some duties may or may not have benefits. Fighting evil on behalf of a people is one of such duties. Never trust the people with your freedom. They worship their tormentors – to your shock and misfortune. That is true. However, do your part and leave the rest to fate is a cliche that comforts the unsure navigator. A few years ago, I wrote what I thought a newspaper should be in the hands of its minder. I said an editor should know that a newspaper is a rare combination of the fine qualities of a civilian aircraft and the rugged determination of a fighter plane. He should know that he pilots the plane for God and humanity. And in doing that, the plane should not just be for dropping humanitarian aids on the hapless below. It should also be used to interrogate the environment that creates the privileged and the helpless, the bloated and the haggard, the overfed and the starving. It must competently do air-to-air combat and attack ground targets who are almost always potent enemies of the public good.
However, the editor holds the promise to maximize the plane’s strength in its speed and maneuverability for maximum impact. While there should be no indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets, he should, at all times, watch out for enemy fires. And in the eight active years of the Independent newspaper, journalism, those fires repeatedly came from men of power and means, scarring man and machine in its newsroom. From its editor being accused of and summoned for sedition by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) just a month after its debut in 1999 over its shrill condemnation of corruption and human rights abuses, to its newsroom and editor being searched for in possession of seditious documents in one of the terrible, mad days of the second republic, to one of its editors being detained by the government for publishing libelous content on August 3, 1999, this newspaper has had more than a million years of experience in state harassment. Nevertheless, it was soldiering on because it is its lot (and destiny) to plow the problematic field of the Gambia. That is the path it chose when it got christened ‘Independent.’ A child’s name rules his stars is critical in the belief system of the black man. And he is right most of the time. The Independent of Ancient Rome fought principalities for the people, paying the price many times. They existed to protect the plebs (commoners) from magisterial abuses. However, that duty of care was not one-way; it was reciprocal. Historian Mark Cartwright says the plebs, in return, also “swore an oath (lex sacrata) which gave the Independent a sacred inviolability (sacrosanctitas) and a guarantee that the plebs would protect them with their own lives.” The experiences were not always pleasant.
Fatoumatta: When a wise man clocks his matured years of service to humanity, he starts packing and preparing for the inevitable departure. The years ahead are fewer than the ones behind him. However, for an institution such as a newspaper, every addition in years is an opportunity for rebirth and reinvention, an additional plate in its armor. Yesterday’s Independent fights very many wars at the same time:
There was the digital onslaught that mutates against every counter-measure.
There was the sly, evil state ever scheming to ruin the media and rule people’s minds unchallenged.
There was the future, ever creepy, unknown, unsteady, and untrustworthy.
Fatoumatta: With plagiarized laws of freedom of expression and archaic colonial sedition and libel laws and fake news seeking to mute critical voices in the land; with the judiciary sinking in incestuous sleaze with money and position, and the legislature signing blank, postdated cheques for the presidency, the future can only be difficult and dangerous for the media and its operators. However, for the tested, the approaching minefields of power should be conquerable familiar terrains. Wise, trained eyes do not get lost in the woods where dusk met them – no matter how treacherous the night is. The mouth that will tell the story of our ongoing (and oncoming) wars will not be on its casualty list. History has no record of the palace outliving the people.
Alagi Yorro Jallow