|Sara Beysolow Nyanti, UNICEF Chief in Banjul|
In what appeared to be a mild criticism of the independent media. The UN official was addressing the journalists who attended the UNICEF - financed workshop when she stressed the need for an independent media that will not only protect the rights and welfare of children but to be treated as citizens at par with the rest of the adult population.
It is important to note (i) that there are independent media entities in The Gambia and (ii) what is referred to as independent media are those that are the privately - owned. All those that are in the latter category operate under unwritten self-censored rules. Although they are unwritten, as an editor of reporter, you know it when you've crossed the line by a phone call from the notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA) or the Serious Crime Unit.
The regime's favorite targets are journalists as attested to by the numerous journalists in exile across the globe, estimated to be in the region of 200. Journalism is by far the single most dangerous profession in The Gambia, perhaps outside of being a member of the country's militia and other security units. The regime has created a deliberately designed harsh environment that even the Yaya Jammeh-owned Daily Observer runs afoul if the unwritten rules of journalistic conduct of the dictator.
Ms. Nyanyi's appealed to journalists by saying that "as partner [in development]...giving the right information will help [UNICEF and the donor community] work together to fulfill the rights of people, especially children." To say that her appeal fell on deaf ears will not be accurate but it is safe to say that it fell on cautious ears because the journalists in the room know very well what "giving the right information" that is inconsistent with the official government narrative will cost them. They are walking an extremely fine line and donors must be cognizant of the plight of Gambian journalists.
There is no doubt that Gambia journalists practicing their profession in The Gambia are experts in accentuating the positive that keeps them out of trouble with the dictatorship. Unfortunately, this instinctive maneuver by journalists comes at a cost of omitting what the UNICEF Country Representative refers to as "good and correct information" which can easily land a journalist in real trouble. Veteran journalist Deyda Hydara was assassinated to exactly the same reason - reporting "good and correct information."
Gambia journalists are aware of the serious public health issues facing most parts of the rural areas, especially as it relates to nutrition that has particularly hit the Central River the hardest. but they are afraid to report the problem for fear of being killed or made to disappear.
Gambian journalists operating in the Gambia are equally aware of the results of UNICEF's own study of child education which shows that while access to primary education is high - and the regime should be commended for that - quality and rate of continuity are low, particularly for girls. Not all children make it to the Upper Basic. "Of the 69 per cent of the children starting school, only 63 per cent reach 9th Grade and only 17 per cent achieve a pass in mathematics, which indicates a major problem relating to quality. Journalists would rather self-censor themselves than go against the regime mantra of building schools in every village to increase access even if it means the end product is not suited for competition in the local job market much less the regional or international job markets.
Journalists are not the only ones fearful of the regime. NGOs working in this area are working equally in fear and thus very cautious of even sharing information with outside journalists for fear of expulsion. Well speaking of expulsion, the United Nations Family in The Gambia has had it own fair share of the wrath of a ruthless and idiosyncratic dictator. Amnesty International got it right when it aptly titled its seminal 2008 Report on the Gambia - "Fear Rules".