No Longer a Beacon of Hope
An African journalist laments the message Judith Miller’s jailing sends to the rest of the world.
By Alagi Yorro Jallow
Alagi Yorro Jallow, who now lives temporarily in the United States, is managing editor of the Independent, and a former BBC correspondent in the Gambia and vice president of the Gambia Press Union. Jallow twice won Human Rights Watch’s Hellman/Hammett Award, given to journalists who have faced persecution by their governments.
On February 2, 2003, the police in my hometown of Banjul in the Gambia arrested and interrogated me about a lead story I had published in my newspaper, the Independent. The topic, an all too common one in my part of the world, revealed that the president of the country was the owner of a new five-star hotel and that several of his cronies were secret shareholders.
The police demanded that I write a statement disclosing the source of my information. I refused. They threatened to send me to jail if I did not cooperate. I was held incommunicado in solitary confinement for nearly 48 hours. I was stripped naked and kept in a dank cell until my release.
For me, this was nothing new. The police and the National Intelligence Agency have arrested, detained and interrogated me in the Gambia more than a dozen times in the past six years. Government forces have challenged the legality of my newspaper, for which I am the managing editor, and have pressed me to reveal sources for several investigative pieces.
Back then, the United States, with its strong tradition of press freedom, was a beacon of hope. Journalists were not picked up by thugs and jailed for protecting sources.
Like my colleagues who have struggled to publish newspapers that are not owned and controlled by the government, I have faced violence as well. Arsonists attacked the Independent twice. The first time, on October 10, 2003, the office was burned and the newspaper's security guard was beaten unconscious, but the printing equipment was left intact. A second attack on April 13, 2004, believed to have been carried out by the Gambian military, destroyed the printing press. I have received several death threats, including a letter in January 2004 from the "Green Boys," a paramilitary group connected with President Yahya Jammeh's ruling party.
The worst blow came on December 16, 2004, when my colleague Deyda Hydara, a respected publisher of another independent newspaper and my co-plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging restrictive media laws in my country, was shot at close range as he drove home from work. So far, no one has been indicted, but many members of the media suspect government forces were behind Hydara's murder.
In this hostile environment, we often looked to the United States as a source of encouragement and support. For years, the American government assisted private newspapers with funds and equipment as part of its efforts to promote democracy worldwide. All independent newspapers in the Gambia, a republic in West Africa, benefited from such support.
And we benefited from something more: U.S. diplomats visited our newsrooms in public demonstrations of solidarity; the current ambassador, Joseph Stafford, visited Deyda Hydara in his office the day he was murdered.
These gestures had great impact. When I was being interrogated about my sources for the story on presidential corruption, I knew that my reporting was in the best tradition of a free press, the kind of journalism the United States seemed interested in promoting in my country. When I refused to reveal my confidential sources, I felt the support of American journalists and diplomats. I believe the police and the government did, too, which is why they didn't carry through on their threat to imprison me.
That was two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, attacks on the press in the Gambia have taken their toll: After Hydara's murder, I was forced to flee the country in the wake of assassination threats.
My newspaper has suspended publication. The U.S., meanwhile, has curtailed its financial support for the independent press in the Gambia. With the confinement of Jim Taricani under house arrest last year in Rhode Island and the jailing of Judith Miller for not revealing confidential sources, America has joined a list of some 20 other countries where journalists are in prison for their work.
The outlook is very different now for my colleagues who are detained and grilled about the sources of their stories. That is why the African Editors Forum, which represents media leaders in more than 30 countries on the African continent, has issued a statement saluting Miller for choosing to go to jail. "Her courage is a source of inspiration to many editors and journalists in Africa and around the world who live through autocratic rule and suppression of free speech daily," the statement says. "That she is now sitting in jail in what is supposed to be the pinnacle of democracy in the world is both ironic and a testimony to the fact that the struggle for the defense of the right of journalists to do their work freely is universal and knows no boundaries."
As a journalist from a Third World country where democratic values and freedom of the press are not well respected, I urge those responsible for this decision to recognize that the privilege to protect confidential sources is crucial to press freedom, not only in the United States, but around the world. For us, so much stands to be lost.