Silencing a Voice
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
BABOUCAR GAYE IS A hulk of a man whose expressive eyes speak for him. At the moment, they are telegraphing outrage as he reaches for the microphone to petition on behalf of his beleaguered Citizen FM radio station in The Gambia.
"I did nothing wrong. I would do the same thing again. My conscience is clear,"he tells the audience of West African journalists.
The woes that plague the independent station, popularly known as "The Voice of the People,"provide a study of media suppression in Africa: The state finds a legal loophole and acts quickly, without warning. There are arrests, threats and, ultimately, formal charges that plunge the case into the web of the judicial bureaucracy. At the same time, owners like Gaye pile up legal bills while their media outlets remain quiet. In the end, they are overwhelmed by debt and are forced to liquidate.
"It is another tactic to kill the independent press,"says Gaye, a father of five whose most recent run-in with the law began February 5, 1998, when he and his news editor were arrested.
The following day, armed soldiers occupied the newsroom, confiscated equipment and padlocked the building. The official charge: operating a broadcast station without a license. A more likely reason for his arrest: a story reported on Citizen FM about a scandal, complete with charges of counterfeiting, in the Gambian version of the CIA.
A government press release denounced the story as unconfirmed, irresponsible and a violation of national security. On March 5, 1998, Gaye entered a not-guilty plea. On August 28 of that year, a magistrate's court found him guilty, fined him 300 dalasis ($30) and ordered him to forfeit ownership of the station's equipment to the state.
Eighteen months after the shutdown, he remains mired in a foot-dragging appeals process.
A look at Citizen FM's mission statement provides clues to why The Gambia's president, a former military strongman, might feel threatened. Among the station's stated goals: fostering democracy, human rights, accountability and good governance, and being gender and sex sensitive. In a statement of protest, the International Federation of Journalists noted that the closure of Citizen FM denies Gambians access to critical information that state-owned radio would never broadcast.
It was not Gaye's first encounter with press censors. In 1981, he was arrested for reporting details of an aborted coup attempt and held in solitary confinement for nearly three months.
He recalls that guards allowed him a single piece of reading material, a copy of The Watchtower, a Jehovah's Witness publication. "On the outside, I never would have read it. Inside it became precious. I read one paragraph a day so it would last longer and I would have something to look forward to."
A 1998 Committee to Protect Journalists report confirmed that hostility toward the media has worsened in The Gambia, a tiny West African country situated on the Atlantic Ocean. "Many journalists who have been targeted with reprisals for their critical coverage of the state and its policies increasingly face bankruptcy as a result of the state's unrelenting assault,"the report said. Gaye remains a prime example.
Does he ever consider changing professions? "I am condemned to be a journalist,"Gaye says. "I can't help myself."