Breaking News:Freedom Newspaper Editor-in-Chief Omar Bah addresses Internation Institute of Rhode Island

“With that situation at hand, the Gambian people lacked the relevant information they needed. Efforts had to be made by independent minded journalists to balance the situation by providing the Gambian people with alternative news; Gambia needed an independent media outlet that would freely practice balanced journalism; the Gambian people needed to have a media outlet that the state could not control like it did to the already existing media houses. These culminated in the establishment of an online newspaper based in the United States called the Freedom Newspaper, in early 2006.  The paper is being edited and published by exiled Gambian journalist in the United States, Pa Nderry M’bai while I emerged as its Banjul Bureau Chief facilitating the writing of stories and passing of newsworthy information to the editor in the United States via email. In as much as we were fighting for free information to the Gambian people, I and my team in The Gambia were very cautious and had to do our work undercover under strict confidentiality. Our identity meant danger for our lives as we succeeded to reach out to the Gambian readership by giving them the most needed and balanced type of information, a publication of which was seen critical by The Gambia Government. Soon, the Freedom Newspaper became very popular. The reason was simple. We gave the Gambian people what they wanted to read and not what the government wanted them to read. While the physical tabloids in The Gambia were printing about 2000 copies each, a day, the Freedom Newspaper was receiving at least 10,000 hits on a daily basis. Only the editor in the US operated in the open while the rest of us operated under strict confidentiality. I was working at the Daily Observer while simultaneously working for the Freedom Newspaper which made me able to access more information to write for the Freedom Newspaper. Whenever stories the Daily Observer management deemed critical and unpublishable came to my desk as news editor, my conscience as an independent minded journalist would not allow me to let it go unpublished. So I would rather forward it to The Freedom Newspaper. The government soon became so concerned and suspicious about the growing popularity of the Freedom Newspaper and wanted to know which journalists were actually writing for the paper. Consequently, unbeknown to us, the Government had started a fight. It hired hackers who invaded the private files of the paper and accessed its list of subscribers accusing them of being its informants. The hackers placed a statement attributed to Editor M’bai on the homepage of the Freedom Newspaper claiming he had decided to reveal his sources and stop publishing the paper. Though M’bai almost immediately resumed control of his paper dismissing the statement attributed to him as a smear campaign against him by the hackers, Gambian security personnel went ahead to arrest all those people, tortured and released some of them when they realised that those were not the actual informants. Following the state’s failure to establish who the actual informants of this online publication were, the hackers continued their job and, on May 29, 2006, finally succeeded in accessing my email correspondences with the Freedom Newspaper editor and then forwarded it to the Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and a Gambian online chat forum – The Gambia Post, exposing me to the whole world,.”says Omar Bah Editor-in-Chief of the leading US based Freedom Newspaper. Mr.Bah was addressing the prestigious board meeting of the internation Institute of Rhode Island. In this master piece speech, Bah explained how he escaped death from the hands of Jammeh’s hit men, the government’s illegal hacking of the Freedom Newspaper, his past role as the Freedom Newspaper Banjul Bureau Chief, his past life at the Daily Observer and a host of other topical issues. Bah who is about to release a book was hailed by the cheering crowd who were highly touched by his passionate speech. Below is full text of Editor Bah’s speech. Please read on….
………………………………………..
By Editor-In-Chief Omar Bah

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address this august borad meeting. My name is Omar Bah. I am from The Gambia where Yahya Jammeh is president.

Born on the August 7, 1979, I completed high school education in June 1999. Immediately, I enrolled at the Gambia Technical Training Institute (GTTI) for a two-year National Diploma-In-Law program which I successfully completed in 2001. In the Institutes Open Day in 2003, I was awarded my National Diploma-In-Law.

Meanwhile, while I enrolled at the GTTI in 1999, I was engaged in a lot of research and practical work as a young law student. As a result, I used to spend a lot of time at the Institute’s library reading law books and newspapers. Also, I developed a habit of going to the High Court in the capital, Banjul, to witness court sittings. This coincided with the birth of a new privately owned newspaper, The Independent.

Because of my interest in reading newspapers and witnessing court sittings, in which newsworthy cases usually went uncovered, I offered to start reporting for The Independent newspaper on prominent cases that interested them. Soon, I developed a great interest in journalism in my capacity as a part-time cub reporter. Thus, I had to adapt to a busier schedule of having to both attend my lectures, and submit stories for the newspaper.

By the time I completed my diploma course in 2001, I had already decided that I wanted to be a journalist and thus went on full-time journalism. I had already proven myself and thus, my editors did not hesitate to identify me as their main court report. This work, I was able to execute diligently due to my background in law and the few years of reporting experience. Apart from the courts, I also reported on other areas including politics, which I needed in order to widen my scope in the profession.

Because I had chosen to be a journalist in The Gambia, a country so hostile to journalists, I had also decided to face any possible consequences journalists face in such an environment.

Arrest and Torture

In July 2001, while I braved the consequences of attempting to cover the court martial treason trial of a former presidential guards commander, Lt. Landing Sanneh, at the Yundum Military Barracks in the outskirts of the capital, a group of soldiers under the command of one Corporal Fullo Jallow arrested me, dumped me into a cell and kept on torturing me for hours. Luckily, a journalist from a sister-newspaper had seen the soldiers maltreating me and reported the matter to my editors. Following protest and pressure exerted on the national army leadership by my editors, I was released before the end of the day with several wounds inflicted on my body. I never gave up though. In fact, it strengthened my resolve and commitment to the profession.

Move to the Daily Observer

In November 2002, I quit The Independent and moved to the Daily Observer newspaper. The Daily Observer had just regained its independence from continual interference by pro-government individuals, by the appointment of veteran editor and independent-minded journalist, Sheriff Bojang, as its new managing director. Thus, young journalists like me, were invited to join hands in helping the paper regain its image and independence. Soon after joining the Daily Observer, I was given the responsibility to anchor the most read and critical weekly Question-and-Answer interview column, Bantaba, which was part of the efforts to re-establish the papers independence. I handled the column while simultaneously engaged in news reporting. In that column, I interviewed at least one hundred (100) people including all the opposition politicians, ruling party politicians, members of parliament, heads of government departments, social and political commentators, civil society activists, lawyers, journalists, diplomats and artistes. This column gave the interviewees the opportunity to express their opinions on national, social and political issues as well as answer to questions on accountability regarding their respective works.

In June 2004, I became the paper’s news editor thus concentrating more on the writing of the Bantaba column and editorial duties. Soon, I became a subject of criticism from government circles by accusing me of allowing opposition politicians and social critiques the print-space to criticize the president that they deemed insulting. Because the Daily Observer is owned by a business associate of President Yahya Jammeh, sympathizers and top government functionaries started issuing out threats of sacking and imprisonment on me, even though I was balanced and giving equal space to both sides of the political arena. I still would not budge as I had the support of my managing director, who himself, had special admiration of the column and rated it the best in the paper.

I started to face more troubles when my managing director left the paper for greater educational pursuit abroad in 2005, leaving me and the Daily Observer, helpless. It was apparent that with the 2006 presidential elections approaching, and the absence of an independent-minded managing director, the paper would soon be invaded by pro-government officials to sell the image of the president for that impending election. It was also apparent that the paper would soon lose its credibility and independence once again.

When the paper got two new bosses in October 2005 – managing director and editor-in-chief, bad editorial policies where introduced. The managing director, Dr Saja Taal, is a former administrative manager of the ruling party’s headquarters; while the editor-in-chief Mr Mam Sait Ceesay, still doubled as the spokesman at the Office of the President. These people came with policies purposely intended at pleasing the president and the ruling party regardless of what the general readership would like to read. They made it categorically clear that nothing negative of the president and his party would be published in the paper even though they would orchestrate regular attacks and insults on opponents of the ruling party.

One of the main pre-occupations of the new management was to censor my interview column, Bantaba, insisting that I would only be allowed to feature government and ruling party officials with ‘favorable’ questions and not otherwise. My reaction to that decision was straightforward – I stopped the column immediately. I would rather stop it than make myself a subject of ridicule by being biased and partisan, taking into cognizance the respect and recognition I had already earned with it. Since then, I refused to run the column any more. Still now, the column is missing in the Daily Observer print space. At some point, I even resigned in protest but that stipped at the level of the deputy manager which encouraged me to stay.

Displeasure

The Government was displeased with me for a number of issues. One of such was my membership of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) executive as first assistant secretary general and therefore used to author some of the correspondences and petitions on behalf of the GPU. The government was not comfortable with me at all. Such letters and petitions included protests against killings, arrests, torture and detention of journalists, arson attacks on and closure of media houses. I used to participate in radio programmes and campaigns for press freedom. In early May 2006, Madi Ceesay, the President of the GPU and I, represented The Gambia at the West African Journalists Association (WAJA) congress in Ivory Coast, during which I made a statement regarding the bad state of press freedom in The Gambia. In short, the government perceives the GPU and anybody associated with it as antagonistic to and an enemy.

On March 21, 2006, there was an attempted military coup in The Gambia. Then, there was no Voice Of America (VOA) radio correspondent in The Gambia and, as a result, they started contacting me to give them updates as developments unfolded in The Gambia in the wake of the foiled coup, on voluntary basis. The VOA has a large audience in The Gambia and because I was reporting about all events in The Gambia like the arrest and detention of soldiers, journalists, then National Assembly Speaker, Sheriff Dibba, politician and lawyer Mariam Denton, the government became so uncomfortable and unhappy with such exposure. Despite threats from top government functionaries, I continued to do the job for the VOA. That is why when my correspondences with the editor of the online Freedom Newspaper were forwarded to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and a Gambian online chart forum\,; I decided to flee the country for my life. I knew the government would use it as an opportunity to get me. I was therefore not surprised when the government declared me wanted. Because of my independent mindedness and quest for balanced journalism, they had always seen me as a stubborn person who would not budge but expose the corrupt practices of the government and other ills in the country. I know I would not have been alive by now if they had caught me. I could even see it in their level of despair after my escape.

Establishment of the Freedom Newspaper

The situation of the media in The Gambia has deteriorated to a level that dissent is totally restricted and impossible. The newspaper I worked with, the Daily Observer, is government controlled though it is privately owned. Almost similarly, the other daily paper in the country, The Point, is almost government controlled, though not directly as the case of the Daily Observer. The founder editor of that paper, Deyda Hydara, was gunned down by men believed to be state security personnel on December 16, 2004. Shortly after that, the government ordered the paper to stop the publication of the late Hydara’s critical column; ‘Good Morning Mr President’ (the old articles of which were being reprinted by the paper at the time) and the paper complied. Since then, it has been very careful about what it publishes. These are the two daily papers in the country and the other regular and popular paper, the bi-weekly The Independent newspaper, had suffered some occasional breaks because the State Guard soldiers burnt its machine. It was later forcibly closed down by the state.

With that situation at hand, the Gambian people lacked the relevant information they needed. Efforts had to be made by independent minded journalists to balance the situation by providing the Gambian people with alternative news; Gambia needed an independent media outlet that would freely practice balanced journalism; the Gambian people needed to have a media outlet that the state could not control like it did to the already existing media houses. These culminated in the establishment of an online newspaper based in the United States called the Freedom Newspaper, in early 2006.  The paper is being edited and published by exiled Gambian journalist in the United States, Pa Nderry M’bai while I emerged as its Banjul Bureau Chief facilitating the writing of stories and passing of newsworthy information to the editor in the United States via email. In as much as we were fighting for free information to the Gambian people, I and my team in The Gambia were very cautious and had to do our work undercover under strict confidentiality. Our identity meant danger for our lives as we succeeded to reach out to the Gambian readership by giving them the most needed and balanced type of information, a publication of which was seen critical by The Gambia Government. Soon, the Freedom Newspaper became very popular. The reason was simple. We gave the Gambian people what they wanted to read and not what the government wanted them to read. While the physical tabloids in The Gambia were printing about 2000 copies each, a day, the Freedom Newspaper was receiving at least 10,000 hits on a daily basis. Only the editor in the US operated in the open while the rest of us operated under strict confidentiality. I was working at the Daily Observer while simultaneously working for the Freedom Newspaper which made me able to access more information to write for the Freedom Newspaper. Whenever stories the Daily Observer management deemed critical and unpublishable came to my desk as news editor, my conscience as an independent minded journalist would not allow me to let it go unpublished. So I would rather forward it to The Freedom Newspaper. The government soon became so concerned and suspicious about the growing popularity of the Freedom Newspaper and wanted to know which journalists were actually writing for the paper.

Consequently, unbeknown to us, the Government had started a fight. It hired hackers who invaded the private files of the paper and accessed its list of subscribers accusing them of being its informants. The hackers placed a statement attributed to Editor M’bai on the homepage of the Freedom Newspaper claiming he had decided to reveal his sources and stop publishing the paper. Though M’bai almost immediately resumed control of his paper dismissing the statement attributed to him as a smear campaign against him by the hackers, Gambian security personnel went ahead to arrest all those people, tortured and released some of them when they realised that those were not the actual informants. Following the state’s failure to establish who the actual informants of this online publication were, the hackers continued their job and, on May 29, 2006, finally succeeded in accessing my email correspondences with the Freedom Newspaper editor and then forwarded it to the Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and a Gambian online chat forum – The Gambia Post, exposing me to the whole world.

Some of my articles to Freedom Newspaper that  were accessed by the hackers included stories about the harbouring of separatist rebels from neighbouring Senegalese region of Cassamance and the admission of their wounded ones at the Gambia’s main hospital, the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital (RVTH), by the Jammeh Government (President Jammeh comes from the same Jola tribe as the inhabitants of Cassamance and is believed to be backing the rebels, a phenomenon he would never allow the Gambian media to write about); the torture of soldiers under detention and the braking of their arms for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government in March 2006; a quarrel between the president and his mother over his maladministration of the country as a result of which she collapsed and subsequently got hospitalised for high blood pressure; detention of government opponents incommunicado; corruption; and many other cases of administrative malpractices by the Jammeh regime.

Thank God, I escaped from the being killed by Africa’s worst dictator today.

Thank you all for your kind attention and and for giving me the opportunity to address this august body.

Posted on Monday, June 25, 2007 (Archive on Monday, July 23, 2007)
Posted by PNMBAI  Contributed by PNMBAI
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