The Gambian government has allocated D15 million dalasis, which is about $300,000 dollars economic bailout for The Gambian press. The government says the funds would help journalists during the COVID-19 economic meltdown. But as Pa Nderry M’Bai reports from Raleigh, North Carolina, there is growing concern over the government’s financial gesture to the press, as observers warned that independent journalism is likely going to be comprised.
Ebrima Sillah is Gambia’s Information Minister.
“This effort to support the media, because we recognize the important role that the media has been playing and that is why even if you look at the disclaimer that we have put there for the grant support, we put a clear cut disclaimer that this support is not given to suppress views of the media on their reporting on COVID-19, it is not given to the media to cajole them to report on government activity, no,” Sillah remarked.
Sillah was speaking in an interview with the Fatu Network, a Gambian online television. Sillah says it is normal for the media to be funded by taxpayers money.
“You need to understand even how the international media is funded, it is funded by taxpayers, for example the BBC, the BBC is directly funded by the taxpayers, so as the radio Netherlands, so as radio France International, so as the Russian international channels, VOA and the rest,” said Mr. Sillah.
But Gambian media analyst Dr. Omar Bah disagrees. Bah says Sillah’s argument was not only lame, but misleading. He says government funded radios cannot be compared with the private independent press.
“So, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, radio France International, or France 24, and then VOA, they used government money, but they are not hiding about that, they are not pretending to be independent media, media entities like the situation we are looking for in The Gambia, that is the role of GRTS, he knows that, the only equivalent to BBC and radio France International or VOA is GRTS, The Gambia radio and television services,” Dr. Bah contends.
Bah warns that any attempt on the Gambian media to accept funds from the government could jeopardize their credibility. He says the fourth estate should remain independent and avoid any form of inducement from the Executive.
“I think it is very dangerous. In terms of the democratization process in The Gambia because the media should be holding the government to account. If we have a situation where the media is being fed, spoon fed in millions of dalasis from the government that they should be holding accountable, it is scary and I don’t think it is a good trend in strengthening our democracy in that country,” Bah added.
Bah further contends that Sillah’s comparison of the western media government funded was incomparable with The Gambian private media case. In other words, he said Sillah was trying to compare apples and oranges.
The Gambian born educated journalist, cum psychologist, has implored on his colleagues to turndown the government financial bailout.
“They should turndown the offer without hesitation, I know it is hard, the only money that journalists should take if any, should be money that the government rolls out to give to every citizen of The Gambia, but if they are chosen specific entities and giving them, I don’t think the journalists should venture to be part of that because it has a very dangerous trend, when they criticize the government, the government can easily silence them by saying, or you took their money, or they will make the inference to be afraid or not incline to say certain things or to hold the government accountable. It is inconsolable to think of a journalist, receiving a cheque (CHECK) from a government and you claimed to be independent and work completely, it is tactically not going to work. It is not going to be possible,” Bah added.
Sheriff Bojang jr is the President of The Gambia Press Union. Bojang said the government’s economic bailout, followed an appeal from some media house owners, who said they were in need of financial support.
“The role of GPU is to make sure that we don’t control the funds, we won’t see the money at all, the GPU is not part of it, but then the core of every media outlet is its journalist, so, these are members of the GPU, so, we want to make sure that if this money is allocated and given to media owners, they will look after the journalists, who are our members,” Bojang told me in a phone interview on Wednesday evening.
According to Mr. Bojang, the economic bailout was facilitated by Madi Ceesay, the MP for Serre-Kunda West. He said Ceesay had raised the journalists’ plight in Parliament, which resulted to Parliament approving the media economic bailout appropriation bill.
Regarding concerns raised in some quarters about the ethical ramifications associated with such a government bailout, Bojang said the concerns raised by the skeptics are well noted.
“I can definitely understand those who are concerned that this will affect the independence and impartiality of the journalists of the media, because this was something that is being discussed over and over, but as far as the media owners are concerned, as far as we know, the media owners totally wanted this, and they asked for this and now they have it and they all excited event though that the money is not yet here,” Bojang said.
Bojang said their colleagues in Senegal, had benefited from such similar government interventions and haven’t compromise their editorial independence. He says he doesn’t think The Gambian press will comprise their independence because of such an economic bailout.
When asked whether (he) as the President of GPU, would accept or receive money from the government, Bojang retorted: “ No, not all, this is for the media, the GPU is not receiving a penny, GPU is not part of it. This is strictly for the media outlets, the online, the offline, radio, television, so, it is not for the union.”
Bojang says two Gambian media houses have so far turned down the government financial aid. He wouldn’t name the two media houses concerned.