By Niklas Hultin
In July of 2019, Gambians found out the answer to one of the most infamous acts of violence during the regime of Yayha Jammeh, former president of the country. This act was the shooting of Deyda Hydara, a prominent Gambian journalist and editor of the newspaper The Point. In December, 2004, Hydara was gunned down in suburban Banjul (the capital of the Gambia). His killing sent shockwaves throughout the small Gambian media community; to this day, The Point is one of the most widely circulated and respected newspapers in The Gambia and Hydara was widely considered to be a moderate and even-handed, if acerbic, critic of Jammeh’s government. The government denied involvement in the killing, but it was widely suspected that Jammeh was behind it. This suspicion was confirmed in 2019 when Lieutenant Malick Jatta, a member of the Gambian Armed Forces, gave testimony to the country’s newly formed Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission that had been established in the aftermath of a 2017 political transition which saw Jammeh forced into exile (more on this below). In his testimony, Lt. Jatta confessed that he participated in Operation Magic Pen, the codeword for the assassination of Hydara, and that this had been carried out on Jammeh’s orders (Jeffang 2019).
Hydara was one of the Gambian journalists whom I relied on extensively in my 2007 article on the postcolonial public sphere and freedom of expression in the Gambia (Hultin 2007). It is fair to say that without his support—not just his eminently quotable soundbites, but the patience with which he would sit and discuss Gambian politics and the press with me—the article would not exist, not to mention the entire PhD dissertation that it drew upon. The confirmation of the government’s role in his murder underlines the stakes in the debate around freedom of expression and the public sphere in countries such as the Gambia while, at the same time, the very fact that this confession occurred is a testimony to how much things have changed in the Gambia since the research upon which my article was based (the research took place in 2003 and 2004). In this postscript, I want to take stock of these changes and their implications for my argument. Here, I want to focus on two things: first, the profound—though still incomplete—political transformation in the Gambia over the last couple of years and, second, the changing technological landscape for Gambian media and the public sphere. I also want to take the opportunity to revisit the conclusions that I drew regarding the struggle between the Gambian media and the government. Before I address these three things (the political context, the technological contexts, and the theoretical context), let me briefly re-cap the argument.
The central empirical theme in my article was the debate over the establishment of a National Media Commission in the Gambia. This debate pitted an autocratic government with a history of repressing freedom of expression and other human rights against a besieged private media that very much saw itself as the guardian of democracy, a Fourth Estate. I put this debate within the context of the development of information policy in the Gambia since the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. Here, I drew a distinction between the immediate post-independence period where the focus of information policy was nation-building, in contrast to the 2000s where the focus was on creating an enabling environment for initiatives such as e-government. The latter was very much part of “a managerial strategy to quicken the pace of neoliberal development and bring about an information society” (Hultin 2007, 13).
While the article’s empirical fulcrum of a National Media Commission is no longer relevant in the Gambia—the effort to establish one was abandoned during the Jammeh-era—the main thrust of the argument to a significant extent still holds true. This is despite fundamental changes in Gambian politics and society since 2007, as mentioned above. Let me elaborate these two changes a bit further.
The first change is that Yahya Jammeh is no longer the president and his entire autocratic regime is gone. On December 1, 2016, Yahya Jammeh lost an election he was widely expected to win. In previous elections, Jammeh’s electoral fortunes had been bolstered by a splintered opposition and Jammeh used all the tricks of clientelism to shore up his support. He also pointed to some of the legitimate achievements of his rule; for instance, during his reign the country saw its first television station and only public university launched. In 2016, however, most of the major opposition parties agreed to form a coalition and put up one candidate. Jammeh’s case for re-election was also diminished by the worsening human rights climate, the deteriorating economy, and Gambians’ prominence in the Euro-Mediterranean migrant crisis (see Hultin and Zanker 2019). When the results came in showing that Jammeh had lost to the coalition candidate, Adama Barrow, Jammeh conceded. It was hard to say which was more surprising—that Jammeh lost, or that he conceded. But a week later, Jammeh retracted his concession, citing irregularities (there were in fact some irregularities, but it is unlikely that they were of such an extent that they would have changed the outcome of the election). The retraction was rejected by the opposition, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS, of which the Gambia is a member), the Gambia’s neighbors, and major bilateral partners such as the European Union and the United States. For the next several weeks, Jammeh dug in his heels and rumors swirled that he was recruiting fighters from the Casamance-region of neighboring Senegal to support his now widely condemned as illegitimate regime. Barrow and his advisors went into exile in Senegal, and ECOWAS prepared military action to enforce the election result. In the Gambia, a widespread social media campaign and civil society campaign seized control of the narrative, using the Twitter-friendly slogan #GambiaHasDecided. Eventually, the pressure became too much and Jammeh agreed to go into exile in Equatorial Guinea. On January 21, 2017, he left the country (for more on these events, see Hartmann 2017; Hultin et al. 2017; Perfect 2017).
Since then, the Barrow government has embarked on an ambitious transitional program, addressing both the country’s economic stagnation and the human rights abuses of the past. Of particular importance to Gambian journalists was a 2018 decision by the country’s Supreme Court that the criminal defamation law and the law against publishing false news online—both adopted during the Jammeh-era and both widely criticized for suppressing free expression—were unconstitutional (MLDI 2018). The Barrow government has also established a series of institutions to come to terms with the past and to cement the rule of law, including the aforementioned Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commissions, a Human Rights Commission, and a Constitutional Review Commission that, in November of 2019, released a draft of a new constitution. In all, as far as freedom of expression is concerned, the situation has improved and there has been a proliferation of private media outlets in the country. The record overall, however, is a bit mixed with Gambians objecting to the slow pace of economic improvements, ominous signs that Barrow is seeking to retrench his power, and well-publicized episodes of ethnic and religious tensions, especially between the Jola ethnic group (the minority to which Jammeh belonged) and the Mandinka (the largest ethnic group in the country and one that is associated primarily with the United Democratic Party, the largest party in the coalition that won in 2016). And perhaps most relevant to the present argument, and arguably most chilling, was the decision to detain journalists and shut down media in response to the “Three Years Jotna” protests in January 2020 (Burke 2020). These protests are in response to the Barrow government’s insistence that Barrow will serve the entire constitutionally mandated five-year term, after initially having promised to serve a transitional three-year term only. The Gambia’s political transition is thus very much ongoing and frequent fodder for both old and newly established media outlets.
The second big change—which is hardly unique to the Gambia—is the evolving media and technological landscape. According to the International Telecommunications Union’s statistics, Internet use in the Gambia went up from 3.31% of the population in 2004, to just under 20% in 2017 (latest year for which figures are available). And mobile phone subscriptions—not limited to those with data connections—went up from 175,000 to over 3.1 million in 2018 (ITU 2019). Given that the Gambia’s population is just over two million, what we have seen is a remarkable increase in overall connectivity. But the changes in internet use in the Gambia, and elsewhere, is not just a story of numbers. When I did the research for the article, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Twitter did not exist and Facebook was a fledgling service not yet open to everyone. In the Gambia, internet use was largely limited to the very affluent, a few corporations, and tourists. Internet speeds were abysmal; I recall one owner of a local internet service provider telling me that the entire country of the Gambia had the same amount of bandwidth available to it as your typical Amsterdam apartment. Whether or not this comparison was true or not, it certainly felt that way to me. In the evenings during my research, I used the now defunct MSN Messenger to talk to family and friends and there would be a significant delay between each letter typed.
Now, of course, Gambian media is online and Gambians consume and share news through social media. In fact, several prominent news sites in the Gambian diaspora were major fora for the opposition during the Jammeh era and places where Gambians could get news that were more critical of the governments than what was offered by the local media, which often practiced a degree of self-censorship (for understandable reasons). One pioneer in this area is Freedom Newspaper, which was founded by Pa Nderry Mbai, who worked under Deyda Hydara at The Point. After Hydara was assassinated, Mbai left for the United States where he was granted political asylum. Shortly thereafter, he started the website with a stridently anti-Jammeh tone. In 2006, Freedom Newspaper was reportedly hacked and the details of its subscribers, described as “informers,” leaked to the Jammeh regime (RSF 2006). An arguably staider example was the Gambia-L email list, which had actually begun as more of a social discussion group in the 1990s but over time took on a more political character as subscribers were both pro- and anti-Jammeh (indeed, senior figures in the Jammeh government were subscribers). Eventually it became something of a launchpad for diasporic political groups that were overwhelmingly anti-Jammeh (Jaw 2017). Today, all major Gambian newspapers have a robust online presence, and there are several online-only news sites run out of the country as well as in the diaspora—not to mention Gambian discussions occurring on Facebook, on Twitter, and via WhatsApp.
At the same time as media and information availability to Gambians has dramatically increased, information policy as an area of governmental intervention has actually not changed all that much. While there are fewer restrictions on expression (online or offline), as far as the Barrow government is concerned, information policy seems still to be very much linked to a neoliberal kind of development strategy. There have been some developments relevant to the discussion in my article, such as the liberalization of the TV market and the development of privacy regulations for telecommunications companies, but these efforts actually predate the political transition and, up to this point, exist largely on a separate track. Take privacy rights, for example. While you could argue that privacy should be very much a part of the various human rights discussions surrounding the political transition, it is managed by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority and, as far as I know, there is no significant interaction between this work and that of, say, the Constitutional Review Commission. This is in contrast to other transitional processes such as that of Poland, where the discussion around privacy was very much part of the lustration debate (Safjan 2007).
More than a decade after the 2007 article, and almost 16 years after the underlying research, much has thus changed in the Gambia. But I am not sure if these changes would translate into a dramatically different conclusion if the study were to be repeated today. One of the throughlines of the original article was the different perceptions of the purpose of information in the polity with, on one hand, a government viewing it instrumentally as something to manage in order to suppress dissent and promote development and, on the other hand, the private press as something that needs to be free and can be used to be a check on the government (this is admittedly a simplification). Most certainly, the latter view still holds sway by media professionals in the Gambia while, as far as the government is concerned, it’s adherence to a commitment to a free press and, more vaguely, the free circulation of information, is arguably an ongoing concern (albeit a significant step-up from the Jammeh government’s). And, as already mentioned, the Gambian government’s take on information policy is still indebted to a developmental vision infused with economic liberalization, deregulation, and other neoliberal shibboleths. Thus, if there was a hope that with democratization, information policy would be “de-neoliberalized,” that hope appears to be in vain. Indeed, comparative research suggests that economic liberalization—not just in the information sector—can actually go hand in hand with an increase in authoritarian rule (see, e.g. Kaire 2019). While I do not predict a return to Jammeh-style full blown authoritarianism in the Gambia, it is also the case that there is a pervasive sense in the country that although the situation has improved in many ways—and we should never lose sight of the fact that Jammeh’s regime was particularly noxious, and it is now gone—and the cast of political characters is different, many things are structurally the same (see Hultin 2020). Thus, if, as a thought experiment, I re-wrote the original article with today’s knowledge in hand, the one thing I would change would be the narrative device of presenting the argument as two competing narratives (freedom of expression and neoliberal development, for short). Instead, what seems be the case is more of a double helix, where these two narratives now interlock and support each other. What does remain an open question is if the profound, sweeping, mobilization around the contested election, so well-captured by #GambiaHasDecided, will reappear, not just in the service of a (critical) political leadership change, but in the service of an entirely different vision of politics and the role of information therein.
Niklas Hultin is an Assistant Professor in the Global Affairs Program at George Mason University. He has an LLM in Human Rights from Queen’s University Belfast and an PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. He has been conducting research in the Gambia since 2003.
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