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Longer, analytical article.  Online Freedom Newspaper finds freedom elsewhere to serve Gambia

Summary & Comment: Here is an exclusive discussion with the editor of one of Gambia痴 most controversial news sources - Freedom Newspaper. Eight thousand people a day from all around the world read the paper online. DN

Author: Pa Nderry M達ai, Freedom Newspaper, Date Written: 23 April 2008
Primary Category: Profiles Document Origin: RAP 21 Newsletter No 12/2008
Secondary Category: Africa General Source URL: http://www.rap21.org
Key Words: Gambia, freedom, newspaper, online,

African Charter Article #9: Every individual shall have the right to receive information and express their opinions. (Click for full text...)

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Freedom Newspaper finds freedom elsewhere to serve Gambia

In the mid-March 2008 editor-in-chief Pa Nderry M'Bai of Gambia's online news source, Freedom Newspaper, received numerous emails from concerned readers in Gambia informing him that they were unable to view the website.The government had blocked the website預 notorious tactic still familiar even to M'Bai who is now based in North Carolina, United States. M'Bai explained to RAP 21 how he still directly feels the repercussions of an autocratic government even when far away.

Freedom Newspaper
is managed from the US while all reportage comes from the paper's journalists and freelancers based in Gambia.Since the paper was launched in the United States in 2006, M達ai has continued to be under surveillance by the Gambian government and his newspaper is implicitly banned. The Gambian government has accused M達ai of receiving unlawful funding from the US government. M達ai told RAP 21 that he receives anonymous emails threatening his family still residing in Gambia. 的知 not scared, he said, 的知 just doing my job.

In fact, Freedom Newspaper is primarily self-financed with the help of some individual benevolent donors. As a result M達ai said, 哲o outside forces can dictate to us how to write the newspaper. We don稚 have obligations to anyone. The paper痴 unique position in Gambia痴 media scene has led Freedom Newspaper to become one of the government痴 most wanted and the population痴 most sought after news source. Eight thousand people view the online paper a day from all around the world. 的t is very hard for the government to block Freedom Newspaper擁t is on the world domain, said M達ai.

On 9 March Freedom Newspaper reported that GAMTEL, the country痴 largest state-run telecommunications company, was heading towards bankruptcy. Consequently the government blocked the paper痴 IP-address the following day from viewers within the country痴 borders.The editorial staff, which includes M達ai and part-time editorial volunteers in the United States, was left with few options during the blockage. 展hen the paper is blocked we can change the IP but when they find it they can block it again, said M達ai. An alternative is distributing an electronic newsletter with the day痴 stories. The blockage was lifted two weeks later.

M達ai said, 典his is very common. The government can block any site they want, they just need to know the address. The government resorts to blocking the paper, sometimes even up to six months for reasons of national security熔ur articles, they say, can spark change and get people to rebel against the government.箱 In 2006 the paper was first hacked into and then banned by the government following articles that were critical of President Yahya Jammeh痴 regime. In this case the government apparently did not believe blocking the website would suffice as a measure to quiet the newspapers pseudonymous journalists. To ignite fear and locate dissenters the pro-government and state-run newspaper The Daily Observer published the names and contact information of a handful of Gambians who had contributed to Freedom Newspaper.

As a result five journalists were arrested and detained for several days without trial before being released.撤eople were tortured and a subscriber of the newspaper was killed, said M達ai when talking about the crackdown in 2006. Omar Bah, then news editor of The Daily Observer was wanted for allegedly contributing to the paper as well.He escaped unhurt to the United States. 的n Gambia there is no free press, there is a dictator who believes in using security forces and opponents are exiled, said M達ai. Consequently, it is inculcated in the media that a voice of dissent is not tolerable; the unsolved case of reporter Chief Ebrima Manneh痴 and the 16 December 2004 murder of Editor in Chief of The Point, Deyda Hydara, are never far from the minds of media practitioners in Gambia.

典he government passes legislation to scare sources in Gambia. He does everything to censor civil servants, said M達ai. On 7 April 2008 the government amended the longstanding Official Secrets Act (first promulgated in 1922) to set maximum penalties to life in prison with a minimum term of 30 years. 典his is a very bad law to scare citizens and undermine the independent press, said M達ai.The government痴 stranglehold over the press has led to a nearly moribund independent press and widespread multilateral censorship in the country. 典he national newspaper, The Daily Observer, was bought and lost its independence. Even The Point started losing its independence. Almost all newspapers practice self-censorship, said M達ai.

M達ai explained to RAP 21 that censorship can result from an individual journalist, constituting self-censorship, an editor, or from the government. Freedom Newspaper has been able to avoid self-censorship. 典rue journalists keep to their beliefs, said M達ai on how he and his colleagues have managed to do this. Rather than being intimidated by the horrific plight of Hydara, M達ai said his death has kept him to stay true to the essence of journalism. 滴e left a good legacy behind and we want to maintain it, said M達ai.

添ou have to make sure that what you report can be defended and backed up with facts, said M達ai. 典he media in Gambia is unfortunately not reporting what they should. Freedom Newspaper fills the media vacuum, said M達ai referring to the mission statement of the newspaper. 鼎hange must begin from the grassroots level. The Press can play a pivotal role in this by highlighting the atrocities perpetrated by the Government, said M達ai. 鄭nyone who writes for Freedom Newspaper is wanted. We use pen names for the reporters. Only the editors know who they are, said M達ai. Not succumbing to self-censorship requires M達ai to provide safety measures, encouragement, and support to his journalists.

Freedom Newspaper also provides online trainings to the journalists that cover basic news skills, how to prevent Internet hacking, and ethical journalistic skills. M達ai stressed that while he advocates for completely free reportage he does not commend stories that are against the best interest of the country. 展e don稚 accommodate writing that endangers the country, said M達ai.

Before moving to the United States in 2004 M達ai was accustomed to malleable editors found throughout Gambia and across Africa. 摘ditors would censor my pieces in their entirety. They can be demigods and you can稚 challenge them, M達ai said. M達ai also spoke of the deals powerful people strike with journalists to persuade them to abandon controversial headlines. Now that he runs his own newspaper M達ai urges his journalists not to concede to the plethora of pressures dissuading critical journalism. We want the Gambian government to know that Freedom Newspaper is not anti-government. All we want is equal rights, respect for law and human rights, and good governance. If that means being unpatriotic then so be it, said M達ai.

*The African Press Network for the 21st Century (RAP 21) is a pan-African media network. RAP 21 was launched by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) together with the Union of Publishers in Central Africa (UEPAC).This email-based network gives the possibility to dialogue and exchange of ideas and information among media professionals all over Africa. The members consist of newspapers, media associations, newspaper executives, journalists and freelancers.

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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

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