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Journalists and the Struggle for Survival

Ideal journalists are a unique kind. They view the world as a canvas to shape in the image of what they deem fit and proper. They are simultaneously vulnerable and invincible. They do not bow at the altars of deities that oppress the defenseless. They are the protectors of what is deemed the public good. A CNN anchor once boldly claimed that journalism is the greatest job on earth. Yet, journalists have few allies. They are no fools; they are aware. They recognize that the welcoming smiles they encounter on their assignments are often insincere. They understand that their profession can both open and close doors for them. They are conscious that society only tolerates them, sometimes wishing they would disappear into the night’s obscurity.

The journalist is always under scrutiny, observed by everyone. The Sarahule people have a song that cautions him, the subject of everyone’s gaze, to proceed with caution. The rise or fall of lives and careers can hinge on the deeds or failures of Superman, who shapes public knowledge and belief. When offended by the media, a direct confrontation is not the answer. Instead, the message must be conveyed subtly, as if no message is being sent at all.

What is spoken against the media in the privacy of one’s home should not be proclaimed in the public square. Mitt Romney, who faced the daunting challenge of competing against the unpredictable Barack Obama in the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, was exasperated by what he perceived as a media intent on his defeat. At a charity dinner, he critiqued the media indirectly, stating, “I never claim that the press is biased. I understand they have their role, and I have mine. My role is to present a positive vision for the future of the country, and theirs is to ensure that no one else discovers it.” This comment reflected the profound mistrust between him and the press—politicians and the media often view each other with suspicion, sometimes even with anger or disdain, each pursuing their distinct agendas.

When the media targets a politician for scrutiny, his identity becomes irrelevant. Even if he is a journalist, crossing over to the opposition turns him into a suspect. He becomes vulnerable to the uncertainties associated with the privileged enclave of oppressors. For a journalist, the battle does not conclude until victory is achieved. Such unyielding determination is inherent in his nature. What then occurs when the conflict arises between a journalist and others who also profess journalism as their calling? Two entities, each asserting their invulnerability, are bound to cause collateral damage. The deadlock they engage in seems destined to be endless.

My reaction to the Gambia Government Spokesperson, the Propaganda Minister, and the presidential advisers was profound; they have drawn the kind of attention no one desires. They implied that the difficulties Gambians endure under their governance are overstated. They observed that, despite media claims of hardship in the Gambia, food affordability remains a significant issue. Are they aware of the cost of two Tilapia or Chalo fish, a watermelon, and bread? While some analysts view the government’s propaganda as shocking and unwarranted, I was horrified to see them use social media to express their opinions on the Gambian economy’s state. The platform they chose is unlike the traditional media battlegrounds.

Furthermore, they must have realized the perilous nature of this anonymous terrain, as dangerous in its rapid dissemination as it is in its reach. Recently, select digital media outlets and prominent journalists received a staggering 40 million Gambian Dalasis for government and individual propaganda, especially relevant with the upcoming 2026 presidential elections gaining traction online. They likely experienced shock and then outrage at the extensive online backlash following their Facebook post. Newcomers in Adama Barrow’s administration, accustomed to suppression or violation of their fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression and association by none other than the tyrant Yahya Jammeh, now face a different challenge. In Jammeh’s regime, those in power could not claim media valor or influence in any forums. Moreover, they must now muster the courage to justify themselves in a democracy, but what they encounter on social media is an unyielding mob. Once one transgresses the unspoken rules of online engagement, there is no turning back.

The mob will intensify its attack. It’s puzzling why the ace journalist believed that remaining silent wouldn’t have been a more effective tactic against a force brimming with populist fury. Yet, as a seasoned figure in the Gambian resistance, battling against dictatorship and authoritarianism, they retorted to that ‘explanation’ with a further rebuke aimed at their detractors: “Lynch-mob, cyber-hyenas, cyber-vandals, character assassins: this is the motley crew that has overtaken Gambia’s social media sphere, be it on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. It operates like any mob, relentlessly attacking targets and distorting words to fulfill a predetermined goal.” Intriguing, indeed!

Would some have expressed or published their thoughts if they were not part of the government? It’s a given that no one in government disseminates anything in the media without an agenda. Whether the Propaganda Minister will accomplish his aim remains to be seen. His tenure is longstanding, yet he was absent from the frontlines during the people’s fight in Jammeh’s time. In today’s volatile Gambia, marked by anger and deprivation, past heroics do not shield one, particularly when one has ascended to the ranks of the power elite. Those who were mute and inactive in the past struggles against despotism and tyranny are now at the helm of government ministries, revealing vulnerabilities in their defense. They must recognize this change; they are no longer invulnerable. Their innocence is forfeited.

It’s uncertain how many individuals in today’s government are willing to face the unforgiving, harsh truths of a media that spares no one. In government service, you’re under constant scrutiny from all quarters. Thus, you must be judicious in your speech and writings. Defending any administration is a formidable task. You draft, delete, and redraft words. You scrutinize every phrase and preemptively address questions before disseminating information. The challenge intensifies when social media is the medium of choice. Social media acts as a catalyst for change, another facet of democracy. Paradoxically, it becomes a jungle inhabited by doves, lions, snakes, and scorpions. The doves, scarce as they are, seldom risk defending those targeted for virtual takedown. In the realm of social media, warriors lack the compassion to spare their adversaries.

Experience in politics, public policy, media development, and government roles can be more instructive than the finest educator. For journalists or government spokespersons, each experience deepens their understanding of power and its requirements, regardless of its nature. This understanding differs from the system’s recognition of noble endeavors. It can mercilessly expose the naive. Yet, navigating through the intricacies of a government appointment can significantly enhance one’s journalism skills, particularly for the astute.

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