Jammeh 'award' coverage reflects chill in Gambian press
By Frank Smyth with Mohamed Keita/CPJ Staff
"President Jammeh bags 4 awards," trumpeted a September 17 headline of the Daily Observer, a pro-government newspaper in the Gambia, a West African nation whose idyllic façade as "the smiling coast of Africa" is maintained in part by President Yahyah Jammeh's brutal repression of the independent press.
Under the headline, Observer reported that "two of the awards with an accompanying letter came from the president of the United States of America, Barrack [sic] Obama, who commended the Gambian leader for the accolade, and also commended him 'for helping to address the most pressing needs' in his community." The Gambia State House's website similarly reported: "In a letter accompanying his two awards, the U.S. President Barrack [sic] Obama described President Jammeh as an inspirational leader and thanked him for his exemplary dedication, determination, and perseverance for the development of the Gambia as well as the advancement of humanity at large." The story quickly spread over the Internet, reaching the circulation of the widely read, Washington, D.C.-based news aggregator AllAfrica.
The claims are false. Regarding "your query asking for confirmation of Gambian reporting on the Gambian president receiving awards and a letter from President Obama," White House National Security Council spokesman Bob Jensen wrote in an e-mail to CPJ: "Those reports are incorrect. The Gambian president did not receive what the media reports are claiming."
In fact, among the four announced awards, only one from the United States was undeniably real: a Nebraska Admiralship or award denoting Jammeh as an honorary admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska. A tongue-in-cheek distinction from the Midwestern, landlocked state, "an 'admiralship' in the fictitious 'Navy' of Nebraska is meant to be a ceremonial acknowledgment of Nebraskans who have shown outstanding citizenship," noted Nebraska governor's office spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein in a statement to CPJ. "We regret that this individual has attempted to embellish a certificate for a Nebraska admiralship, claiming that it was a high honor bestowed upon him by the governor, when to the best of our knowledge, this person has no relationship with or ties to Nebraska." The spokeswoman further noted that the Nebraska governor's office routinely processes thousands of admiralship requests annually.
The Gambian State House website reported that three of the awards, including the Nebraska admiralship, were presented to President Jammeh in Banjul by an unnamed official from a Palermo, Sicily-based organization called the International Parliament for Safety and Peace. Its website states that it was founded in 1975 by an archbishop of the Cypriot Orthodox Church. The international parliament has been reportedly accused of providing credentials to educational institutions otherwise not accredited in their own nations, and of selling membership, titles and other distinctions for fees.
The fourth stated honor was an "Honorary Vocational Bachelor's Degree" bestowed upon Jammeh by the "Printers and Publishers Guild of Northern Germany," according to the Daily Observer. German authorities told CPJ they found no record of any such award; extensive Internet searches in English and German revealed no such guild or other organization with a similar name.
Speaking to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, a former Daily Observer staffer, who worked at the newspaper in recent years, expressed no surprise at the credulous reporting of the awards. "If [the story] wasn't out in the paper, someone would be in Mile 2 [prison] today--the managing director or the editor." The person described a newsroom of fear: "You're terrified. Nobody wants to go that prison." One Observer reporter who may have suffered this fate is "Chief" Ebrima Manneh who has disappeared in government custody since National Intelligence Agency officials seized him at the Observer office in July 2007. Despite repeated calls from U.S. senators, journalists, activists and a West African human rights court ruling, Gambian authorities have continued to deny their detention of Manneh. Former colleagues said Manneh was arrested after printing a critical BBC article about Jammeh.
Daily Observer columns consistently flatter Jammeh and refer to him as "His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh" in a cacophony of honorifics reminiscent of late Ugandan military ruler Idi Amin whose formal introduction was a recitation: "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshall Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC., Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda."
Yet it was not always so. The Daily Observer was once the standard-bearer of independent journalism in the Gambia. Launched in 1992 by Liberian editor Kenneth Best, the Observer was Gambia's first daily newspaper and was once its largest circulation publication. Best, who arrived in Gambia as a refugee following the burning of the offices of his original Liberian Observer during civil war in Liberia, told CPJ the paper started with a circulation of 3,000 and peaked with a certain July 1994 edition that sold up to 30,000 copies. "'Army coup in Gambia' was the headline," he recalled. "It was the first successful coup, and we told the whole story. We interviewed all the five lieutenants who staged coups."
One of those lieutenants was then known simply as Yahya Jammeh. "We sold 10,000 copies in 15 minutes," Best said. However, as Observer began scrutinizing the junta's handling of transition to civilian rule, the newspaper became a target of government repression. Barely three months after taking office, Jammeh's junta deported Best, who later sold the Observer to private businessman Amadou Samba.
That the handful of Gambian private newspapers has not challenged Jammeh's questionable award claims is indicative of the chill of self-censorship that has fallen on continental Africa's smallest republic. This is the result of years of repression, including a series of unsolved arson attacks on media outlets, the unsolved assassination of leading editor Deyda Hydara, ongoing arrests and Jammeh's periodic threats to the media.