I have been reading you for the past month and a half, logging on every day to see the latest blaring headlines, and occasionally not turning off your online radio broadcast when it comes on automatically. Six weeks of giving you the benefit of the doubt, casting aside all my preconceived notions of you and trying to read you as you mean yourself to be read: as a newspaper out to achieve press freedom and keep an eye on the Government, in order to bring about change in Gambia. And the results are not very impressive.
You never did learn diplomacy - this much was evident right from the beginning of my reading. Yet even that - a lack of tact - could be excused, if you were objective and fair in your coverage (or even tried to be), and carried your reporting out in good faith. But you are far from that - you are out for blood, each and every time, in each and every story, never even pretending otherwise. In your theory of the world no one can come close to the President (or indeed work in our government) without being irredeemably corrupt, doing everything they do for the achievement of their own personal interests, and against the country's. Surely only a moment's thought would show you that this theory is too simplistic, that it pays short shrift to all the hard-working Gambians back home, doing their bit for the country, helping to make it better. But to insult people is one thing; to then invite the perpetrator of the '81 coup - notable even after all this time for its terror and brutality - to return and overthrow our Government is something else entirely. The former is cheap tabloid behavior, execrable yet really not harming anyone and so easy to ignore; the latter is treasonous - not in the sense used lately to put down coup d'etats, but in a more fundamental sense of being so blinded by your own hatred that you would watch the motherland burn, and everything in it, without a second thought, and actually see this as a viable solution.
The thing is, Oh Freedom, I don't think you quite understand the harm you are causing. You think you are bringing change to the country, when in fact what you are really doing is making it impossible to have a dialog. You are like the drunken man at the party, shouting out proclamations and insults, thumping your own chest and showing off just how brave you are. Everyone who listens knows not to take you too seriously, but because your voice is so loud it drowns out the voices of the others, who have legitimate opinions that do not necessarily align with your scorched-earth policy. You see conspiracies everywhere. You have made the Intelligence agencies far more powerful than they ever could have been without you - you have mythologized them almost: you present them as being everywhere, arresting people who even think of thinking about dissent. By your account Gambia has one of the worst dictatorships in the world, with ordinary Gambians always living in fear, the regime always on the verge of being toppled, and the country always going over to the dogs (at any minute now, you continue to assure usassure usassure us).
There are, of course, flaws in our democracy. But this is nothing strange - after all what country does not have its own set of flaws? Our republic is still a very young one - we are only on our second President. And so there are things we will have to learn together as a nation: about we the governed, and those who govern us, and our relationship with them; as well as obstacles we will have to overcome together, again as a Nation. We can only do this if we are able to communicate with each other emphatically, disagreeing with yet still respecting each other, and having the ability to put ourselves in the other person's shoes, and see the argument as they see it, if only for a moment. We are blest in that our culture is already structured in this way - we go out of our way to be kind and courteous to each other, even when we are dealing with strangers (something you could learn a lot from, even though you exist on the Internet). But the discourse which you promote, Oh Freedom, is anything but empathic - it is antagonistic to the extreme, in its crude way setting up sides for each issue that comes up, hoarding hatred and distributing it to any who are interested to any who are interested, creating an Us-vs-Them mentality that effectively destroys the lines of communication between the parties involved, making it impossible to agree on anything, even if it is beneficial to our country. You have muddied the waters, made all parties suspicious of each other, and set us back decades in the project to achieve a more perfect democracy. Something puzzles me: what do you think you can achieve exactly, with such an approach? You think you can change the Gambia by insulting anyone and everyone freely, and coming up with one conspiracy theory after another, and continually descending to the lowest form of tabloid sensationalism possible? How exactly is that supposed to work?
In addition to all this, you have also done journalism in the Gambia itself a great disservice. Journalists have some of the hardest jobs in the country, generally distrusted by the people they report on, fighting hard to toe the thin line between providing citizens with the information they need, and getting arrested and thrown into jail for it. Unrestricted, not having to please any individual party, you could have been the beacon to which all Gambian journalism turned to as guide, the example that set the standards for generations to come. But instead, with your pointless braggadocio and your lack of professionalism, you have brought the whole field into disrepute, making it much easier for the government to lump all journalists under one label, and categorize them as bad, and swaying public opinion about journalists in a negative direction. This makes it much harder for true journalism - the kind that thoroughly investigates stories before publishing them, the kind that insists on objectivity and hard facts as much as possible, the kind that people turn to for the truth when everything else is unclear - to flourish in our country, and have a visible impact on government affairs.
I understand that pure shock value has brought you this far, but shock value can only get you so far, Oh Freedom, because it contains a significant flaw that ends up being self-destructive: readers can only take so much shock before they start to develop a resistance to it, their tolerance levels increasing. And so to hold their attention you in turn must increase the shock in your pieces, leading to an even higher tolerance, and so on, the cycle repeating, until you are completely out of touch with reality, and making such wild claims as that the President actually is snorting cocaine every time he brings up his mouchoir to wipe away his sweat, when he is in public (an actual accusation published on your site, without even a hint of irony). Well when you have reached that stage you really only have two options. One is to stubbornly continue down the same path, slobbering and blabbering, as people become more educated and informed and seek other sources, gradually sliding into obscurity, no one taking you seriously anymore, a crazy voice on the fringe of Gambian politics, refered to only with pity, and a wry shake of the head. And the other option, the harder but more worthwhile option, is to change.
One thing I realized while reading you the past few weeks is that what lies at the center of your failure, Oh Freedom, is the ego of your editor. In a way Mr M'bai exhibits the exact same quality he claims to see in the President: self-centred-ness, and an outsized ego that throws a huge shadow over everything he does. Not a week goes by without a news article, headlined with great glee and many exclamation points, announcing the latest threats to Mr M'bai's health and life. (Each of these articles is decorated with a picture of the threat maker, one of the President, and one of Mr M'bai smugly smiling in a white shirt). One gets the impression of Mr M'bai - from the way he controls the narrative of the site - that he is just clever enough to know how to provoke his subjects ((and delight in this provocation)), but not quite clever enough to see the corrosive effect his actions have on the body politic of our country. He writes with great gusto about the misfortunes of others, painstakingly recounting the most sordid parts of their histories, mixing truths and half-truths. Mr M'bai is the one who complains the loudest about censorship in Gambia, yet on the radio show itself his voice and his theories reign supreme - any callers who do not toe the Freedom line are immediately disconnected, without even being given a chance to explain themselves (this happened more than once when I listened to the radio program). And then, to add to that, he ignores the rigorous standards that true journalists hold themselves to, blurring the line between what is truth and what exists only in his imagination. Most reports are presented as first-hand accounts from people close to the situations he describes. Invented characters float up again and again, with only the barest attempts to make them sound real (to believe him all of state house and half the army are running to give him the latest gossip at court).
Thing is, despite all this, I have dreamt of a better Freedom: a newspaper existing beyond the censor of the State, out there in cyberspace, free as a bird, able to do things that a paper on the ground would never even dream of. A paper that uses this unparalleled opportunity to build something wonderful, something built on integrity and respect and honesty, something that all Gambians can be proud of and turn to. You speak excitedly every week about the latest "plan" you have uncovered which will topple the Government. But you have never presented us with what will replace what we have - are we only to burn down the house we live in, possessing no plans to build one in its place, or find further habitation? If you only looked closer you would see: toppling our government by whatever means necessary is not necessarily the one (or the only) solution to our problems. The problems we face have a root cause that is much deeper: it is the structures we have in place that are flawed - the system that we have created skewing the balance of power, lacking checks and balances, still operating largely in ways our previous monarchies operated, with the leader in charge (whoever it may happen to be at the time) possessing final and absolute power, with no way to mitigate against the excesses created by this power. It will take time and many failures and restarts to correct this (as it has done in other nations, all throughout history), and a new government (especially at the violent costs you propose) is not necessarily the right (or the only) way to achieve this goal. Instead we must recognize the system we have for what it is, and work together to address its problems irrespective of what government is in power. Only thus, and gradually, over many generations, will we achieve the kind of government that we desire: one that will have no option but to respect the rights of its citizens, and create a safe and nurturing environment in which all Gambians may grow to their full potential.
Deep down, of course, I am filled with a sense of pessimism. I cannot see you changing, no matter how hard I try to imagine it - I'm afraid tomorrow I'll load up your site, and it'll be more of the same. Well in that case I see only one option: it is time to boycott Freedom. It is time to say: yes, we are Gambian citizens and we may disagree with the government sometimes, but Freedom does not represent us, cannot represent us given the way it has chosen. Only then can we begin to have a useful dialog as a nation and as a people. Thankfully you are not the only option we have. There are far more reputable sources online - e.g. the standard at standard.gm, and the Point at thepoint.gm - sources which, if not perfect, at least try to be professional in their journalistic work given the constraints they operate under, keeping tabs on the government as much as practicable, and thereby contributing more to achieving true freedom than you ever could, Oh Freedom.
Balafong.com is a center for peer-writing and sharing of quality literary material of all types from an inspiring group of Gambian writers.
Please feel free to leave your comments on any post, and click the facebook item to share with your friends. If you have an idea for an article or blog click on Submissions to find out how to send it to us. Thanks for dropping by, and check back for more content every day.