A journalist with The Standard, a leading newspaper in the Gambian capital of Banjul, Camara sought and published the opinion of a Gambian police spokesman in reaction to the US State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) which called The Gambia a “source and destination country for women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.” After suffering intense harassment from government authorities and threats on his life, Camara fled The Gambia, leaving behind his wife and young children. He now lives in exile in Senegal.
The Gambia has been under the grip of a tyrannical ‘democracy’ for almost thirty years. President Yahya Jammeh, a young military officer took power after a 1994 military coup, promised upon assuming office: “we will never introduce dictatorship in this country.”
The Gambia is also one of the most repressive states in West Africa for press freedom. The Gambia currently ranks as number 151 out of 180 countries in 2015 World Press Freedom Index.
Global Voices Nigerian author Nwachukwu Egbunike caught up with Camara recently in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and they discussed his work and decision to leave his country.
As a Gambian journalist, what type of reporting were you doing? What kinds of topics did you cover?
Since 2001, I have been reporting general news, ranging from politics, human rights, environmental and other developmental news stories both for a daily newspaper and my blog.
Your story, “Police admit ‘problems’ with human trafficking” for The Standard got you harassed by the police and later arrested. Can you give us some background on this story?
The issue of human trafficking, or trafficking in persons, has been a sensitive one in my country, particularly for the media. If you understand the political environment journalists operate in in my country, you will know that the space to report and investigate issues of interest to the population, or issues that affect their lives, is so limited – thanks to diverse reasons, but key is the laws limiting press freedom and freedom of expression.
So in June 2014, while I was reporting for The Standard in Banjul, the US State Department released a report ranking countries all over the world on [the prevalence of] trafficking in persons, what measures governments take to curtail the issue in terms of laws, arrests, prosecutions, et cetera.
Not surprisingly, The Gambia was ranked TIER 3, meaning the country served as a source, destination, and transit country for human trafficking. Before this, no source, be it government, civil society or other sources was willing to speak on the relevance of the human trafficking situation to the media, even though you will hear them gossip about it in their small corners.
The US TIP Report gave me the relevant information and quotes needed to begin work on the matter. Hence my first reporting combined an interview with the Police spokesperson, quoting from the TIP report and a particular civil society voice that showed interest in the topic too, but were afraid to be named.
It was published on Friday, June 27, 2014. By 4pm, I got a tip that the Major Crimes Unit of the Gambia Police Force had been given orders to arrest me. I did not flee. I stayed and waited for them to come for me. Before they did, I received a call from the Police spokesperson telling me that “we have a problem” and that I should come meet him at a particular station before the Major Crimes get to me, which I did.
Why do you think the government was rattled by your story?
Sure the government was rattled by the news. At the time of the publication, the president was at an African Union Summit in Equatorial Guinea. The TIP Report's release and Gambia's ranking, as I learned, “caused great embarrassment” to government. Therefore, he specifically gave instructions for his officials to challenge the report.
Before this could be done, my story got published on the front page confirming some facts in the TIP report, thus undermining every [argument] that they would have used to challenge the TIP Report. As a high profile task force was set up within the government to look into this, my news came rattling…
Hence their ploy to unleash the Major Crimes [division] on me. They arrested me, interrogated me on who my sources were, why I was publishing such news when I knew it was “false”. Who was I and who was I working with, et cetera. I was charged with “publishing false news.” If convicted, I could pay a fine ranging from D50,000 (almost US$2000) to D250, 000 (about US$10,000). Or serve a sentence from six months or two years in jail.
When did you decide to go into exile?
After two months reporting on bail at Major Crimes, I did not feel safe anymore to continue working as a journalist in the country. The harassment, threats and psychological pressure I had to go through made me to decide to flee to Senegal. On August 23 2014, I arrived Dakar and sought asylum with the Senegalese government. Although I was not granted asylum, the President of Senegal, Macky Sall has assured all persecuted and exiled Gambians in his country of their protection so long as we do not break the laws of Senegal.
What does it feel like to be in exile?
The feeling is another experience for my life as a journalist. [Along with] the challenges of living in a Francophone country, this life sometimes feels so frustrating and hopeless, especially knowing that you have left behind a family of young kids and a loving and loyal wife. Finding a job in that country is equally frustrating when one does not have a French background, and despite the existence of various regional offices of media outlets, finding a space to work with them is very limited.
Are you still reporting on the Gambia from afar? In what ways is this different from reporting at home?
I publish a blog, Gambia Beat where I continue reporting on Gambia from Senegal. I derive no income from this, but I am driven by love for country and passion to practice. I cannot stay in Senegal and just stop reporting on my country. I believe the issues areas relevant now as they were before I fled.
This is different from when I report from home where I meet Gambian faces on daily basis in person and hear about their stories in order to report on them. Now I am used to the idea of using the Internet and the social media, and occasionally some phone calls to Gambia to gather information and report about them. It brings a whole new dimension to my practice of journalism. But then we are in the social media generation, aren't we? (laughs)
Recently, the Gambian president released political prisoners, what do you think about this move?
From the outset, I had the opinion that he did it purposely to score some political points. After all, most of the released prisoners were illegally detained or imprisoned in the first place…[the] majority of prisoners in Gambia since 1994 are there because they disagreed with the president, refused to be his enablers, are assumed enemies [and] hence accused of crimes they did not commit and received unfair trials that ended up in sentencing them to prison terms. Many did not receive the luxury of trials before being thrown in jail, some died in prison… The next presidential election in The Gambia, where Jammeh is trying to seek a fifth term in office, is slated for September 2016. Now you do the maths…
Do you think that The Gambia’s human rights situation – with particular regard to assaults on free speech – has received as much international attention as it should?
At some quarters yes it has, but not enough to affect the kind of change or pressure those of us fighting against tyranny would like. Sometimes I assume that it is because of our size as a country or our lack of mineral resources that makes others to ignore our plight….if Jammeh was head of state of a major country like Nigeria, or another African country, we would made great progress by now….Five years of tyranny in a lifetime is sufficient for any freedom-loving people. The Gambia has been on a trial of freedom, peace and prosperity…
What’s your take on freedom of expression and protection of journalists in West Africa?
I think the citizens are fighting for their God-given rights to freedom of expression and press in various countries in West Africa. Now with the Internet, social media, smartphone, there are unprecedented levels of awareness in the history of the struggle for freedom by civilian populations in any country in the world. Hence the tide of change is swiftly pushing the barriers of dictatorships and freedom as we used to know all over the world, particularly in Africa.
Traditionally, the tyrannical governments do a lot to control the flow of information to and from the population by maintaining a tight grip on the media. This is no longer tenable with the tools now available to the new generation. It also means increased ways journalists can access information, relate with their sources and disseminate same information. In some countries, it has raised the bar of threats they face from governments and enemies of free expression, but progressive ones see it as a blessing and value added to their means of governance.
In the sub-region, dictatorship posts are crumbling one after the other, and emerging ones are becoming more open to criticisms and democratic values. But the fight for press freedom and freedom of expression is not complete until the last dictatorship in the sub region is toppled.