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Interview with Sanna Camara, a journalist in Gambia

Sanna Camara, you have been a journalist in Gambia for 22 years and you have experienced first-hand what it means to do this job under a dictatorship.  Can you tell us your experience?

Journalists in The Gambia under Yahya Jammeh bear the greatest brunt of dictatorship, with over 100 of us living in exile during these years. My newspaper (where I worked as a Staff Reporter at te time of close down) The Independent, was a top target of this regime. We had our offices attacked with petrol bomb, and our printing press burnt down in separate occasions. We also had more than a dozen arrests within the seven years of its life span. At the end, it was closed by authorities without court order. Paramilitary forces stationed at the offices for two years to prevent us from resuming work. We were jobless throughout that time and our editor-in-chief and manager underwent torture under detention at the National Intelligence Agency during the first three weeks of this targeted persecution .

As a young journalist under these circumstances, these are enough reasons to scare you from the job. The experience was somewhat traumatising. You only have the heart to continue the work because of passion, love for country and the strong belief in democracy. Two journalists were killed, one of them gunned down by soldiers referred to as “the Junglers” who operated on orders of Yahya Jammeh, while another disappeared without trace under state detention.

I was personally arrested three the dictatorship. I underwent detentions and interrogations on each of these occasions. At one point, I spent 48 hours in a detention cell with criminals. I got released on bail, and I had to report to the Police Major Crimes Unit for another eight weeks. I had to leave my country, my family, and my work to live in exile in Senegal. Such was my experience under Yahya Jammeh.


When Jammeh left power you returned to Gambia and acted as spokesperson for the new president.  What were your expectations?

Yes, while in exile, I could not see my family in The Gambia. After I work as freelance and got paid, or benefitted from some grant, I do send money to them in The Gambia to travel across the border and meet me in Senegal. My kids were young and so, that separation from them was really the hardest for me above everything. When government changed in 2017, I returned home to my family and be a part of the reconstruction and transition process in TheGambia. The transition government had spelled out a program of sweeping reforms, in the Judiciary, the security sector, the civil service, electoral laws, and general governance framework to solidify national institutions that guarantee rule of law, separation of powers and ensures a #NeverAgain of what we went through under Jammeh. I was excited for my country and the new opportunities those promises hold for its future.


At a certain point you decided to change and go back to being a journalist.  How come?

After a year of work as an independent journalist, i was recruited to work as the Media Officer for the President, under the office of the Directorate of Press and Public Relations. I was not the spokesperson but rather a media professional working under the Spokesperson of the President. I diligently served that highest office for two years. However, during these times, I realized that the promises made to the people no longer matter to the transition President. That the reforms were quite slow because of the lack of political will. The president reneged on these promises made to the people, in favour  of another agenda for himself and his cronies. I didn’t like these and I spoke out against what was going on. I ended up resigning from government to return to my work as an independent journalist.


What is the press situation in your country today?

We are enjoying a high level of freedom today, compared to days under Yahya Jammeh. Our press freedom ranking has greatly improved as evidenced by annual reports from Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, and IFEX, among other bodies. We have been fighting for freedom even before Jammeh left The Gambia and we succeeded greatly with the new reforms undertaken by Barrow’s government, thanks to the Supreme Court where the constitutionality of these draconian media laws have been challenged. It was granted that most of them did not meet international standards for press freedom. Also, the government had committed to reforming other laws that existed. However, we still have about 25 per cent of these laws in the country that were inherited from Jammeh and the colonial governments. So the reform process is still incomplete.


You and other Gambian colleagues came to Bellinzona to follow the trial against Sonko.  Why was it important for you to be here?

The cardinal principle of any trial process is that justice must not just be done but it must be seen to be done. The Gambian people have been on the receiving end of these brutalities that are currently being prosecuted here in Switzerland. It is only fair that the press is here to report on the process to the people back home. The people have a right to know…


During the trial, the atrocities committed during the regime were discussed: murders, rapes, torture.  Among the victims there were also some journalists.  Was the trial also able to shed light on attacks on press freedom?  Do you want to tell us something about it?

Two of the private plaintiffs who brought charges of torture and degrading treatment against Ousman Sonko have been my work colleagues in The Gambia. One was my editor-in-chief and the other my general manager who also served as President of the Gambia Press Union. They faced horrible experience that are, until today, life-threatening to their persons. I was a living witness to hose horrible days in the history of Gambian journalism. For me, the trial is not just about reporting about these from a procedural and process point of the justice but also, reliving those experiences in my mind. It is deep. That feeling when one reflect on how dreams of young people and professionals serving their country were shattered by a dictatorship and having someone as high profile as Sonko being accounted for his role in those crimes is just an amazing experience …


Is there a moment in the process that you were particularly touched?

I remember when Musa Saidykhan and Madi Ceesay were released from the 22 days’ detention and torture. I visited them, and what I saw on their faces devastated me! These were my bosses and I followed them as my leaders in my newsroom. We worked together as a great team, for the people and for democracy. To subject them to horrible experiences like that, and seeing them personally narrate these to the panel of judges here in Switzerland and how Ousman Sonko played a lead role in those crimes, makes me want justice for them and all victims even more.

It also hurts that these prosecutions are not being held in The Gambia. Rather, They were being held in a foreign land, thousands of kilometres away when the promise of accountability for these crimes was a campaign promise for our government. That too, sucks!

A similar feeling is also felt for other victims – one of the plaintiffs did not survive the torture she endured from the experience. She passed away months ago even though she was a plaintiff and was represented by her niece, Fatoumatta Sandeng – whose father was also killed in custody due to torture. So for me, these cases are special in many ways, not just as a journalist but also a Gambian.


What do people in the Gambia expect from this process?

Justice. Simple. And they trust that the Swiss courts will deliver this for them, and for humanity’s sake.


Is the hope that Sonko will be convicted?

I do not want to comment on that for now as the trial is ongoing. I am hoping that justice will be done in whatever form the court deems fit.


How do you evaluate the Swiss procedure, the investigation and also the trial?

It is completely different from our system in The Gambia. I believe the investigation process is quite thorough here in Switzerland, and the prosecutions takes time to gather evidence before presenting them to a the judges for prosecution. In The Gambia,  it is totally different. Many times, cases are thrown out of court for lack of compelling evidence and for lack of thorough investigations. Sometimes, being a suspect in a crime or an accused is enough reason to detain a suspect without tangible evidence, only for the court to acquit the suspect and discharge. I think we can learn a lot from the Swiss system of justice.


How did you find yourself in Switzerland?

It wasn’t easy to get here. I am an ordinary journalist, working independently and I did not have any organisation sponsoring my trip. I believed in the Gambia’s transitional process so much that I began reporting on it even before it officially kicked off. I was at The Hague in 2016 and had the chance to attend a court session involving Laurent Gbagbo, former President of Cote D’Ivoire, as well as severalsude eventsof the 15th Assembly of State Parties. I reported on these and other activities there to the Gambian people.

This time, some very good journalist colleagues in Switzerland had raised money to pay for my ticket, accommodation, transport to, and from the courts and daily meals. It is thanks to them that this is possible. Also the Embassy in Dakar was very flexible in granting me visa to come here. So, I have no way of returning this favour to the people of Switzerland. I just say thank you, on behalf of the Gambian people.


The small Gambia has profiled itself in the field of international justice in the proceedings at the International Court of Justice against Myanmar, for the Rohinga issue.  Why this cause?  How to evaluate it, even from a symbolic point of view?

The country under the independence President, Mr Dawda Kairaba Jawara had championed the cause of international justice and peace among the community of global nations. President Jawara was a UN peace envoy to the Golf War, to the Vietnam war and he played a key roke in ending wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 90s. He was proponent of establishing a standby peace keeping military force for West Africa. All those accolades were thrashed when Jammeh took office and introduced dictatorship. We lost such a respectable standing in the global politics under the Jammeh regime.

Now, with the Barrow government, there was an opportunity to reclaim such a standing. The country’s foreign policy engagement yielded a very strong results in the first year. Gambia was accepted back into the global political bodies to resume its leadership role as example for many nations. It was through such that our government took up the Rohinga case to defend the rights of that nation to existence and dignity. It has done these for South Africa under Apartheid, and others even before now.


Do you think that South Africa, in the current proceedings against Israel, has taken a cue from Gambia?

I think South Africa owes a lot to countries that stood for it during Apartheid. I think it is morally obligated to play a part in situations where other countries also face repression and injustice as it is being done in Palestine. If a small country like The Ganbia can take on Myanmar, South Africa should be emboldened to take on the USA, the UK and Israel in the global justice mechanisms for Palestine.

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