Biting the hands that once fed the continent: today Africa’s crimes against journalists

African Map

Mustapha K Darboe


The Government of The Gambia is often criticised of being intolerant by right groups and the leadership of the country is accused of restricting the media environment.

“Freedom of press in The Gambia is unduly restricted,” Saikou Jammeh, the secretary general of the Gambia Press Union, told the torchongambia. “The environment is quite unpredictable.”

The story elsewhere in Africa is not very different. Most African governments are often accused of clamping down on free expression, suppressing dissent, and jailing and torturing journalists.

According to statistics, 68 journalists were killed in Africa since 2010. The highest number was in Somalia, which has seen at least 27 journalists killed in the past five years.

23 journalists were also jailed in Eritrea without been taken to court or even charged while the number of journalists who have been forced into exile across the continent, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, stood at 165 as of 2009.

Often you hear some political leaders claiming that journalists are often targeted because they are liars- some said they don’t serve the interest of Africa. What follows that is silence, even at the level of the African Union.

But who saved Africa?

Being helplessly and hopelessly overran in the early 7th century by the Arabs and in the 18th and 19th century, respectively, by the Westerners, Africa has long been an object of external assault. While the sole aim of the Arabs was to impose their religion and lifestyles on the people, the white’s was one of economic exploitation. In a rather helpless situation, the Africans were not just enslaved but sat back and watched their beloved land being botched among the Western powers like a birthday cake in Berlin in 1884.

But while the colonial robbery was alive and kicking, there was also a slow but steady growth of Africa’s intellectual population which would soon trigger the realization of self and in effect the call for political independence. The need there existed for the inclusion of journalists at the center of the struggle to oil the wheels of the movements as any such endeavor would require a well informed and effectively mobilized people anchored on a single nationalistic ideal.

Then the inevitability of journalism in the struggle for the independence became even clearer. There were though two distinct paths to independence one of which all African countries were compelled to choose: arming to teeth against colonial fortresses or through negotiation; either of these paths required the services of the members of the press. In a bid to have more support for the self-rule call, more and more people ought to be educated on the merits of it as well as the unjust nature of colonialism…. So the journalists turned nationalists took to the press in an effort to throw the weight of public opinion behind the ‘self-rule call’.

There were four main sources of origin of newspapers in Africa: the colonial state; the European settler colonists; the Christian missionary institutions; and the early African elite or the so-called intelligentsia. In Egypt, Napoleonic colonisers introduced the newspaper in the 1790s, followed by the Turkish colonisers. However, as in the Maghreb, local initiatives soon followed the foreign introduction. It was, for instance, introduced by European settlers where such communities were established (Algeria, Angola, Kenya, Mozambique, Rhodesia and South Africa). Generally it was introduced late in the French territories, and by French entrepreneurs. When the first African-owned newspaper in the French colonies appeared in Cote d’Ivoire in 1935, Africans in neighboring English colonies had run papers for over 80 years already.

In Anglophone Africa, Cape Town led the history with the in 1800, and was quickly followed in Sierra Leone by the in 1801, set up by the British colonial governor, Charles Macarthy, the same man who first introduced the newspaper in Ghana (then Gold Coast). More than anywhere else beside North Africa, in Anglophone West Africa, Africans soon took over the newspaper and published it for African readers. Thus in Ghana, The Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria or Sierra Leone, there was no foreign investment in the newspaper until in the 1950s. When Ghana became independent in 1957 it was exactly100 years from when the first African-owned newspaper was set up in what was then the Gold Coast.

But while publishing was first by the imperialists in the continent, it is necessary to note perhaps that those papers were by large meant to create and maintain public good will on the colonial administrations. In the Gambia for example, The Bathurst Times was the first paper that hit the news-stance in May 1871 and it was published by Thomas Brown a young English Businessman in the then colonised Gambia.  But Thomas has ignored posterity by not siding with the oppressed but rather playing public relation stunt for the oppressors: the colonialists…

The Bathurst Times, gave no regards to objective journalism which is in conflict with the very press doctrine premised on standing for the oppressed and also tasked itself with the publication of the shipping records of the colonial government. This frustrating anti-journalistic attitude of Thomas Brown, as Gambian history unveiled, was a response to the effort put forward by African Times. A U.K based newspaper, then edited by an Englishman Frederick Fitzgerald, who took up the challenge of salvaging the information-hungry, imprisoned and cornered Bathurst men and women by making them heard through publishing the letters, articles and petitions that they wrote against the colonial government and wrote tough editorials for them. But despite the courage of the local people to break themselves free of the colonial shackles, they wrote to The African Times without disclosing their identities for the fear that it might attract a tough response from colonial government.

They wrote in their letters, among other things, that they are misrepresented, they aren’t free and at worst exploited. As time swept by, Mr. Brown later offered some space on his paper to the opinions of the local people, but his change of heart was treated as a business strategy and less a concern for the people and they therefore turned their backs on him. The struggle in the Gambia, however, was just beginning and prominent names like Edward Francis Small nicknamed by his friends “the watchdog of the Gambia” and the brain behind the legendary “No representation no tax” slogan, William Chase Walcott an immigrant from West Indies, Sam J. Forster, Sam Jones, Henry R. Carrol, A.W. Carrol et al would soon join the struggle.

Elsewhere in Ghana, the revolution was even tenser- so it was in the East and South of the continent where the struggle was riddle by violence led by the Mau Mau Movement. But violence is only a distraction in seeing the impact of journalism in the struggle as these efforts went alongside justifications for attacking the colonial fortresses as well as mobilization and tilling the mass of public opinion behind the independent efforts which was entirely the job of journalists. Speaking on the contribution of the press in Ghana’s independent struggle, Dr. Nkrumah couldn’t help admitting:

“The astonishing thing about these editors and their small band of journalistic collaborators was how they managed to build up a secret intelligence and news gathering service along the coast, which involved, beside the normal hazards of anti-colonialists activity, the danger of some of them finding a premature watery grave. In those days there was no proper road between Cape Coast and Accra… so these editors and their co-workers worked their clandestine way by canoe along the coast to the capital, Accra. There they ferreted out all the latest material that could be used against the colonialist government, and then they paddled their dangerous way back to Cape Coast. All these activities were done at night.

It was always a puzzle to the British administration in Accra as to how these newspapers were able to appear in Cape Coast with such ‘hot’ news so quickly. Nevertheless these and other journalists did much to spread the doctrine of equal rights for Africans, especially as schooling began to widen out gradually and we were becoming conscious of ourselves as political beings.”

It though should be stated clearly that there was little time for journalists in the continent at the time to observe impartiality and objectivity as the ethics of the profession dictates, for there could be no more truth than the argument that Africans should be free to rule themselves without anyone’s interference.

And so there was an all-out hunt for political scandals; this was necessary if the independent strugglers were to convince the local people of the cruelty of colonialism in other to uncouple themselves from the cruel political system of economic exploitation. This is real development communication theory at work over the so-call libertarianism! One such political scandal would be William Chase Walcott’s publication of an investigative piece on the cause of the death of King Wally n’ Jammeh of Barra, The Gambia, who was assassinated by the colonial government and accused of committing suicide. Because the king at that time, with his loyal troops wouldn’t allow the British to flew over his kingdom in Nuimi.

They then plotted and kill him and planted a knife on his chest and said that the king killed himself. Similar successful campaign by Walcott was the resistance he put up against the cruel laws of the colony during the time of Governor D’ Acry whose successor, Admiral C. Patey, he identified as a “scruffy man of low intelligence”.

He argued that the laws in the colony should be changed to serve the interest of the local people instead of the British business magnates at the time. John Finden Dailey, another journalist who was previously the editor of a paper called the Gambia Echo has, while publishing his own paper called The Gambia Weekly News, investigated and exposed how badly Dr. Samuel Gordon treated his patients at the Bansang Hospital.

Mr. Samuel was very furious and brought a libel case against The Gambia Weekly News which the paper won when Dailey brought ten witnesses who all testified that the report was true. A scandal that left the colonial administration with no option than sending Dr. Samuel home in Britain in an effort to subdue the smoke of the political scandal that gloomed over the colony about the inhuman nature of The British towards the local people.

Driven by an enormous sense of intellect and mountains of courage, Small dragged further the philosophy of self-rule from where Mr. Forster left. And being a symbol of The National Congress of British West Africa [N.C.B.W.A], a movement dedicated to the fighting against colonial domination across West Africa, Small couldn’t have been seen more as a political annoyance by the colonialists. At worst, Governor Cecil Armitage’s brain always had him pinched whenever he heard the name of the  N.C.B.W.A, a group of which Small is a member and then therefore marked Small a first class foe. But Small who wouldn’t stop at any cost to get what he wanted, had to leave The Gambia into an exile in the neighboring Senegal, where he started a paper he called The Gambia Outlook and Senegambia Reporter and remained part of events unfolding in Bathurst.

His intention of starting a newspaper in Senegal was not limited to just exposing the cruelty of the colonialists but also to mobilize the support of both Senegal and The Gambia to fortify his struggle for political independence. The copies of The Outlook circulated in Senegal and London and Small became popular among his friends as “the watchdog of The Gambia”. He was said to have turned down several offers for well-paid jobs while he suffered huge trouble for money and food. The fact that Small was not just a political figurehead leading the movement for independence but also a journalist amplifying the voices and choices of individuals in the Gambia and by large West Africa, through his engagement with the N.C.B.W.A.

Dr. Graham Mytton has observed, on the achievement of journalists in Gold Coast’s struggle for independence, in his book “Mass Communication in Africa” that “political protest and expression of informed African opinion soon became the dominant theme of the West African English language press. These papers played an important role in trying to raise an early consciousness of nationalism and pride in the face of colonial dominance and alien values”. And in his similar but different study on the Nigerian media revealed that “The West African English language press rapidly took on a more militant and nationalist tone, particularly in Lagos, Nigeria, thanks to John Payne Jackson… From January 1891 it appeared as the Lagos Weekly Record and was for forty-nine years an outspoken critic of colonialism”.

The journalists, as all agreed, have dared the colonizers that even in the French Colonies that were very much hostile to the establishment of indigenous media have had to put up with it in Ivory Coast. The paper was the first indigenous newspaper in the country to be owned and edited by an African and it became a popular anti-colonial paper voicing grievances against the police and some of the Chiefs and campaigning for the unemployed and farmers hit by the world recession. While some of these political figureheads were journalist themselves like Edward Francis Small of The Gambia, most were just revolutionaries/ political figurehead or journalist like Dr. Nkrumah and also veteran journalist of Nigeria, John Payne Jackson.

Death and starvation were dared by these proud pioneers of journalism/ revolutionaries to make sure that political independence was achieved in Africa and they couldn’t have been more successful. They gave a lesson on how a pen held should be used and they certainly would hope that today’s African journalists do it like them. In a rather dismissive tone of African leaders today, Dr. Mytton, talking on the contributions of journalists to the continent’s independence, argued that “The existence of this power (government) resulted, ironically, in the fact that those African newspapers which had campaigned vigorously for the nationalist cause now enjoyed less freedom under the very governments they help create.”

While it remains true that the power of the press is a double-edged sword, it can be both a force for good and for evil, it is without doubt too that the press has the power to not just free a society enslaved but invent anew, for these pioneer journalists have not just created new, free, independent communities across Africa from the old colonial brutality, but they have left a lesson- lesson on what a free press can do.


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