Suddenly, the taxi driver looked at me nervously and fell silent. He had just complained copiously about the situation in his country. With the economy in dire straits – he called it a catastrophe – he had to work two jobs, as a driver and an electrician, just to feed his family. Neither was a steady job. But then I told him that I was a journalist and he was shocked. “It is dangerous to speak openly to people, even within our own families. You can’t trust anyone,” he said.
As a foreign journalist in The Gambia you are constantly confronted with people’s fears of saying the wrong thing. Interviews start by being agreed to, but are then quickly cancelled. “Too busy”, you are told. The international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) talks of a “climate of fear” in this small west-African state. Since staging a successful coup 22 years ago, President Yahya Jammeh has used arbitrary arrests, torture and kidnapping as a way to pressure journalists and civil society to impose self-censorship, a report by HRW said.
“Certain people have told us that they are too scared to say what they think,” pro-democracy activist Hannah Forster from the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies in Serrekunda, The Gambia’s biggest city, told DW. “They are also afraid of being connected to the wrong people,” she added. You very seldom hear direct criticism of the president.
His Excellency Sheiqh Alhaji Dr. Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa, as the president is officially known, is often the subject of negative news in the international press. This was the case when he threatened to personally cut the throat of homosexuals; when he claimed that he could cure AIDS; when he expelled critical diplomats and when he announced that The Gambia was leaving the International Criminal Court. In December 2015, after breaking ties with many western partners, Jammeh declared his country an Islamic Republic. Observers believe that this was a ploy to win the friendship and financial aid of the Gulf States. Female public servants sometimes have to wear a headscarf, but sex tourists are still very welcome.