Read the full interview below.
AllGambian: Was the Daily Observer the best place for you to start your journalism career?
Musa: Daily Observer of those days was hailed for being a fertile or breeding ground for young school graduates eager to discover their hidden talents. Its newsroom was turned into a classroom, with editors sparing invaluable time to coach enthusiastic rookie reporters. I strongly believe that without the Daily Observer, Gambian journalism would not have grown so fast. Observer had added a high sense of professionalism and meaning to Gambian journalism. Admittedly, it was the only private media company at the time endowed with the proper functioning administrative structures. The paper also exposed you to ethical values and keen competition, which made it the best place to jump-start your career. Observer had the best pool of journalists and writers in the likes of Demba Jawo, Baba Galleh Jallow, Mohamed Ellicot-Seade, Sheriff Bojang, the late A.A. Njie, A. A. Barry, Paschal Eze, Debo Oriku, Hammatan, among others. I guess all these factors tempted young journalists to be part of the Observer family.
AllGambian: How was it like working for the Observer then?
Musa: For most of us, it was like achieving a lifetime goal or a dream come true. The name Daily Observer alone speaks for itself. You feel delighted to work for a paper with best journalists, writers and columnists. As a hot cake in the market with wide ranging content from Sports to Watchdog, Observer Observe, Bantaba, What’s On, Essay, Young Observer, Story of the Week – all that made the palatable – nobody wants to miss a single edition. And the introduction of Sunday Observer by Sheriff Bojang, which was like a manna from heaven, nailed the coffin. This masterpiece stormed the newspaper market at the right time, and no doubt, became a bestseller. It was indeed challenging to work for the Observer. The paper’s journalists, in particular foreign ones, became victims of repression, arbitrary arrests, and even deportation. There were days when government security agents would demand you to tender your national ID before entering the premises.
AllGambian: Why did you quit the Observer in June 2001?
Musa: Alongside 11 other colleagues, I downed my tools at the Daily Observer on June 15, 2001, in protest against editorial interference by the management.
AllGambian: Do you still believe that you made the right decision by quitting the Daily Observer?
Musa: Yes, we had no doubt made the right decision because it would not be fair for us to compromise the paper’s hard-earned editorial policy put in place by the company’s founder Kenneth Best and his team. Even the management knew we were right but was bent on employing divide and rule tactics to simmer us down.
AllGambian: What is the difference between the Daily Observer before and now?
Musa: It’s like life and death, light and darkness or truth and falsehood.
AllGambian: Do you think the selling of the Observer in 1999 was bad for Gambian journalism?
Musa: It became obviously clear that the sale had not done justice to journalists and Gambians. It had created setbacks in our fight for press freedom and later deprived Gambians of quality news. We had seen how things dramatically changed in the name of restructuring exercise which led to the elbowing of some magic hands mainly because of their critical editorial beliefs. The aftermath also created scars on the paper’s administrative structures, shifted editorial independence in favour of the ruling APRC and gave unfettered access to State House to hire and fire staff. The Observer today has only one agenda: idolise President Yahya Jammeh, promote ideals of his so-called revolution, policies and launch scathing attacks on anyone that does not endorse them. In a nutshell, Observer in its present form has a very bleak future. Slowly but surely, its pillars hinging on political allegiance, hypocrisy and spying, will collapse sooner than expected. Leaks from the company are not the least encouraging at all.
AllGambian: You worked for Citizen FM. How was it like working for Baboucarr Gaye and Citizen FM?
Musa: I see myself as one of the luckiest journalists that received coaching from Gambian journalists with vast wealth of experience. I had received trainings from the late Baboucarr Gaye, Deyda Hydara, Pap Saine, Ebrima Sillah and Cherno Jallow, among others.
Musa: Citizen FM’s closure followed the broadcast of a story linked to high level scam involving the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). This had to do with counterfeit currencies. And in a swift reaction, the NIA arrested and detained Ebrima Sillah and Baboucarr Gaye before nailing down the station amid heavy security presence, accusing Mr. Gaye of operating a radio station without license. He was dragged to the court charged with the 1913 of Telegraph Act, resulting to the forfeiture of the station’s apparatus to the state by a mercenary magistrate in the person of Willi Inyang of Kanifing Magistrate’s Courts. However, two years later, Justice Wallace Grant of the High Court in Banjul overturned the Inyang judgment, giving rights to citizen to operate again. This again met stiff resistance from the executive who reluctantly allowed it to operate only to close it down again the following year.
AllGambian: Do you think the decision of the Jammeh regime to shut down the radio was justifiable?
Musa: It was absolutely unjustifiable. It was a mere plot to shut down Citizen FM whose bulletins, particularly the newspaper review in local languages, posed threats to the ruling party’s political agenda. They wanted it stopped because it made GRTS radio unpopular and enlightened uneducated Gambians about their rights. Some listeners became so enraged that they shut their radio after Citizen FM was closed.
AllGambian: What type of journalist was Baboucarr Gaye?
Musa: Baboucarr was like an encyclopedia; his skills, experience and knowledge went beyond journalism. I was once dumbfounded when I found him fluently communicating in French. I asked him how he had learnt French. His long stint as a regional correspondent for BBC in West Africa accorded him the opportunity to become fluent in French. He had widely traveled across the region, and was based in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, for so long.
AllGambian: Why did you accept the post of editor at The Independent?
Musa: I accepted to edit The Independent for so many reasons chief among them was to bail avoid it from collapsing, strengthen press freedom and continue providing services to a news-hungry population.
AllGambian: Your predecessor, Abdoulie Sey left the post due to threats to his life. Were you not afraid of the risks involved?
Musa: I wasn’t afraid to work for the paper, despite all the looming potential risks that awaited me. Why would I fear as long as I was doing the right thing? I believe in the sayings of Napoleon Hills, the author of Science of Success, that “close the door of fear behind you and you will see how the door of faith opens in front of you.” If all of us run away from the hot kitchen, who then will cook? This is what makes sacrifice a necessity; others have to sacrifice their life, time and resources for the benefit of all. And anyone assassinated in such a cause remains immortalized forever. This was why Deyda’s legacies would continue to be celebrated and promoted. In essence, he had simply disappeared.
AllGambian: How was it like editing The Independent?
Musa: Challenging and interesting. Based on my openness couple with putting together a vibrant editorial team, the job was somehow made easy. I went there with a clear concept of changing things the way I wanted them. Of course, this was not done without the approval of my erudite colleagues. My goal was to build a united family, make the paper reader-friendly and help young journalists enhance their skills. The ultimate idea to build a strong team that functioned with or without Musa Saidykhan became a reality, which was why I traveled abroad, leaving editorial responsibility to my team. So the paper was going to bed without me, which was a fulfillment of my mission.
I had enjoyed high amount of team spirit at The Independent. In that, I was doing almost everything with my staff, including choosing, writing and presenting editorial contents. Together we were about to surmount a lot of problems, including printing censorship, which almost sent us packing. These were the days when all the printers fear to print our paper, forcing us out of market for a month. However, we bounced back with full force.
AllGambian: Why was The Independent often targeted by the NIA?
Musa: The government could not accept its hard-line editorial policy, news content and style of writing, hence the frequent crackdowns. State security agents had done everything they could to eliminate the paper from the newsstand. The fact of the matter was that it remained popular throughout despite being a victim of everything bad.
AllGambian: Your first encounter with the NIA was in 2005 after your return from the Editor’s Forum in South Africa. What were the reasons of your arrest?
Musa: Yes, I ran into my first encounter with the NIA soon after my return from The African Editor’s Forum conference in Johannesburg, South Africa in October 2005. The government was angered about a petition I had submitted to the former South African President Thabo Mbeki, inviting him to pressure a reluctant Gambian government expedite investigations into the gruesome murder of a leading local newspaper journalist, Deyda Hydara. The government was disgusted about an article I wrote after the Johannesburg conference.
AllGambian: What does the petition entail?
Musa: It details information about the horrendous climate of fear hanging over Gambian journalists exacerbated by state-sponsored attacks in whatever form, including arson attacks. I asked why the whole African continent would sit by and allow this small but very important country [the seat of the continental human rights commission] to go scot-free with gross violations of human rights. It was my conviction that it was about time that South Africa pays back its African brothers who struggled with them until apartheid was eliminated. President Mbeki was deeply moved by our rough media environment, and promised to engage his Gambian counterpart on the issue. I was invited for questioning as soon as diplomatic moves began.
AllGambian: What did the NIA tell you after your arrest?
Musa: I was asked why I waited to be arrested instead of voluntarily going for what the former internal director Captain Lamin Saine called ‘a family meeting’. I had no family member at the NIA, and above all, we conduct family meetings at home. He was furious that I alerted rights groups and colleagues about the development, some of who called the NIA soon after the arrest. I was described a traitor and hypocrite bent on destroying the good image of the country and its president. During a marathon interrogation, the NIA questioned my nationality and that of my family, which annoyed me to the core. Four hours later, I was released on self bail with strict warning to desist from going abroad with The Gambia’s internal problems. I later realized that my release was negotiated by President Mbeki otherwise the government had planned to deal with me in a different manner.
AllGambian: Why did you continue journalism after your release?
Musa: What do you expect me to do? Run away and leave my colleagues in the apex of struggle when the situation did not warrant it? As a matter of fact, South African government feared my security and had offered to help in whatever way possible. I simply told them the situation did not call for that. Family pressures also intensified that I should quit but I remained defiant to ride on with my noble mission.
AllGambian: On March 27, 2006, you were again arrested and detained for 22 days by the NIA. Can you explain what really happened?
Musa: Yes, I was arrested and detained for 22 days without trial. A lot of horrible things happened to me during this period. However, since the case is before the ECOWAS Community Court, I would not elaborate on what actually happened for fear of interfering with the judicial process.
AllGambian: While in detention it is said that you were subjected to three days continuous torture. Can you elaborate?
Musa: Yes, I had gone through horrendous tortures. Again, I reserve my comments.
AllGambian: Did you sustain any injuries?
Musa: Yes I sustained a lot of them all over my body.
AllGambian: Were you given medication while in detention?
Musa: Not at all.
AllGambian: Did the people torturing tell you why they were doing so and who ordered them?
Musa: This will be exposed in court.
AllGambian: Do you still have body pain due to the torture you received in Banjul?
Musa: Yes, torture exposed me to a lot of health effects on my body, and pain has been part of my life since then. The truth is that once you go through torture, you will never be the same; besides you become traumatised, devastated or even hopeless. You live with nightmares. It’s your strong faith and confidence in yourself to wither the storm that keeps you riding. But the best thing is to cough out everything that happens to you. That’s the best therapy.
AllGambian: Did you at anytime time while in detention ever thought that you would be killed?
Musa: I still believe that I cheated death because at some point I went into comma for 30 minutes. For whatever reasons, God being so generous preserved my soul. And ironically, those monsters who wished me death joined their ancestors long since. That’s God’s will; He decrees whatever he wants.
AllGambian: Do you mean some of the people who tortured you in detention are dead?
AllGambian: In that case are you referring to Musa Jammeh and Tumbul Tamba?
AllGambian: When you referred to your torturers as monsters, does that mean you hate them?
Musa: How do you expect me to love someone who maltreated me? Impossible!
AllGambian: Do you always get angry anytime you look at the scars on your body?
Musa: Yes, I am always engulfed with anger because I have been unfairly treated.
AllGambian: It was reported that you were refused medication and treatment by all the medical officials you approached in Gambia immediately after your release. How true is that?
Musa: No doctor was bold enough to examine me, let alone administer treatment. One of them [name withheld for security reasons] gave me some painkillers and advised me to leave the country. He frankly told me that doctors had borrowed a cue from their fellow colleague whose life was threatened for confirming that a tortured detainee had lost two teeth in the hands of Gambian security agents. The said doctor had to flee for his life.
AllGambian: The Independent was closed down by the government after your arrest. Is the closure still justifiable?
Musa: I would call it justifiable if it were closed by a court order. The government abused its excessive powers to shut down The Independent without the due process of law, which violates the law.
AllGambian: Did you have any regrets for taking the Editor’s post at The Independent?
Musa: Regrets! Not at all, after all, nobody forced me to work for the paper. Truth be told, with all the problems I had encountered, The Independent had exposed me locally and internationally and even provided me a platform to extend my journalistic duties. Life without problems is not worth living. Problems are part of life, though they teach you unforgettable lessons.
AllGambian: Why did you flee the Gambia after your release?
Musa: Security and medical reasons forced me to flee. I guess I had made the right decision; otherwise I would not be able to fight back.
AllGambian: How did you manage to cross the border into Senegal without been detected by Gambian security officers?
Musa: Only God knows how I escaped without being intercepted at the borders. As a believer, I put all my trust in God at all times. So I wasn’t surprised when I safely landed in Senegal where I would spend two and a half years of my life.
AllGambian: How was life in Dakar?
Musa: Simply challenging, interesting, full of struggles. The experience I had in Dakar would go a long way in shaping my future. I socialised a lot there, and have learnt a lot of lessons – good and bad. Since my ancestors originated from Senegal, it was like home to me, though you kept watching your back for fear of being harmed by Jammeh’s agents.
AllGambian: Why are you suing the Gambia Government for the alleged torture you received while in detention?
Musa: You don’t expect a wounded lion to retire quietly into the bush. It must fight back.
AllGambian: Why are you suing them at the ECOWAS court and not through the Gambian Courts?
Musa: How can I seek redress in a judicial system remote-controlled by the government? In a real democracy, the courts are independent institutions tasked with making sure that justice is being administered with impartiality. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in our country where travesty of justice has been condoned to the core, resulting to denial of justice.
AllGambian: What do you make of plans by the Jammeh regime to amend the ECOWAS protocol?
Musa: An act of cowardice prompted by fears of weakness to defend itself. One wonders why they waited until my case was about to kick off and started pushing for an amendment. The regional grouping would have done disservice to their citizens had it complied with the Gambia government’s proposals. I do not expect that to happen at a time ECOWAS is working hard to protect the rights of its citizens.
AllGambian: You have been honoured with some awards since you fled the Gambia, are you happy to see that your courage is recognised by various media organisations?
Musa: An award would put smile on your face since it’s recognition of your good work and courage. The CNN African Journalist Award, which I won by surprise, was timely because at the time I was working hard to put my life in order. It has helped me quickly adjust myself in exile, which was why I remained grateful to Mathatha T-sedu, the chairman of TAEF for his nomination. I remain committed to my promise to use the award to campaign against press freedom barriers in Africa. However, the whole award ceremony was aired on GRTS, editing everything that concerned me. That’s laughable and portrayed the true image of an institution reduced to the ruling party bantaba. Clearly, the award had served its purpose of threatening the executives.
AllGambian: You now work for afrol News, but do you miss working in a Gambian newsroom?
Musa: My exile life in the Senegalese capital Dakar was spent well. Apart from being contracted to conduct a four month research into restrictive media laws in Africa, I also became the editor of Central and West Africa desk of the Oslo-based Afrol News. These jobs were like turning points in my career since they allowed me access to frequent travels across the continent. The Afrol job in particular widened my knowledge and understanding of our diverse but complex continent: its political, cultural, human rights, democracy, etc. In short, Afrol prepared me for international journalism assignment.
Musa: It’s simply bleak because journalists lack the right to bite. So they are like toothless dogs. We need to bite [write critically on burning issues of the day] without infringing on others’ rights. That is one of the creams or beauties of our job. Once that is lacking, editorial contents lose key ingredients.
AllGambian: Is investigative journalism still alive in Gambian newsrooms?
Musa: No. Not all. Besides abundant mediocrity, the environment is too rough for one to involve in investigative journalism. Investigative journalism cannot effectively take place in the face of rampant bulldozing of journalists and rights activists, especially in a society where almost everyone, including victims prefer to cry in silence instead of going public with their story.
AllGambian: How do you see the increasing numbers of online Gambian Newspapers?
Musa: It’s simply a healthy development which clearly proves that press freedom can be gagged but not eradicated. It’s like a smoke that’s out of controlled. The illegal rampant crack down on journalists and their institutions at home gave birth to proliferation of online media abroad and citizen journalists. What can the repressive regime do about that?
AllGambian: What is the best news headline you have ever read?
Musa: One of the best headlines I have read was titled ‘The Split’. This Observer headline, which stemmed out of a split within the main opposition United Democratic Party, really attracted my attention to the fullest, and I still respect whoever must have captioned that story.
AllGambian: What is the worst newspaper story you ever read?
Musa: That’s a difficult answer for me. The fact is that I have read so many of them, and can’t specifically tell you which of them is the worst.
AllGambian: The Gambia government has always argued that it is clamping on the media in the interest of peace and stability. Do you think that is the case?
Musa: Whose peace and stability are they referring to? Perhaps, President Yahya Jammeh’s individual peace and stability! But not that of Gambians who have been victims of everything bad, yet the government is reluctant to protect them. The government should change its policy of seeing the media as its number one enemy. Rather, the focus should be directed on how to address mountains of problems such as high cost of living, increasing unemployment, crime, official corruption, abuse of office, etc.
AllGambian: How will you classify President Jammeh, a friend or enemy of free press?
Musa: President Jammeh is one person who finds it extremely hard to swallow his disgust against the fourth estate as evidenced by his frequent misguided tirades against members of the press. Here is a man who has not only called journalists “illegitimate sons of Africa” and “rat pieces” but also launched a campaign to deny local papers advertisement revenue and asked the public to snub newspapers. Gauging from his actions and speeches, he proves to be a predator of press freedom. His government is interested in only singing praises for Mr. Jammeh, which is far from our duty. Our duty is to hold him and his government officials accountable to their deeds. It would be unethical for journalists to praise sing Mr. Jammeh for not coming clean on how taxpayer’s resources have been spent. That’s our public media type of journalism.
AllGambian: The Majority leader of the Gambian National Assembly recently accused the Gambian media of sensationalism. How will you react to that?
Musa: The question is: who takes those rubberstamping national assembly members seriously? The fact is that the public has lost confidence and faith in them long since. Apart from bastardising our constitution just to satisfy President Yahya Jammeh, these members indemnified soldiers dirtied with bloods of April 10 and 11, 2000 innocent victims. What a shameful act! They would have lived with respect and honour forever had they thrown that bill out.
I don’t think sensationalism is a major problem in our journalism. The real issue is the unwillingness on the part of the authorities to let news flow; they are doing everything within their powers to bury news under the carpet. What they don’t understand is that news is a commodity that cannot be hidden for so long. No wonder sensitive government information is being leaked to the online media.
AllGambian: Do you think the Gambian media is seriously playing its role?
Musa: Amid climate of fears, obnoxious media laws, official censorship and frequent clamp down on journalists, Gambian media is doing its best. If the media is not serious in playing its duties, all our journalists would have thrown away their pens and keyboards. They have gone through everything, yet for them, its business as usual.
AllGambian: What do you think is the way forward for the Gambian media?
Musa: Sharpen their professional skills; remain defiant and united around the fight against press freedom, report news as it happens, and seek strong partnership with organisations and individuals committed to press freedom and human rights both home and abroad. Already, our media is enjoying the high level of international solidarity, but that does not mean journalists should fold their hands until they are trapped in troubles. No. They need to strengthen such solidarity.
AllGambian: Who is the funniest reporter you ever worked with in The Gambia?
Musa: I had met so many funny reporters. You can see fun in the way some of them write. As an editor, you sometimes laugh when editing some news materials.
AllGambian: How it is like being forced to bring up your children far away from your extended family in Gambia?
Musa: It was a real challenge to bring up my children in a different environment or country. It was not easy for even my children who kept asking me why they live outside their known environment and denied rights to play with their Gambian mates. They sometimes asked when should we return home. Some of their questions put tears on your face. Bur I don’t hide my story from them because they already have a clue of it . And I can see sorrow, anger and bitterness on their face anytime we open that chapter.
It was uneasy to raise a young family abroad, but we made sure they remained happy at all times. In the end, they coped with life in exile because they were allowed to socialise with their Senegalese mates in and out of school. One of them was born in Senegal but they are all proud of being Gambian citizens. They demand phone conversations with my mother and mother-in-law every weekend, something that put smiles on their faces.