I am writing this letter on board a Cross Country train to the northern part of the country. And while I don’t normally get myself involved in the Jalikunda sungko on Facebook as it is absolutely worthless, this time around, I cannot help but say a few things in support of my former boss at the Daily Observer, Sheriff Bojang, who is being criticised by certain individuals over his managerial style and handling of affairs in the aftermath of Deyda Hydara’s murder.
But first, I must say last week was a really emotional week for me. Three of my former colleagues at the Daily Observer – Lamin Cham, Ndey Tapha Sosseh and Malick Mboob, appeared at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where they revealed in horrific details their experiences during the former regime of Yahya Jammeh.
These guys are some of the finest and loveliest people I have had the pleasure of working with. They were more than work colleagues to me. We were friends and family and deeply cared for each other.
So it broke my heart when I heard Lamin Cham and Malick Mboob recount how they were taken to the NIA headquarters in Banjul and tortured. It was sad to hear how Malick Mboob, a man who welcomed me at the Observer with open arms was beaten, threatened with execution and detained arbitrarily for months on the whims of one jealous man who was determined to make him pay for his writings and confortable work environment at the RVTH.
I had to fightback tears when I heard how Ndey Tapha Sosseh, a woman who played a significant role in my career and life- was forced to spend years in exile away from his family and the efforts the regime made to get her extradited from Mali for her to be killed or locked up at the Mile Two Prisons just to please Yahya Jammeh, who saw himself as a demi-god and never hesitated to kill, torture or jail anyone who had the guts to stand up to him.
Their testimonies revealed the struggles of the Gambian media and the length our men in uniform and politicians went to deny journalists the right to freedom of expression and to keep the truth hidden from the masses at all cost.
It also revealed how the Daily Observer Newspaper and its managing director and later managing editor at the time, Sheriff Bojang, struggled to maintain editorial independence and to publish nothing but the truth despite mounting pressure from government officials.
Now, I am not trying to hold brief here for Mr Bojang, but I find it necessary to clarify a few misleading things that were published online by certain people and to highlight some of the contributions he had made to the growth of journalism in the country.
Although Sheriff had not obtained a university degree and wider life experience when I joined the Observer in 2003, but he was one of the most brilliant journalists I have worked with. His man-management skills was top marks and his love for the Daily Observer, a newspaper he saw as an institution that must never be allowed to fail, was unquestionable.
It was one of the reasons why he returned in 2002/03 to save the newspaper from financial ruins and total collapse.
In the last years of Buba Baldeh’s [his predecessor] tenure as managing director, the Daily Observer had hit the bottom rungs; no good machines, one broken down vehicle, millions of Dalasis in debts, incredibly low sales, very low morale. But Sheriff successfully turned around the company by acquiring new machines, launched a new website, bought vehicles for management and staff, paid some debts, restructured the rest and started investing in treasury bills. He doubled the paper’s circulation as opposed to before when even with the low numbers it have hundreds of unsold returns each day.
To paraphrase Kingsley Shacklebolt in the Harry Potter film series, the geezer has got some style. He was not bossy. He operated an open door policy and would play jokes with his reporters and other members of staff. His cook use to bring food to the company five days in a week which we would all eat together in the newsroom like one big family.
Under Sheriff, the Observer gave everyone a voice and wanted the paper to be the voice of all Gambians, hence his reasons for hiring Ndey Tapha Sosseh. And as stated by Ndey Tapha and Malick Mboob in their testimonies, he had never interfered in editorial matters and we were at liberty as editors to print anything we deemed fit even materials that put his job on the line.
By the time he left the Observer in 2004/2005, Sheriff had started working on a master plan to start Radio Observer and incorporate a company, Observer Trading, which would become a subsidiary to feed the logistical needs of the company as well as sell newsprints, inks, blankets and rollers to other newspapers in the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea Bissau. He has also established links with the Thomson Foundation in the UK to develop a training programme specifically designed to meet the needs of the Daily Observer newspaper as well as the planned radio.
The Aftermath Of Deyda Hydara’s Murder
Following the murder of Deyda Hydara of The Point Newspaper on Friday 16th December 2004, the entire media family was in shock. And again as stated by Ndey and Malick in their testimonies, a meeting was held the following Saturday in the computer room of the newspaper attended by the editorial team, Sheriff in his capacity as the Managing Director, the reporters and the printers.
In the meeting, we discussed whether to join other newspapers in embarking on a week-long news blackout as recommended by the Gambia Press Union, the effects it would have on Gambian society and the paper. Everyone at the meeting was encouraged to speak their minds before we agreed to down our tools for a week.
We also agreed to take the observer website offline to maximise the blackout. Observer was the only newspaper in the country at the time with a website and Sheriff in his wisdom had hired a Sierra Leonean, Fred Knox, as web administrator with the responsibility of making the newspaper accessible to the wider Gambian community especially in the diaspora.
Sheriff was not convinced that embarking on a news blackout was the right thing to do. According to him, those who killed Deyda probably did so because they wanted to silence the press and by ceasing publication, we would be losing vital revenue and more significantly, unwittingly doing what they wanted. Besides, he said that was the best time for us to use the paper to eulogise Deyda’s martyrdom and to publish deluge of commentaries, letters, condemnations et cetera from the public.
Despite his reservations, Sheriff accepted our decision to go along with the news blackout. Of course the board was not happy with the decision and despite coming under immense pressure, he stood his ground and refused to call his staffers back to work. He even attended the protest march in Banjul and was visible among the crowd.
A few days after the protest, some of the board members including two prominent members now deceased, who have always had a chequered relationship with Sheriff, ordered the sacking of Ndey Tapha as editor.
This was one of the hardest things Sheriff had ever done. He once told me in an interview that “It felt like being forced to divorce the wife you love. She [Ndey] wasn’t just an awesome editor and she was my friend, more like my sister.”
Believing in his own ability to talk sense into people and make them do sometimes things that they don’t necessary meant to do, Sheriff thought he could pull strings and resolve the issue as he had done many times in the past, but his employers refused to see sense. Frustrated, he made repeated requests to be allowed to walk away from the Observer, which was refused each time he had a meeting with the board. In the end, the board members themselves decided to let him go.
It is wrong for people to heap blame on Sheriff for his handling of things that were beyond his control. He did what he thought was best for the Observer at the time and I will always remain grateful for his contributions to the development of Gambian media and young journalists like myself, Sheriff Bojang Jr, Omar Bah, Nanama ‘Okocha’ Keita, Ebrima Jaw Manneh and hundreds of others.