– An interview with co-founder Pap Seine
Above: Allen Meagher and Lamin Sanyang outside ‘The Point’s premises in Fajara.
I visited Pap Seine, co-founder of ‘The Point’ newspaper, on March 8th, 2018. He’s the only World Press Freedom Hero I know. With immaculate timing, my visit came on the very last full day of operations for Mr Seine and his staff at their HQ on Newtown Road, Fajara.
The next day, they were moving to Westfield, Kanifing.
I was fond of their old premises. In the mid-1990s, while living in The Gambia, I called regularly to this office. As an associate member of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) – with help from the late Deyda Hydara (co-founder and editor) and Demba Jawo – I delivered a training course for Gambian journalists at a professionally challenging time for all of them.
In a diary entry dated 6/5/1996, I wrote:
“Called to Deyda Hydara’s ‘The Point’ office to discuss plans for journalism course. He was busy when I called, trying to get food delivered to two journalists being held at police HQ in Banjul. They’re in custody for refusing to disclose sources. They wrote stories for their respective newspapers about police demotions and transfers, leaked by a highly placed government source.
“The police won’t admit that they are being held, or where, and Deyda’s food request is a ploy to find out although I’m sure they’d appreciate some decent grub (‘chop’ they call it).
“Among the things we discussed for the course was the idea of inviting police and government press spokespersons to give guest lectures and do a question and answer session afterwards. [That proved to be wishful thinking].
“We decided the course would be held over six weeks, two evenings per week, two hours per evening. A 24-hour course. The demand is such that the course may have to be held twice. Deyda said about 30/40 journalists would be interested,” my dairy entry reads.
My memories from delivering training at ‘The Point’ include one jaw-dropping incident. Midway through a two-hour class, we heard a big bang outside and, within a minute, all 14 students sitting in front of me disappeared. There had been a collision. Nobody was injured, but it became the most widely reported minor road traffic incident in The Gambia’s history.
Tragically, some years later, one of our students, Omar Barrow (then of Citizen FM) was shot dead by government forces, in April, 2000. He was among the 14 victims of a police massacre of mostly students who dared to protest on the streets. Omar was serving with the Red Cross that day and was shot while attending to students wounded by police gunfire. I filed a report on the incident for ‘The Irish Times’ – the least I could do.
In a tight-knit community with a population at the time of 1.3 million (it’s close to 2 million now) many people would have known one or more of those involved in the clashes. Might that help people see sense? Deyda, in his editorial immediately after the shootings, described it as “the maiming of innocent school-children by guns fired, by Gambian standards, by their fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins.”
Further atrocities followed, but there were no more massacres on the rare occasions when Gambians protested. (In Gunjur, 44 Ghanian would-be emigrants were killed when they came ashore and the now-paranoid Yahya Jammeh feared they were mercenaries).
In 2004, Deyda was targetted. On December 16, while driving two members of staff home, he was shot dead by forces loyal to Jammeh. He died within metres of a police station and close to a military barracks – as I saw for myself when I visited the site. The official investigation into his murder was no more than an administrative exercise.
Over the years, many tributes have been paid to Deyda, while the campaign to find and prosecute his killers continues. A young journalist (like myself at the time) and one of our students, Jai Marong, wrote in the immediate aftermath that she knew of no other boss who treated staff so well.
“Like countless others, I was profoundly angered as well as saddened at the brutal, barbaric, un-Islamic and gruesome assassination of Mr. Deyda Hydara,” she wrote. “His destiny was to ensure that the truth be told no matter what and he died fulfilling this.”
In the years before Deyda’s murder, The Point was offered a new premises, co-founder Pap Seine recalled when I interviewed him this year. His company could have all the support it wanted if it swung behind the country’s dictatorship, he and Deyda were told. They declined the offers and continued to work, with integrity, from a sub-standard building.
For Pap, the work is utterly vocational.
“I was arrested many times. I was named World Press Freedom Hero by IPI in 2010, and the paper won four international press freedom awards, in Germany, Vienna, South Africa and Zambia,” he said.
These awards helped to highlight the plight of media professionals in The Gambia and possibly saved some from death in custody.
Now a daily newspaper and the leading one in the market, this Gambian publication survived everything a dictatorship could throw at it. Despite appalling times, the pen ultimately proved mightier than the sword.
In January 2017, sufficient numbers of ordinary people bravely voted the dictator out and The Gambia’s democracy was restored with support from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Since then, the media industry in The Gambia has enjoyed a new era of freedom of expression and relatively open democratic debate. New television stations have opened, community radio has expanded and the general public – not surprisingly in a small country – devours current affairs. However, media organisations lack resources, equipment and training. This was evident also from talking to GPU journalism school director, Sang Mendy.
Mr Seine is open to offers of support for his newspaper “to help strengthen democracy in The Gambia”. He is keen on funding for equipment, exchanges and collaboration. ‘The Point’ welcomes student journalists on placement.
In a country where illiteracy is very high (“Roughly, about 30% are literate,” said Mr Seine) outsiders might question the value of supporting print journalism. In fact, the reports that Mr Seine’s team produce are translated into local languages and broadcast daily to all parts of the country.
From a business perspective, Mr Seine sees The Point newspaper evolving in the future into a television station.
I have no doubt it will happen.
Note: The date at the top of this report relates to the day the interview with Mr Seine was conducted.
This journalism was conducted with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.