RI can help build a free press in The Gambia

RI can help build a free press in The Gambia

Omar Bah, founder and executive director of the Refugee Dream Center, in Providence, who earned a master’s degree in public administration from RWU in 2014:

I only have to look at the bayonet scar on my left hand to remember how Gambian President Yahya Jammeh treats a free press: The dictator’s soldiers beat, kicked and tortured me when I attempted to cover a secret trial in The Gambia, my native country. And I barely escaped with my life, fleeing the smallest nation on the African mainland before finding refuge here in America’s smallest state.

I thought I would never set foot in The Gambia again. But Jammeh, the authoritarian president for the past 22 years, lost the presidential election on Dec. 1. While it remains unclear if he’s going to willingly step aside, I hope to establish a private, independent newspaper there.

Rhode Island is now my family’s home, so I plan to remain here. But I hope to visit The Gambia soon to launch the paper — for the best way to cherish and protect this newfound freedom is to strengthen the pillars of democracy. The best way to avoid another oppressive regime is to establish a free, vibrant press. The best way to ensure that government leaders do not abuse their power is have reporters holding them accountable. The best way to ensure that this fragile democracy thrives is to report the truth — to give citizens the facts and not propaganda.

I not only want to give the people of The Gambia the news. I not only want to give the country a media outlet separate from the government-controlled newspaper. I want to give the people a way to express their views without fear of reprisal, torture and death. I want to give them a voice.

And Rhode Islanders can help. If anyone has computers – or, better yet, a printing press – please contact me through RWU’s First Amendment blog (efitzpatrick@rwu.edu) or contact me directly at omarbah79@gmail.com.

This is a crucial moment for a free press — and for a fragile democracy — in The Gambia. And this little state can make a big difference.