How I remember my friend, the brave journalist Deyda Hydara
He knew he was risking his life by provoking Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, but this generous man would not be quiet
Early in the morning of 17 December 2004, I woke up to a phone call from a Western diplomat. She asked me what I had heard about Deyda Hydara, a journalist and a mutual friend. “No, I am just back from an overseas trip and I have not yet spoken to him,” I replied. “Anything the matter with him?” She just told me to find out and get back to her.
I called Pap Saine, Deyda’s colleague and childhood friend. He said: “They shot him dead last night.”
I jumped out of bed, hastily dressed and rushed to the mortuary at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul where his body lay. Assembled there were several people – mainly journalists, his friends and family – nearly all confused as to who would kill such a friendly and peaceful soul, and why.
At the time of his death, Deyda was managing editor of The Point, one of The Gambia’s leading independent daily newspapers, which he had founded on 16 December 1991 together with Pap Saine and Baboucarr Gaye. It was therefore on the 13th anniversary of The Point, while he was driving home from the celebrations, that unidentified assassins ambushed him and shot him dead.
Deyda began his journalism career at Radio Syd in Banjul. Said to be the first private radio station in West Africa, Radio Syd was founded by a Swedish entrepreneur and began broadcasting in 1969, mainly to cater for the information and entertainment needs of Scandinavian tourists, who used to visit The Gambia in large numbers during the winter holidays.
One of the first Gambian members of staff, Deyda rose through the ranks and eventually became station manager before leaving in the mid-1980s. With the advent of the Senegambia Confederation between Senegal and The Gambia around that time, he worked with Saine and Gaye to found the Senegambia Sun, whose main objective was to serve as a mouthpiece of the confederation. A few years later, following the break-up of the confederation, the Senegambia Sun folded and in 1991 Deyda and his two colleagues set up The Point, initially as a weekly.
Like most Gambians, I knew Deyda through the Radio Syd airwaves and later developed a close friendship while we were both serving in the executive of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), the forum for Gambian journalists.
He was generous. Once upon a time, the GPU was struggling for survival. With no permanent meeting place, it was difficult to get the small corps of journalists to attend meetings. So Deyda offered the premises of The Point as a venue for GPU members, and he later negotiated with the US embassy in Banjul to hire an office to serve as the GPU secretariat, providing computers and other office equipment.
He also used to spend his own money to sponsor the GPU’s membership of several international affiliates such as the West African Journalists Association and the International Federation of Journalists, among others. Speaking for myself, I recall that in 1989, when I was nominated to represent the GPU at a journalism conference in Senegal, it was Deyda who footed the bill for my trip. He had done that on several other occasions.
Deyda never hesitated to call a spade a spade, even after Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh took over the country in a military coup d’état in 1994, with freedom of expression one of the first casualties of his rule. Several draconian media laws were enacted and journalists were subjected to constant intimidation and harassment by the security forces and other state agents.
Nevertheless, Deyda pulled no punches in criticising the government where necessary. In addition to his biting editorials, Deyda’s weekly column ‘Good Morning Mr President’ offered unsolicited advice to the head of state on numerous matters of national concern. Most were the concerns of ordinary Gambians such as farmers’ complaints about producer prices.
Another pet subject was press freedom. Deyda constantly reminded Jammeh of his obligations to uphold this freedom as required by the constitution. His frequent criticism of the National Media Commission Act was no doubt instrumental in compelling the government to eventually repeal that draconian law.
Deyda’s assassination led to many other journalists either calling it quits for fear of reprisals from the government or resorting to heavy self-censorship for their own security.
At the time of Deyda’s death, there was high suspicion that Jammeh’s government was behind his assassination. This suspicion was only confirmed when Omar Oya Jallow and Malick Jatta, members of ‘the Junglers’, Jammeh’s alleged death squad, confessed, in July 2019, to having participated in Deyda’s assassination at the behest of the then-president. Jallow, Jatta and several other Junglers appeared as witnesses at the recently concluded Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which was set up in 2018 to probe human rights violations during the Jammeh regime.
Jammeh and members of his regime have always exhibited a lack of will to investigate Deyda’s murder despite calls by the GPU and other pressure groups for a thorough investigation. The government not only failed to carry out a serious investigation, but Jammeh frequently made disparaging comments about the case, and the authorities frustrated any attempts by journalists to commemorate the event.
For instance, a GPU-organised march in December 2004, a few days after Deyda’s death, was allowed only under heavy military escort. In 2005, when the GPU and invited journalists and free-expression groups from the region converged to observe the first anniversary of Deyda’s killing by visiting the site of his murder, heavily armed paramilitary forces stopped them. Several Gambian journalists went to prison and some were exiled for simply asking who killed Deyda.
Now Jammeh has lost the presidency and is living in exile. The TRRC’s report has recommended the prosecution of all who took part in Deyda’s killing, including Jammeh himself. We are waiting to see what Jammeh’s successor, President Adama Barrow, will do.
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