The Daily Observer Founder Kenneth Y Best's statement to the International Press Institute
I wish to thank you and Bethel sincerely for this powerful statement on the Gambian parliament's terrible Act against press freedom and democracy in that country. I think the statement says it all.
The only thing, if any, that I would add is my shock and dismay to see that Nana Grey Johnson, himself one of the most educated and long-serving Gambian journalists, would bring himself to the depraved and despicable position of aligning himself, as Information Minister, with such a tyrannical regime as Yahya Jammeh's. It is hard to understand how Mr. Johnson, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s ran an independent news magazine in The Gambia, could agree to serve such a tyrannical regime that kills journalists like himself and other democracy and human rights activists. Does Johnson not know that when Jammeh is through with him (Nana), he, too, will get the boot and his own life will be in danger? That is how despots behave. Nana should know that.
I add my voice to those of the International Press Institute and all press freedom an democracy loving institutions and individuals in appealing to the Gambian parliament to swiftly repeal this horrible Act, in the interest of democracy, press freedom and good governance in The Gambia. But can they do it, when Gambia is a one-party state in which even the recognized opposition is also at risk?
Finally, I urge the Gambian journalists and human rights and democracy activists, in The Gambia and in the Gambian Diaspora, to continue the struggle for the restoration of a free and independent press and democracy in their beloved country and not relent until final victory is won!
Kenneth Y. Best, Founder and former Publisher, The Gambian Daily
Observer and Founder and Publisher, the Liberian Daily Observer
Born on Oct. 28, 1938, in Harrisburg, Liberia, Kenneth Y. Best founded the West African country’s first independent daily newspaper, the Daily Observer, in February 1981. That was just months after Master Sergeant Samuel Doe and his small band of noncommissioned officers came to power in a bloody coup d’état. The paper quickly established itself as Liberia’s most influential publication, but its critical reporting landed this legendary editor and his committed staff in trouble on numerous occasions during Doe’s 10-year dictatorship.
Samuel K. Doe, whose initials, people said, stood for “steal, kill and destroy,” had seized power in April 1980, a month before Best, his wife Mae Gene and their three young children were due to return to Liberia from Nairobi, Kenya. Best had been working there as information director of the All Africa Conference of Churches. Despite warnings from friends and family, Best insisted on returning to Monrovia to set up his paper. “Our country needs us now more than ever,” he said.
The Bests ran into trouble almost immediately. One month after the paper started, Minister of Justice Chea Cheapoo summoned Best. Before running television cameras, Cheapoo threatened to hunt down the journalist and shoot him if the Daily Observer published another story that was critical of the Minister. Upon Cheapoo’s insistence, the incident was aired on television to serve as a warning to the country’s already-terrified citizens.
Two months later Doe ordered the Daily Observer shut down and its entire staff, in addition to Best and his wife, arrested for publishing three letters from students calling on the government to lift the ban on a student leader, Conmany B. Wesseh.
Best was arrested on two more occasions. The Daily Observer was ordered closed down four more times — once for a period of two years — for such offenses as “presenting stories in a negative manner, misreporting events in the country or criticizing the state,” and it was twice the target of arson attacks.
Doe was captured and killed by Charles Taylor’s rebel forces during the country’s civil war, which began in December 1989, but forces loyal to him went about destroying much of Monrovia before retreating from the capital. The Daily Observer’s facilities were burned to the ground in 1990, and Best and his family were exiled in Banjul, The Gambia, where he soon established that country’s first daily, also called the Observer. Although he had a difficult time convincing people, even journalists, that there was a need for a daily newspaper in The Gambia because they said the country was too small and too poor, the Daily Observer became an instant success. “We paid particular attention to the small people in society, the poor and the voiceless,” Best said. “We continued to be their voice and published their concerns.”
When a group of young army officers seized power in The Gambia in a bloodless coup in July 1994, the Observer’s critical reporting quickly angered the new leader, Yahya Jammeh. “The people and the international community started telling the leaders to give a credible timetable to democratic civilian rule,” Best said. “When we started publishing these demands on a regular basis, the soldiers became uncomfortable with me and arrested me.” Best was detained on Oct. 21 and interrogated for 36 hours, before being released with a warning to be careful about what he published in his paper. Best and his family were deported to Liberia on Oct. 30, 1994, and emigrated a week later to the United States, where they were granted political asylum. He now lives and works as a media consultant in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Speaking in an interview in February 1999 about his experiences as a publisher in an undemocratic environment, Best said: “There’s no foolproof coat that a journalist can wear to prevent you from getting in trouble. You could still be killed, arrested and beaten up. But it is your duty to the public, because you want to promote the free flow of information and social justice in society. ... The powerful may not like what you do because you pry into their affairs, but the average people will appreciate your work.”