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Sensationalism Sells; But…

Our smiling coast is not so cohesive as we’d like to believe post dictatorship. But like most things Gambian, we’d rather be in denial or downplay issues than confront them and deal with them in an honest objective manner. If we choose to deal with issues at all, we cloud the actual issue with biased sentiment and emotions; it is hardly ever an intelligent discourse around issues devoid of sentiment.

That sensationalism riles up a sizable number of our compatriots and every issue gets turned into a shout fest and a match as to who can dole out the harshest insult to the other party while being cheered on by a “fan base” for being bold and fearless.

Yes fear; the most potent weapon of the tyrant during his reign had a lot of people cowered into either submissiveness or obliviousness. Government became synonymous with oppression and brutality. Unconcerned silence, even for some far removed from the seat of tyranny became the norm. Not so for a bold few who risked it all to vent out their frustrations and anger at the status quo, at the time deemed stupid or suicidal, or both.

With the tyrant banished, it has become fashionable to “speak truth to power” and thump one’s chest with bravado and daring anyone, especially those in authority to do something about an individual exercising his or her right as a free citizen. It is indeed a far cry from a few short months ago. It is something we should all be proud of and encourage citizen participation in all aspects of governance. But are we being responsible with our new found freedoms? Are we being responsible citizens aiming for a better, more open, and caring society or are we stuck in a state of irrational bellicose just to prove a point as to how brave we are?

We need to move past that, heroes and heroines have been made and left behind a grateful nation to rebuild and reunite. Our politics had been polarizing for over two decades along every divisive line possible just to suit the tyrant’s self-serving ambitions. He divided us into sects, wooed and courted some while denigrating and insulting others. Naturally, being the leader with power and reach, people sought membership of the former camp and together aligned themselves with his divisive rhetoric.

He declared an Islamic Republic and made the non-Muslims feel alienated and concerned. Today we view issues along those line (Tanene). He praised and utilized public resources for the provision of amenities in areas he deemed loyal to his party while castigating and neglecting regions that held differing political views even though they paid their taxes. Today we look at Foni as if they are not of us. He singled out the Mandinka for scorn and ridicule while painting them as a vile group that others need to stay away from, all laced with lies and hateful propaganda. Today, we can’t debate any issue without pointing to some tribal conspiracy.

That rift in social order needs mending, but unfortunately it seems others have picked up where the tyrant left off and are widening the chasm further each passing day.

It is understandable that post-trauma, people may develop paranoia and restlessness for fear of reliving the trauma they went through. Caught up in that state, we often inflict self-harm due to irrational fear rather than genuine concern and exacerbate the actual problem (fire crackers are traumatizing for some war veterans, as they are reminded of the sound of firing guns).

The reign of the tyrant was traumatic for us; that state of post-traumatic stress is manifest in our words and actions even though we may be in denial to that effect. Take a close look at our discourse, especially online and tell me it ain’t so.

Talks of dictatorship, censorship, tribalism, etc. are all that we seem to talk about. Where that is not the case, it is often centered on how ineffective the government is; as if the government should have a hand in everything and be micromanaging from State House as it obtained under the tyrant. That in itself is a subtle manifestation of what psychologists may term the ‘Stockholm syndrome’; an instance of feeling like the tyrant had a grip on things so much so that we wish for our democratic space to be ruled with similar overreach. In fact, often times we hear staunch opponents of the tyrant expressing regret and doubt as to whether it was the right decision to have him booted out; “at least there was order” they’d say.

Of course it will help if the executive shows some resolve and proactive stance on certain issues, which in fact is a requirement. We cannot afford to go from one extreme of executive overreach and micro management of all our affairs to another extreme of a seemingly carefree laissez faire approach to issues.

That seeming disconnect is spurning a beast of its own, an undesirable beast at that; an active rumor mill and sensational journalism. The problem with that is having issues overblown causing further divisions and widening already existing ones.

Our journalists have their work cut out for them, but even there one can sense failures and below standard performance. It seems social media drives the narrative even for our journalists; at least online media, and it is almost always sensational journalism. Addressing trending topics on social media is of course vital in grasping the views of the citizenry on ongoing issues, the problem lies in journalists using such sentiments as premises upon which they build their stories instead of building their own premise and incorporating such views as a way of being inclusive of all sides and diverse opinions.

Take the recent land saga between one Mr. Barrow and residents of Tanene in Kombo South. The narrative on social media was immediately shaped into an issue of the predominantly Mandinka trying to exert their hegemony over the minority Manjago, which quickly turned into the majority Muslims against the minority Christians and their burial rites. Then it was a case of a “heartless greedy man buying a cemetery for residential purposes.” The Gambian social media rumor mill spins rumors at an industrial scale, it thrives on speculation and sweeps the not-so-cautious along with it; boy did we all for it?

Enter the journalists! Instead of establishing the facts around the ownership claims of the said land, it turned into a case of guilt shaming the man into ceding the land he claimed he rightly owned and was trespassed upon. Now I am not saying that he is the rightful owner or that he was there before the burials started, but that is the facts the journalists need to establish instead of being apologists to social media bullies. Looking at one of those interviews, one can’t help but notice that the case was being made for the “protection of minority rights” rather than getting to the bottom of what the truth actually is which is what the task of journalists is.

When Lawyer Darboe was invited on two other platforms, the line of questioning was overshadowed by allegations of UDP being a sectarian party along tribal lines and pushing him to prove otherwise. Of course when allegations are made they need to be clarified, but why do we get stuck in a loop around that one issue when there are a thousand others to dwell on? That is the million dollar question and all indications point to sensationalism.

Now what is such below par journalism doing? People are finding camps to align with and others to confront, yet we wonder why we can’t have civil discourses? ‘Tribalism’ has never been an issue in our country until the tyrant made it one. Our task is to recognize that, and then seek to bridge that chasm, but we are widening and deepening it through sensationalism. One group saying “we will not be suppressed in our own land, this land belongs to all of us” and another saying “we will not be vilified and demonized for standing up for ourselves.”

Divisions are emerging or are being consolidated, it will reach a boiling point at a time when we will be unable to contain it and when that day comes it will be tragic beyond measure.  Mr. President, instead of holding reconciliation rallies at designated regions, address the nation on the state of the nation and any ongoing work being done towards addressing some burning issues such as land tenure and the efforts around justice for the victims of the oppression of the tyrant. Results may speak for themselves but sometimes they come too late.

“sonkoh fattah, janning beh kello fattala” (defuse tensions before it gets to a point when you’d have to break up a physical fight).

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