Remembering Deyda Hydara, four years after his murder

I last saw Deyda Hydara alive on December 14, 2004, only two days before his death. To this day, the gunmen who shot dead the Gambia’s best-known journalist as he drove home from work are still at large. The crime remains unsolved.

This morning, I joined Deyda’s widow, Maria, his adopted daughter Nellie and more than 100 family and friends for recitations of the Holy Quran in his memory at his residence in the capital, Banjul.

Yet, December 16 was not supposed to be filled with sorrow for the Hydaras. Deyda’s newspaper, The Point, was founded on December 16, 1991. The date is also his wife’s birthday.

But on December 14, 2004, the brief conversation Deyda and I shared was about our apprehensions about working in a hostile environment. We had witnessed a series of arson attacks on media houses and physical attacks on journalists over political coverage–in complete impunity. We were also fighting for our freedom against the government’s attempt to enact repressive media bills. I did not know it was the last time I would see Deyda.

I remember Deyda as a champion of press freedom. I first heard his voice circa 1975 when he was a radio DJ for Radio Syd, the Gambia’s first private broadcaster. Later on, as the managing editor and co-owner of The Point, he penned a column called “Good Morning Mr. President.” The column was popular because it addressed the president directly about issues of public interest. When two officials asked him to drop the column at a meeting I attended, he refused, saying that people have a right to know about pertinent issues.

Deyda was a journalist with a deep sense of civic duty. In fact, he will be remembered for advancing humanitarian causes through the media. It was through his advocacy in The Point that Banjul’s Muslim cemetery was fenced. His stories about the mentally ill at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital allowed for funds to be made available for the renovation of the hospital’s psychiatric ward.

Today, journalists in the Gambia work under very difficult and hostile circumstances. Always casting a shadow over them are the disappearances of reporters, like that of “Chief” Ebrima Manneh, and the closures of independent media outlets, such as Sud Fm, Citizen Fm, the Citizen newspaper, and The Independent newspaper, which was sealed under police guard until June of this year. None of the cases of arson attacks on the media have ever been investigated.

In October of this year, when the West African Journalists Association awarded Deyda a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award, Maria Hydara commended friends of her late husband, far and near, for always remembering him. As for myself, I will always remember the words of Deyda at a journalism training workshop organized by the Gambia Press Union: “A journalist has to be committed to providing truthful information to the public and must at all times be responsible to the public. A journalist has to transcend sentiment to be able to do the job right.” Deyda lived and died by those principles.

Madi Ceesay is a journalist based in Banjul, the Gambia, and the founder of Media Agenda, a journalism training organization. He was a 2006 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award.