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Niklas Hultin
Swarthmore College

“Pure Fabrication”: Information Policy, Media Rights,
and the Postcolonial Public

This article interprets the debate over freedom of speech and the regulation of the
media in The Gambia as a debate over the calibration of the public sphere and its
subject. Rather than accepting the framing of the debate as one of human rights
versus the state (or versus culture), the article argues that it is a debate involving
competing visions of community, responsibility, and information flow. The author
charts arguments about the role of information in society and the status of the
press advanced by Gambian journalists as well as government representatives to
show how these arguments pivot around a particular understanding of an
informed public subject and not around human rights. Rights are, however, upheld
as a goal by both sides inasmuch as they are held as an abstract aspiration and
not as a legal claim, a fact that points to the ways in which human rights mesh with
(neo-)liberal modalities of rule and their simultaneously emancipatory and regu-
lative impulse. [Human rights, public sphere, media, information, The Gambia]

Since 2002, legislators, journalists, and human rights activists in the West African
country of The Gambia have taken part in a national discussion cutting to the
heart of the configuration of power in the polity. The debate concerns the creation
of a National Media Commission (NMC), a regulatory body intended to oversee
the press, but the discussion has turned acrimonious and civil society groups have
denounced the government for interfering with a fundamental human right.1 At
the same time, the debate’s rapid movement through different social settings and
policy arenas indicates a concern much deeper and broader than the regulation of
the press as such. Although the NMC debate may seem to be a clash between a
government with an authoritarian bent and a heroic civil society, this paper argues
that the debate points to the deployment of competing expectations of the public
sphere and its inhabitants. Whereas journalists and human rights activists frame
the debate as one of the human right to free speech, in which a zero-sum relation
is posited between this freedom and governmental interference, the government
frames the debate as one over administrative and regulatory arguments alongside
appeals for solidarity. In contrast to both of these views, I propose a third frame
in which the debate centers on the boundaries of civic discourse and the consti-
tution of an informed citizenry in a developmental state.

PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Vol. 30, Numbers. 1, pps. 1–21.
ISSN 1081-6976, electronic ISSN 1555-2934. © 2007 by the American Anthropological
Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or
reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions
website, at DOI: pol.2007.30.1.1.
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The following statement given during a debate on the NMC by a National
Assembly Member (NAM) for the ruling party introduces this alternative frame:2
A fifth former with an ordinary level certificate with a good pass in
English joins the press and says he/she can write well. How can that
person perform when he/she has no qualification in journalism? . . .
How can this bad paper write that I was found in “an uncompromis-
ing circumstance” at the airport? This could mean that it was a very
crude circumstance, that I must have been found naked somewhere
with people in the dark doing something that is very bad or indiscreet.
This was pure fabrication. The reporter concerned called and asked
me but I told him that this is not true and that if he knew what is good
for him he should not print it. [National Assembly 2002:162]
This statement expresses not just hostility toward a particular journalist or publi-
cation. The indignant tone and the call for the regulation and professionalization
of journalists point toward an expectation of what the role of the media in society
is and, more broadly, what kind of information should be put into the public
sphere and how. Set within a broader discourse of information policy, such expec-
tations serve as a palimpsest in which a multi-layered discussion of the role of
information in the political process, national development, and formation of a
public sphere and its subject can be read.
Following a line of argument that treats terms such the “State” and “the public
sphere” as constituted by governmental practices and technologies (e.g., Foucault
1991; Navaro-Yashin 2002; Rose 1999), I argue that discussions about the proper
relationship between journalists and the government, or journalists and the citi-
zenry at large, are efforts to produce particular subjects, their rightful place in the
polity, and their duties vis-à-vis that polity. The public sphere associated with the
work of Jürgen Habermas (1989), composed of rational, knowledgeable public
subjects congregating to debate matters of common interest, is thus not preexist-
ing politics, but emergent in the discussions that presume this sphere’s existence.
In fact, as Andrew Barry has suggested, the creation of such knowledgeable sub-
jects is a necessity in (neo-)liberal societies: the citizen “must develop a commit-
ment to the truth and the value of being informed” (Barry 2001:48).3 Arguments
over the media and the role of information in the polity are ultimately arguments
over the kind of public subject that should exist and the duties and obligations such
subjects should see in themselves (Gaonkar and Povinelli 2003; Warner 1992).
From this vantage point, even practices intended to restrict the circulation of infor-
mation are, as Boyer (2003) notes with reference to censorship in East Germany,
productive as they help determine the kinds of information that are deemed
pertinent for good citizenship and political participation.
There is an overlap between this liberal emphasis on rational subjects and the lan-
guage of human rights (Speed 2005). The latter does not just presume the exis-
tence of a universal, rights-bearing subject eager and able to be informed, but is
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increasingly an instrument of authority as governments face pressures to liberal-
ize their economies, provide for transparency in public affairs, and establish pre-
dictable mechanisms for the dispensing of property and settling of disputes (see
Ferguson 2006:83–88). In the context of this article, the Gambian government’s
simultaneous acceptance of human rights in general terms, sidestepping of sub-
stantive human rights issues, and reliance on law and regulation in its response
to human rights activists suggest that the time-honored rights versus culture, or
rights versus oppression, dichotomy has for the most part run its course. We live—
as we are frequently reminded—in an age where culture and rights are in their own
peculiar ways propertized and pressed into service as referents for political action,
indicia of modernity, and justifications for neoliberal interventions. The complex-
ity and interconnectedness of rights claims and regulatory desires are underlined
by the Gambian debate over the NMC and information policy, a debate tightly
wound up with a rhetoric of national development and implicit assumptions about
historical teleology and the formation of a postcolonial information society.
The Context of the Media in Africa and The Gambia
Debates over the role of information and the media in society and the making of
a public sphere have a rich history in Africa.4 Colonial and postcolonial govern-
ments alike have sought to promote and regulate media to further agendas of con-
trol and nation-building. With a few exceptions, the tendency has been one of
governmental control over broadcast media. For colonial governments, radio
services were not just a means to provide entertainment for the elites, but also a
tool to bolster the legitimacy of colonial rule by creating a sense of solidarity and
identity with the metropolitan agenda. Postcolonial governments, too, have at
times exercised considerable control over the airwaves in the name of nation-
building, and any potential pluralism has been limited by political circumstances
and the economic and logistical realities of broadcast media.
In terms of print media, several African countries, particularly in Anglophone
West Africa, have long traditions of press pluralism (Bourgault 1995:153–159).
Although restrictions on free speech—such as sedition laws—were common,
some colonial governments were supportive of the private press inasmuch as the
creation of a news reading public was part of their civilizing project. To colonial
governments as well as sections of the African population, reading was emblem-
atic of a Western-derived modernity and therefore to be encouraged (cf. Newell
2002 on Ghana). Foreshadowing later day arguments about the role of the media
and information in society, private and public colonial newspapers were encour-
aged to advance what was deemed a modern sensibility and the practices of read-
ing and writing that were to go along with that sensibility.
The advent of independence had an equivocal impact on Africa’s private media.
Although the new governments often made the development of the professional
capacity of the media a priority, this development was subordinated to the over-
arching imperative of nation-building. The role of the media and information was
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turned from one of opposition to one of support: the media’s role was typically
seen as the transmission of messages of development and stability. These diffi-
culties and the expense of training and production, the authoritarian bent of many
governments, the continued existence of colonial regulations concerning freedom
of speech, and the government-owned media’s dominance in national media
milieus, have all contributed to a relatively tame private press in many post-
colonies (Tudesq 1999:41–48).
This image of decline has its limits, however. In spite of the above difficulties,
media are important elements of social life through which Africans engage and
comment upon their world (Ambler 2002). Today’s African media milieu is an
inchoate space for the absorption and refraction of political, social, cultural, and
religious concerns.5 The private media for their part engage, critique, and absorb
transnational ideas and images, including those of a liberal modernity and the
international human rights movement. With an awareness of its anticolonial
legacy and having internalized professional and internationally legitimated norms
of the media as “the Fourth Estate,” the private press in West Africa labors under
a liberal ethos of free speech (Hasty 2005).
The history of the Gambian media largely follows the above narrative. At inde-
pendence from the United Kingdom in 1965, the press was small but vibrant.
During the colonial era, an African-owned private press had been allowed to exist
in spite of its criticism of colonial rule (Grey-Johnson 2004). Under the postinde-
pendence government, the private media continued to develop although it was over-
shadowed by the government’s news outlets. The goals of information policy at this
time were economic development and national solidarity. An unrealized 1978 gov-
ernment paper called for the establishment of a national television service to foster
national community (Government of The Gambia 1978:44). The 1970 constitution
also enshrined freedom of expression and information, and the country ratified most
pertinent international treaties, helping The Gambia earn a reputation for an unwa-
vering commitment to human rights in an otherwise turbulent region.
Matters changed dramatically in 1994. During the 1980s, the country’s economic
decline, a failed urban uprising in 1981, and the unpopularity of a confederation
with Senegal, had cost the government much of its popularity with ordinary
Gambians. When elements of the army seized power in July of 1994, many
Gambians greeted the coup with indifference. The Armed Forces Provisional
Ruling Council (AFPRC), led by Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, promised a new
constitution, less corruption, and improvements in infrastructure. Some
Gambians were critical of the government, however, citing the worsening human
rights situation. Using military decrees and dormant colonial legislation, the
AFPRC suppressed the media and individual newspapers were threatened with
being shut down (Wiseman 1996). The AFPRC did launch the country’s first
television station, but it was placed under the national telephone company and
effectively worked as an “extension of the state machinery” (Bensouda 1998:6).
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Faced with increasing opposition from foreign governments and human
rights activists, the government moved up the democratic timetable. A new
constitution—widely considered superior to the old one in terms of democratic
safeguards—was adopted in 1997. Jammeh retooled the AFPRC into a politi-
cal party and successfully contested the presidency in a controversial election
in 1996 (Ibrahim 2004), and reasonably free and fair elections in 2001
and 2006.
The inauguration of the Second Republic altered the terms of the media’s rela-
tionship with the government. Whereas between 1994 and 1997, the government
was mostly concerned with controlling the media in a heavy-handed manner with
decrees, the discourse of the media since then is increasingly taking place within
a discussion of the information society and through an idiom of collaboration,
responsibility, and management. The imperatives of nation-building so strong
during the immediate postcolonial era have reemerged as a neoliberal program of
constituting a well-informed citizenry able to labor for the country’s development
as an information society. Even in instances of what to human rights activists are
signs of a chilly climate for the media, the government’s measures are framed in
terms of administrative policies rather than political confrontation. The revoca-
tion of the license of the private radio station Citizen FM in 2001, for instance,
was ostensibly due to tax irregularities and not politically motivated as human
rights activists charge. Other incidents cited as examples of the government’s
heavy-handed measures against the media, such as the 2004 imprisonment of an
opposition politician for sedition after publishing a letter calling for citizens to
demonstrate against the government, are justified by the government with refer-
ence to stability and responsibility.
The NMC: In Search for Information and Responsibility
The facility with which the government has incorporated the media debate into
a discussion of responsibility and administration is in part due to the small size
of the Gambian media. In 2003–4, when the research on which this article is
based took place, there were five independent and one government run newspa-
per in circulation. Save for one daily, these papers are published only a few times
a week, have small press runs of less than 3,000 copies, a geographically limited
circulation, and are completely dependent on advertising for revenue.6 That they
are all in English further restricts their audience. The size of the private media
has a direct bearing on the professionalization of journalists in The Gambia.
Only a few senior journalists have degrees from abroad and there is no school of
journalism in The Gambia—whatever training is available is ad hoc and short-
term.7 This lack of professionalization of the media is decried by the government
and journalists alike, and the Gambian Press Union (GPU) was therefore initially
supportive of the effort to establish the NMC and a code of conduct for the
media. The GPU quickly soured on the initiative, however, after it was deemed
too restrictive.
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The 1997 constitution mandated the establishment of the NMC and a code of con-
duct for the media “to ensure the impartiality, independence and professionalism of
the media which is necessary in a democratic society” (quoted in Bensouda
1998:8). Over protests from media practitioners and human rights groups, the
National Media Commission Act was passed in 2002 (it was amended in 2003). The
substantive provisions are of less interest than the debate surrounding the Act, but
three points need to be underlined: first, the Act established judiciary powers for the
NMC, empowering it to levy fines or order the imprisonment of violators. Second,
the composition of the NMC gives an indication of the centrality granted the issue
under its purview. In addition to the GPU, the following groups are to have a repre-
sentative: the Gambian Teachers Union, the Supreme Islamic Council, the Gambian
Christian Council, the Women’s Bureau (part of the Office of the President of the
Gambia), the National Assembly, the Gambian Bar Association, the Gambia Radio
and Television Services, and the country’s youth.8 Third, while the Act regulates
who is allowed to transmit information, through what means and in what context,
the meaning of “information” is left undefined and objectified. This treatment of
information as something concrete but yet of an unproblematic nature is, as will be
discussed below, a constant in the debate over the information society.
Almost all journalists resisted the NMC because it requires the registration and
licensing of journalists and is endowed with judicial powers. The GPU chairman
explained that these “things were too draconian for us to accept and that is when
we started [to fight]” (interview, March 15, 2004). When I asked the chairman to
elaborate on the media’s relation to the government, he responded:
Our problems have been compounded by the fact that the government
is now . . . aware of the existence of the media as opposed to that time
[the 1970s and 80s] they didn’t care much about what these people
were writing because they knew that [the journalists] didn’t have the
capacity . . . to challenge the government on a lot of things. The situ-
ation is quite different now. . . . the government was not comfortable
with what the private media were writing about so they probably
thought [the NMC] the best way they could control [us]. . . . [It] is very
draconian in nature, it can have the power even to force journalists to
reveal their sources and all other things. [Interview, March 15, 2004]
This historical trajectory points to the reemergence of the media as a political
actor that needs to be held to some standards.9 Both the press and the government
appear to agree on this point, but they differ on what the role of this political actor
should be. The key point of divergence is the issue of regulation, which in turn
pivots around access to information. The GPU chairman continued:
Access to information is our main problem. Hardly anybody in gov-
ernment is willing to talk to the private journalists . . . so in certain
situations the journalists sometimes resort to speculation . . . you get
a lead about a particular story and then you try to get someone in
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government actually to confirm or deny it and nobody is willing to
talk to you. [Interview, March 15, 2004]
Not only is access to information a problem, but the GPU chairman here makes
the government complicit in one of the major issues of disagreement between the
media and the government: the lack of access to information almost forces jour-
nalists to speculate. There is a subtle reification of information here, as it is taken
to have a reality on its own, only to be confirmed or denied, but not to be context-
Another senior journalist, Deyda Hydara, expressed a similar sentiment. I asked
him how he envisioned the media in relation to the public at large, the govern-
ment, and the NMC. He responded that the NMC rules are one-sided (only con-
taining provisions for complaints against journalists), do not ensure the media’s
access to information, and contain no guidelines to determine if a government
employee can speak to a journalist—it is based on the “whims of the permanent
secretary” (the top level civil servant in each department). Exasperatedly, Hydara
finished his explanation: “they will rather tell you to wait for the press release.”
The press, by contrast, is presented as a guardian of the public interest with a duty
to transmit information, even if potentially unsettling to the government: “we
[Gambians] . . . believe that if people get too comfortable things will get out of
hand.” Answering directly to the charges of inaccuracies and slander frequently
leveled by the government at the media, he explained that “our corrections are
minimal if not non-existent. We check it, we check it, and we check it, God help
us!” (interview, July 12, 2004).
The notion that the task of the media is to make sure that people in power are not
too comfortable was frequently emphasized in different ways by journalists. One
of Hydara’s reporters told me that the press has a “sacred duty” to protect the
weak and fight abuses (interview, July 9, 2004). Similar comments were made by
other journalists in the private media. In fact, almost all journalists I met told me
that the media’s role in promoting human rights, in implied opposition to the gov-
ernment, was something that first attracted them to this line of work. Hydara
summed up this view in an editorial, published the week after the private news-
papers had self-imposed a blackout to protest the NMC, in which he stated that
“journalists are given a role in what is known as a democracy and we want to
uphold that role because it is a contract that we have entered into with the people”
(Hydara 2004).
The picture of the public sphere emerging out of the journalists’ self-representation
is that of a fragile institution, needing the media as a watchdog to remain vibrant
in the face of an uncooperative government. This rhetoric of the media as a bul-
wark against governmental abuse resonates with the media’s colonial history, the
continent-wide emphasis on the positive role of the media in democratization
and development, and the central tenets of the international human rights move-
ment.10 According to this view, the government’s failure to provide information
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is morally suspect, and the civil servants’ reluctance to share information is
“irresponsible cowardice” (Hasty 2005:134). This is in marked contrast to the
GPU chairman’s indignation over the possibility of journalists having to reveal
sources. There is here a normatively coded directionality to the flow of informa-
tion. Information must flow from those in power to the citizens (via the journalists),
not the other way around. This image of free speech and democracy is, somewhat
counterintuitively, antipolitical (Hasty 2005:164). By painting the default state of
society as one where the government keeps no secrets from the citizens—where
the informed citizenry is, in effect, sacrosanct and prior to the government—any
deviation from that norm can be critiqued as capricious and draconian and not a
matter of legitimate political differences.11
A very different slant on what the media should be is given by the government.
President Jammeh gave the following statement at a press conference after the dead-
line to register with the NMC had been extended by the Secretary of State for the
Department of State for Communication, Information and Technology (DOSCIT):
We believe in giving each fool a long rope to hang yourself [sic].
After three months, there will be no compromise. We are here to
uphold the rule of law. . . . If vehicle owners decided not to register
their vehicles, do we have to give them three months? No, we don’t
have to set [a] bad precedent. . . . You either register or you don’t
write or you can go to hell. . . . Nobody will hold the government to
ransom and we are not negotiating. [quoted in M’Bai and Faal 2004]
Here, the disagreement with the media is framed as a hostage-taking situation,
reversing Hydara’s point from above. The contract is not with “the people” but
with the government, and it has been torn apart. The implication here is that the
journalists, rather than being stewards of the public, are a part of the administra-
tion of public life and need to be regulated accordingly.
A similar, but more conciliatory, statement was made in the National Assembly
debate. Fatoumata Jahumpa-Ceesay, speaking for the ruling party, suggested that
the very people [international human rights groups] who are debating
this Bill on behalf of the Gambian media are not telling the Gambian
media how the media are regulated in their own countries. That is
very unfair. They also do not know our African values and customs;
the way we live, the extended family system, etc. We are all brothers
and sisters. My standing here today to debate on this media bill does
not mean that I am an enemy to my brothers in the Gambian media.
No! I laugh, I joke and talk with them as friends and brothers.
[National Assembly 2002:126].
The image is at marked odds with that of the journalists. Whereas the latter speak of
a contract with the people in implied opposition to the state, Jahumpa-Ceesay evokes
communal solidarity, or, as Zygmunt Bauman puts it, a “‘warm circle’ . . . [with] no
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room for cold calculation and rote-learning of whatever society around, frostily
and humorlessly, presents as ‘standing to reason’” (2001:10). Bauman’s juxtapo-
sition of reason and warmth neatly captures the common sense that invocations
of rights rupture a community’s bonds of trust and solidarity (Hastrup 2003).12
When deployed by the NAMs, it is a compelling vision wrapped in an argument
of African cultural difference vis-à-vis an unspecified other (presumably the
West). This vision resonates with a pervasive sense that the discourse of human
rights is often a way for Europeans and Americans to tell Africans what to think and
do. Jahumpa-Ceesay also implicates patriotism: if journalists side with the human
rights groups, they are not just siding with “foreigners” but letting foreigners speak
on their behalf, signaling both the journalists’ weakness and their breach of soli-
darity (Englund 2004; Whitaker 2005). Equally important, however, is what is not
said: at no time is there a denial of the journalists having human rights, or that
human rights are a good thing. Human rights as a hazy aspiration are untarnished
and it is the act of claiming rights, of making them justiciable, that is a violation
of cultural norms.
Although these comments take place within a larger discourse of regulation and
the information society, the language of transparency and auditing that usually
accompanies such discussions, is directed toward the journalists, not the govern-
ment (see Power 1999; Strathern 2000). The role of the journalists is not to be a
watchdog of society, but a purveyor of information, a node in the network of soci-
ety. Addressing journalists gathered in the audience to a National Assembly
debate, the then Majority Leader explained:
Your profession is a profession that we need, that we want to make
best use of. . . . No one is against any media society . . . but there must
be regulation. There must be a sense of direction . . . the problem here
is because you are an intermediary in the form of transmitting infor-
mation. So, here is a problem of representation. . . . If you want to
represent me, you have to feel, write and think like I do. That way,
you are correct, otherwise you will offend me. [National Assembly
Journalists are here reduced to be conduits of information, and the chief criteria
for success are fidelity and authenticity. To be an effective conveyor, the journal-
ists must share or conform to the ruling party’s vision of government and accept
the latter’s parameters of what an informed citizenry entails. Ramzia Diab, who
introduced this article, argued in a similar vein that:
We have a culture in Africa and that is the extended family system
and it calls for discretion. Most things that happen are normally set-
tled in the family homes. . . . We cannot afford to be like the press
in America, our cultures are different. They can expose their presi-
dent. They exposed Bill Clinton . . . and turned him into a little per-
son despite all the good he did for their country]. . . . There is no
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controversy in [the NMC] bill. We are not like Europeans. [National
Assembly 2002:162]
Diab here implies the redundancy of a public sphere, or, at the very least, the
redundancy of media-as-watchdog in the public sphere. Any overt manifestation
of dissent—such as claiming justiciable rights—is contrary to cultural norms.
Rather, disagreements should be resolved in the family home.
These speakers thus paint an image of the polity different from that of the jour-
nalists, and while it would be easy to assimilate the difference to one between
the language of rights and civil society on the one hand, and a language of com-
munal solidarity and African culture on the other, such assimilation would be
misleading. It is true that the language of rights has been increasingly adopted
by the media professionals in The Gambia, but the government, too, relies on
legal language for its argument, and the debate is fundamentally a legal squab-
ble over the limits of the constitution and the NMC.13 Arguments about culture
are in fact blended with regulatory arguments and programmatic statements
about the importance of rights to offer a counterpoint to the journalists’ self-rep-
resentation. The argument is not about rights, but about cultural propriety and
fidelity to the government’s plan of developing society. Rights in an abstract
sense are never denied or dismissed, but if they are acted upon or made explicit,
they are deemed out of place, as not fitting the bounds of communal solidarity
and civic discourse.
Information Policy and the Creation of an Informed Citizenry
But the story of the NMC does not end here. It is but one small part of the
National Information and Communication Initiative (NICI). NICI began as the
National Communications and Information Policy (NACIP) in 2000, but was sus-
pended in 2003 after extensive consultations with different sectors of Gambian
society and support from the UN Economic Commission on Africa (that the NMC
process continued while the rest of the initiative was stalled hints at the impor-
tance granted it by the government).
Although billed as a continuation of NACIP, NICI takes a bolder view of infor-
mation in society. NACIP essentially considered information as one of several
equal components of the government’s development plan. NICI, by contrast,
locates information at the heart of society: the document offers the reader a chart
in which NICI is put in the middle, with arrows going out from it to several “pri-
ority areas:” Infrastructure, Regulatory Issues, Local Governance, Education,
Gender, Trade and Commerce, Media, Agriculture, e-Governance and Health
(Islam 2005:30). Whereas in NACIP information and communication was a dis-
creet, albeit important component of society that could be addressed in isolation
from other sectors, under the NICI, information and communication is not just
deemed to be pertinent to other sectors, but considered to be superior to and have
a transformative effect on those sectors.
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The regulation of the media is thus considered just one part of an increasingly
important initiative with the stated aim of “transforming The Gambia into a tech-
nologically advanced and information rich society by the year 2020”
(Government of The Gambia 2000:10), or simply, as the Secretary of State for
DOSCIT put it, the “realization of an information society” (quoted in Kargbo
2004). The developmental teleology is unmistakable. A Gambian agronomist
involved in the drafting process of the NICI put it more starkly. He argued that
Africa jumped from an agrarian state to an industrialized state and could “catch
up” to the West by quickly embracing digital technology. This jump would entail
a wide-ranging transformation of society (and thus not just the addition of an
industry or business sector) and could only be directed by the government (inter-
view, March 25, 2004).
NICI—and the NMC—is not a fringe element in the overall development plan of
The Gambia, but a centerpiece. The National Governance Policy, which predates
NACIP, posits the flow of information (or the ability of information to flow) as one
of the key factors necessary for the development of good governance in terms of a
“free and independent media,” a citizenry “able and willing to engage in civic
activities,” and a “transparent” public service (Government of The Gambia
1999:12). Donor activity paints a similar picture of the priority given to informa-
tion and communications (as the material embodiment of information policy): the
growth in foreign aid between 1998 and 1999 alone (the most recent years for
which aggregate statistics are available) was 145.3 percent in the telecommuni-
cations sector, higher than the increase in all other sectors save for transportation
and humanitarian aid (UNDP 2001:23).
There are two issues surrounding the NICI that are relevant here: the fact that the
policy is drafted to begin with, and the subject of “information.” Policies are con-
stitutive (Shore and Wright 1997): demarcating a domain of “information policy”
contributes to both the constitution of that domain and its subject (information).
Equally important, and not unrelated, is that the formulation of a comprehensive
policy signals a commitment, not just to the citizens but to the donor community
which has made information and communication technologies a priority. Thus,
the “vision statement” of the draft locates it firmly within the global economic
system: its purpose is “to leverage the benefits of [information and communica-
tion technologies] for a people-centered, free market based and export-oriented
socio-economic development strategy built on principles of public-private part-
nership for wealth creation” (Islam 2005:8). The regulation of information—or,
rather, the appearance of the regulation of information consistently with global
norms—is considered central to the development agenda and to The Gambia’s
success in the global economy.
The second point (information) addresses directly the configuration of the polity.
The underlying assumption is that in a society in which all sectors and people are
connected, you get a better educated population, more informed debate, and a
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higher-quality democracy. But as a range of scholars have pointed out, “informa-
tion” is by no means an innocent label. It is rather the product of social relations
and actions (Barry 2001; Day 2001; Strathern 1999). The labeling of something
as information is itself an evaluative exercise that turns social ephemera into bits
of data that can be indexed, managed, and distributed. This distribution, more-
over, comes with a moral message: information demands attention and action
and, above all, responsible care. In other words, learning how to receive and take
proper care of information is part of citizenship.
This theme was picked up by the previous Secretary of State for DOSCIT: the
NMC bill is a “manifestation of the commitment Government shows towards
ensuring access to free flow of information by creating an enabling environment
for a well-informed population through representation of divergent views and
opinions in the media” (National Assembly 2002:124). More pointedly, he added
during a later debate that “information is very powerful and that power, if not
properly used, can destroy a nation, it can misguide a nation” (National Assembly
2003:53). This linkage between information and an appropriate public is by no
means unique. A government civil servant in a different department commented to
me in a different context that “once you get information, you get a well-cultured
public” (interview, June 25, 2004).
This managerial vision of information espoused by the government in regard to
the NMC and information policy exists in some ways independently of the tech-
nological, economic, and social realities of The Gambia. That the vast majority of
Gambians lack the literacy, electricity, hardware and desire to go onto the web-
site of, say, the Central Bank of The Gambia is immaterial. What is material is
that the website exists.14 Similarly, an e-government initiative launched in 2003
appears mostly oblivious to the factors rendering reliable Internet access a fantasy
to many Gambians. This initiative is one component of NICI and has among its
aims to ensure that each government department has an on-line portal. According
to the UNECA sponsored African Information Society Initiative, the portal must
provide “all necessary information of public importance like latest Price Index,
Reports on public issues and other statistics. Broadbased headings that . . . cover
topics of interest for the general public” (African Information Society Initiative
2003:6). The websites are also intended to convey a sense of the range of activi-
ties undertaken by each government department—all part of the notion that peo-
ple should know their government.
The recurrent theme here is that the release or disclosure of information presumes
a public ready to partake of that information. A public is, in effect, hailed into
being if only as a rhetorical subject. Whether or not there is a staggering number
of individuals ready to log on to the website and download government informa-
tion is less important than the assumption that those individuals are out there. At
the same time, the flipside of this construction of a public is the “sphere of obscu-
rity” (Didier 2005:639)—the disclosure of information is a delineation of the
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May 2007 Page 13

private, opaque space where the data is generated as much as it is a production of
a public ready to absorb and debate the information.
My introduction to the e-government program is illustrative of the kinds of
processes and attitudes toward information at which this discussion is driving.
I had arranged a meeting with the civil servant serving as the Department of
State for Finance and Economic Affairs focal point for the e-government initia-
tive. Our meeting was short. After introductions the civil servant simply said I
should read the official files and offered to transfer them to me via flash mem-
ory, which we did. He commended our solution as being fast and efficient. What
is notable here is the assumption that a particular constellation of documents
capture—in his words—”everything one would need to know” and that a min-
ister’s speech and an action plan would be sufficient. The information contained
was self-explanatory and the moral burden of understanding was placed on the
The intense focus on ideas of an information society and an informed citizenry in
Gambian politics puts the NMC debate into a somewhat different light. Rather
than being about African community and similar notions, as seemingly indicated
by some of the NAMs above, the NMC appears as one out of several possible
parts of a managerial strategy to quicken the pace of neoliberal development and
bring about an information society. The NICI document itself links the media and
information policy together for that elusive goal of societal transformation. Its
general objectives include to “place media in a pivotal role for information dis-
semination in spreading mass awareness about the importance of advantages of
the information revolution” and “to use traditional media like Newspapers, Radio,
and Television to provide an easy, accessible and cheap means of carrying infor-
mation to people” (Islam 2005:53).15
This staging of the NMC debate within a larger discussion of information policy
is significant. The internationalization of the issue via the use of foreign consult-
ants and UNECA funding, and the explicit references and comparisons made to
similar policies under development in Ghana and other African countries, points
to the emergence of a “transnational policy narrative” that draws its sustenance
not just from a growing list of national examples but broader processes of neolib-
eral reforms and democratization (McCarthy 2005). This narrative is, of course,
matched by those who resist the NMC in the name of international human rights
but whereas the latter portrays itself as mostly reactive to developments, the for-
mer is very explicitly regarded as an “intervention of optimization” (Ong 2006:6)
to have concrete, measurable effects beyond restoring what is considered to be a
default state of society. The remarkable thing is that this difference is a lot more
subtle than it first appears. As much as the program of information policy calls an
informed public subject into being, the journalists’ representation of their role in
society similarly pivots around the notion that it is their work, enabled by access
to information, which creates informed subjects.
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Concluding Remarks
Let us return to Ramzia Diab, the NAM at the beginning of this article. Her out-
rage at the (allegedly) fake story and subsequent exclamation that “we are not like
Europeans” draw our attention to the common conflation of community, rights,
and responsibility. But, I have argued herein, it would be a mistake to view the
debate over the NMC simply as a struggle between free speech and a controlling
government. Looked at closely, the terms of the debate center on conceptions of
the public and the directionality of flows of information in the polity. This is not
to say that rights are immaterial. As shown by recent work on neoliberalism
(Ferguson 2006; Ong 2006; Speed 2005), the language of rights is instrumental
in constituting modern nations as sovereign entities and citizens with a juristically
derived stake in stability and development. The Gambia is no exception to this
trend, and the absence of critiques of the notion of human rights in the officials’
responses is a telling indicator of the widespread acceptance of human rights as
a diffuse aspiration. Rights do serve as a subject of contention, but only if they
are acted upon and translated into a justiciable claim.
I have stopped short, however, from articulating a new dichotomy to replace
rights versus control (or culture). It does not seem advisable to suggest a new
dichotomy—pro-information versus con-information or global versus local, for
example—as such a division does not neatly map onto the discord between the
government and the journalists. Both groups lean heavily on an internationally
circulating liberal discourse, and both grant an enormous significance to an
instrumentalized view of information according to which the citizen is in need
of being informed. The members of the ruling party are as keen as other
Gambians to gain full advantage of technology and, more vaguely, modernity
(demonstrated by frequent references to computers and cellular phones in the
National Assembly debates). The opponents of the NMC and the government
even share what might be thought of as an antipolitical streak: the former in its
usage of the antipolitical language of human rights, and the latter in its reliance
on regulatory and administrative arguments. It is, in fact, this commonly held
assumption—albeit expressed in starkly different terms—that motivates my pro-
posal of a third frame through which to view this debate, this assumption being
the central importance of the informed subject able and willing to operate in the
political public sphere.
Nevertheless, for all the commonalities there obviously are two competing argu-
ments over the NMC. If this article’s reading is correct and the NMC debate ulti-
mately hinges upon a competition over information and a citizen equipped with
the information necessary for political participation—what I have intermittently
referred to as a public subject—the difference may simply be one of brute power,
or who should be allowed to tell other people what to do or what to know. Yet
such a reading would ignore the possibility that the National Assembly Members,
civil servants, and journalists may actually believe what they say and that all the
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May 2007 Page 15

talk of responsibility is not a cynical ploy. A more attractive answer may well be
that the question of the informed citizen serves as a focal point for—and the NMC
debate a symptom of—the recurring tension between emancipation and regula-
tion in modernity.16 The intensity of the debate may thus stem from the propen-
sity for liberal regimes to do many things at once, to simultaneously include and
exclude, reward and punish, to control and set free. A glance at the history of
colonialism in The Gambia and how the terms of this debate reverberate against
the colonial and postcolonial background of the use of information and media to
engineer a public, reminds us of this propensity.17
In this article, I have suggested that the debate over The Gambia’s National Media
Commission is not simply a debate over human rights, but rather a struggle over
the use and direction of information in the polity and the constitution of a partic-
ular kind of subject, the hallmark of which is not that it is a rights-bearing one
(though it is) but an informed one. I hasten to add, however, that behind this
arguably esoteric reframing of the issue lie severe and tragic consequences for the
journalists who have found themselves imprisoned, exiled, or, in the case of
Deyda Hydara, killed.18 My proposal of a third analytical frame could itself be
taken as an antipolitical strategy, a way to problematize away what to some peo-
ple in The Gambia and other countries are dire circumstances. That is not my aim;
rather, I hope to have shown how the language of rights is caught up in and
becomes part of parallel concerns, and how those concerns are motivated by
agendas that do not always fit neatly in one analytical box or another. Above all,
if we accept that the creation and transmission of information, efforts to “make
things public” (Latour 2005), and the invocation of an audience for those things
have constitutive effects and motivate further action, the stakes in regulatory
debates such as that over the NMC are raised immensely.

I am grateful to Sandra Barnes, Megan Tracy, Fariha Khan, and Rita Powell
for their thoughts on earlier versions of this paper, and Annelise Riles and
PoLAR’s two anonymous reviewers for extensive suggestions for improve-
ment. Any errors of fact or analysis are my own. Research in The Gambia
was supported by the National Science Foundation (Award #0318305).
1. See, for example, Reporters Without Borders’ report on the murder of Deyda
Hydara, editor of the private Gambian newspaper The Point, in December of
2004 (Reporters Without Borders 2005).
2. The Gambia’s National Assembly is a unicameral body. Forty-eight of the
53 National Assembly Members are elected by their respective district, and
the remaining five are appointed by the president.
3. Throughout this article, I collapse liberal and neoliberal. While this collapse
may be analytically imprecise, it is ethnographically faithful as the latter term
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Page 16 PoLAR: Vol. 30, No. 1

is not in frequent use in The Gambia. The kinds of transformations associated
with neoliberalism, such as privatization, structural adjustment programs, and
the whittling down of the state, are commonly discussed in unlabeled terms or
simply as liberalization.
4. For overviews of the media in Africa, see Bourgault (1995), Nyamnjoh
(2005), and Tudesq (1999).
5. Brian Larkin’s studies of media in Northern Nigeria offer an illustration: cin-
emas are ambiguous as concrete manifestations of modernity and possibly a
site for engagement with culturally and religiously inappropriate thoughts
and beliefs (Larkin 2002). But the Indian films shown in these theaters also
offer an intertextual and intercultural play of moral significations and social
relations that generate new, locally produced media such as cheaply pro-
duced market literature (Larkin 1997).
6. Private radio stations are similarly constrained: they are subject to govern-
mental interference, and their reach is limited by the lack of electricity in
many parts of the country as well as the expense of generators and batteries.
7. The Gambia’s only university was established in 1996, but it does not have a
journalism program. Short courses for journalists are run by The Gambia’s
UNESCO Commission.
8. Youths are frequently referred to as a collective actor in The Gambia, and
their participation in organizations is common.
9. Judging by the GPU chairman’s statement, the private press appears to have
played a comparatively minor role in politics during the period between inde-
pendence and the early 1990s (see also Grey-Johnson 2004).
10. See Hasty (2005) and Olukoyun (2004) on Ghana and Nigeria, respectively.
11. The reliance on the language of human rights only serves to underline the
antipolitical nature of this position, as human rights are often presented as
inalienable, natural, and morally unquestionable. The construction of human
rights knowledge, furthermore, brackets local contexts as immaterial to
global standards, and therein turns political debates into technical ones of the
compliance with this or that standard (cf. Merry 2005; Riles 2001).
12. Legal anthropology’s record of course suggests that the disjuncture between
the claiming of rights and community may be cross-culturally salient and not
unique to situations where international human rights are considered in
opposition to local norms (cf. Greenhouse et al. 1994).
13. At the May 2004 session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’
Rights—a pan-African human rights body based in The Gambia—I observed
Gambian journalists huddle with representatives of human rights groups such
as the Media Foundation for West Africa.
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14. The launch of the Bank’s website was announced in newspaper advertise-
ments: “The Bank recognizes the importance of public access to information,
and accountability and transparency to the conduct of effective public policy.
Therefore, the Bank welcomes the opportunity provided by the Internet to
broaden public access to information” (Central Bank of The Gambia 2004).
15. The author of the NICI document does not, however, ignore the concerns
voiced by media practitioners (who were consulted in the drafting process)
or human rights activists: media pluralism and professionalization are high-
lighted as goals, and political interference in the media is cited as a problem.
16. See, for example, the discussion of modernity as containing both an
“emancipatory-reconciling” and a “repressive-alienating” aspect in Habermas
17. This reverberation is at times explicit. Many Gambian journalists refer to
journalists of an earlier era with admiration and use that history to legitimize
their position. The government, however, does not claim any continuity with
previous governments, even if the language used is similar.
18. It is not clear if the government is behind the violence carried out against
journalists. Although the government denies any involvement, many third
party observers believe otherwise.

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