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Leaving exile for good: freelancer Sanna Camara returns to The Gambia

Leaving exile for good: freelancer Sanna Camara returns to The Gambia

Most of the freelance journalists we support in exile never get to make the journey home. So when investigative reporter Sanna Camara got in touch with RPT's Valentine Gavard to say that he'd returned to the Gambia after 3 years, reunited with his family and was ready to get back to work, she was keen to know more.  

As his children leave the room, Sanna smiles to himself. “Every time they have to say goodbye they think it’s forever again”, he says. “To be able to put my kids back in school, and go on piecing the parts of my life back together… it’s amazing”. Sanna Camara is something of a rarity; he’s a freelance journalist who’s been able to retrace his steps out of exile and return home.

“Back in 2014, I was following a story about human trafficking”, Sanna told me. “Young Gambians were being promised decent jobs in the Middle East, only to be forced into commercial sex work when they arrived.” As Sanna’s story uncovered government complicity in the trade, he became a target of the authorities. “As the arrests, threats and court proceedings mounted, I knew I had to leave for Senegal”, he said.

“I first heard about the Rory Peck Trust through another freelancer - a friend of mine. Arriving in Dakar and looking for work was tough going, especially as an English speaker in a francophone country. I would pick up the odd freelance gig, and earn some money to send back to my wife and children in Banjul, but most of the international media already have stringers and correspondents who cover The Gambia from Dakar. Most of them would just pick my brains about the Gambia but I struggled to get work. Without assistance from the Trust, I don’t know how I would’ve survived”.

For three years Sanna kept watching and waiting for the right moment to return home and continue his work. “There was still lots left to be done - I never really gave up”, he explained. In January 2017, his moment came. Ex-president Yahya Jammeh, who had kept a tight clamp on independent media during his 21 years in office, stepped down after losing to political newcomer Adama Barrow. One of the newly elected president's first commitments were to promote and protect press freedom, and to deal with the high level impunity for crimes against journalists in the country.

“When I heard the news, I came straight back to finish the [trafficking] story”, said Sanna. “Gambia needs independent journalism more than ever today”. Within a month of his election, Barrow had already ordered the release of all prisoners detained without trial - and so far the future looks bright for freelance journalists, with newfound freedoms. “In the Gambia today, the fear factor is gone. No one is scared to speak his or her mind, or criticise the government. People are living and breathing freedom on daily basis”.

Of course, Sanna is under no illusions that finishing his story will be easy. “Getting your work into the media here is still something of a closed shop”, he told me. “There is still very little market for freelancers to sell their work. Media houses would rather hire interns to do poorer work on the cheap than contract a professional freelancer to do a great piece.” Reflecting on the next steps for his own freelance career, he said to me “Perhaps now we are free to say what we want, there will be a greater market for good journalism.”

When I ask Sanna if he thinks the current climate can last, I can hear a wry smile down the phone. “This is how they all begin. Once we begin shining lights on their activities, questioning their decisions or actions - that’s when they start taking away our liberties. But we’ll jealously guard this hard-earned freedom and independence”. In this transitory phase for freelancers in The Gambia, RPT is monitoring the situation closely and providing support for freelancers like Sanna as and where where we can.
Valentine Gavard is the Trust's Programme Officer for Sub-saharan Africa. For further enquiries and assistance requests in the region, please contact

Photograph courtesy of Sanna Camara.

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