Gambian journalist, URI alumnus to talk about mistreatment of reporters in lecture at University

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Omar Bah forced to flee West African country for writings critical of dictatorship

KINGSTON, R.I. — March 6, 2014 — A free press is the cornerstone of democracy. Not so in Gambia, where journalists are tortured and even killed for writing about the country’s erratic president.

No one knows this better than Omar Bah, 34, a Gambian newspaper reporter forced to flee his homeland after the country’s security officials targeted him — on TV, no less — as a “wanted” man.

Now safely living in Providence, Bah ’10 will talk about his ordeal on Thursday, March 27, at 7 p.m. in the Agnes Doody Auditorium at Swan Hall, 60 Upper College Road on the Kingston campus, for the 2014 Christiane Amanpour Lecture. The talk is free and open to the public.

“I plan to talk about my beliefs in freedom and the role of journalism in achieving that,” he says. “Coming to America was being reborn, giving me a second life.”

Bah was a young, ambitious reporter in the tiny West African country, considered one of the most repressive on the continent, when henchmen for the country’s dictator, Yahya Jammeh, threatened him for writing stories about government atrocities that included torture, murders, anti-gay activities, and political oppression. Bah was feeding the stories secretly to a website overseas called the Freedom Newspaper, and the government discovered the articles after hacking the site.

Fearing for his life, Bah fled to neighboring Senegal, leaving behind his wife of two months. From there, he went to Ghana, where the Media Foundation for West Africa helped him resettle in the United States in 2007. Today, he lives in Providence with his wife, also resettled, and two American-born sons.

His life now is all about helping other Gambians and refugees. Bah took classes at URI”s Feinstein Providence Campus and graduated from the University in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and political science. He will receive a master’s degree in public administration from Roger Williams University in May.

With fellow refugees, he recently founded the Center for Refugee Advocacy and Support, a Rhode Island-based refugee advocacy group. He also represents Rhode Island at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Congress that meets annually in Washington.

Journalism is still his passion. He is co-founder of American Street News, an online news website that reports about the Gambian government, criticized by human rights groups for its torture, jailing of journalists, and rigging of elections. “The site is reporting on issues, with a focus on Gambia,” he says. “It also gives people back home a way to express themselves.”

Bah is also author of “Africa’s Hell on Earth: The Ordeal of an African Journalist,” a memoir about his escape from Gambia. The book’s title refers to the nickname of the infamous Gambian prisons.

“My message to all refugees and immigrants, and to all those who believe in freedom, is: make use of the opportunities you have here,” says Bah. “Do not take the abundance here for granted. Serve your community. Remember that there are millions who are not here, who remain in the camps or in desperate situations without hope of a better future. Here, there is hope.”

The Christiane Amanpour Lecture is named for the 1983 URI alumna and 1995 honorary degree recipient who is the chief international correspondent for CNN International. She is also the anchor of Amanpour, a nightly foreign affairs program on CNN International.

The annual speaker series, in its 6th year, helps the University bring well-respected journalists to campus. The lecture is sponsored by the Department of Journalism and the Harrington School of Communication and Media.

Pictured above: Omar Bah ’10, a Gambian journalist who is delivering the annual Christiane Amanpour Lecture at the University of Rhode Island Thursday, March 27, at 7 p.m. in the Agnes Doody Auditorium at Swan Hall, on the Kingston campus. Photo courtesy of Omar Bah.