The Gambia Press Union (GPU) has taken its campaign for access to information and freedom of expression a notch higher by engaging the National Assembly for the first time in the union’s history.
The two-day seminar organised by the GPU was geared towards making the honourable members understand that freedom of expression and access to information enhance national growth and development.
Held on 9 – 10 September, 2016 at the National Assembly complex in Banjul, the forum was part of efforts to raise the GPU’s voice in the advocacy for the enjoyment of the constitutionally-guaranteed right to free expression and the lobby for access to information law in the country.
Presently, The Gambia is the only English speaking West African country without a right to information law of sort. Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Liberia all have promulgated laws on right to information while for Ghana the bill is said to be before the parliament.
Sang Mendy, GPU-GAMES project manager, said the seminar was part of a project dubbed ‘building capacity for advocacy’. It is a one-year project being implemented by the GPU with the financial support of the government of Denmark, through a Danish partner organisation, Gambia Media Support.
The project is divided into four components which include having workshops with key players in governance such as the judiciary, the law enforcement agencies, and the National Assembly. Already, the workshops with the judiciary and law enforcement agencies were held.
“All these workshops are to look at how freedom of expression and access to information can enhance growth and development of a country,” Mr Mendy said.
“All of them are designed to raise the voice of the GPU in its advocacy of freedom of expression and access to information with a view to get the state organs and Gambians understand and appreciate the importance of expressing yourself and how it can help enhance growth.”
He affirmed that having the workshop with the National Assembly is particularly important.
“This workshop is particularly important because all laws pass through you at the National Assembly so it is important to remind ourselves again of the importance of expressing oneself and how access to information is important in nation building,” the GPU-GAMES project manager said.
“The workshop aims to create a mutual understanding and a platform for continued dialogue on a principal matter of press freedom.”
Mendy explained that there will be a national consultative workshop with the judiciary, the law enforcement, the National Assembly and the media with a view to map out a strategy that will enhance growth through freedom of expression.
“We are confident that we did not make any mistake in designing this project as everyone deserves the right to express him/herself openly without being intimidated or victimised,” he said.
It is a gradual process
The Gambia has fine constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of expression but the enjoyment of this right leaves a lot to be desired.
Hon Alagie Sillah, National Assembly member for Banjul North, said The Gambia being a young democracy has its own teething problems but “we want to move our freedom of expression to a level where everyone will enjoy it as a fundamental human right.”
He added “But it has to be done gradually.”
Speaking on behalf of the NAMs, Hon Sillah noted that the human being has been designed by nature to express himself.
“Even if you don’t express yourself verbally, everything you do is an expression as a human being,” he said. “We also have to appreciate that freedom of expression goes with good governance because without freedom of expression it will be difficult to have good governance; they complement each other.”
According to the ruling party National Assembly member, there are lot of institutions put in place in The Gambia to ensure good governance and accountability.
These, he said, includes the National Audit Office, the Ombudsman, and the Public Accounts and Public Enterprises committees of the National Assembly.
“These are all institutions to ensure good governance and accountability,” Hon Sillah affirmed.
Give or they fabricate
Hon. Sillah gave an anecdote saying he remembered being part of an institution where they were oriented to give information to the press.
“At that institution, they always tell us when you don’t give the press information they will fabricate it and when they do you will be held accountable and your job will be more difficult because you have to start running after them to defend yourself,” he said.
“So access to information is a must. The press must be given adequate information to transmit to the public.”
At the end of the two-day seminar with the National Assembly members, it is expected that the participants got some relevant take-home message to argue logically about the need for access to information and freedom of expression during parliamentary sessions.
For the GPU, the seminar was the first and the beginning of a long lasting relationship with the National Assembly.