By MUHAMMED S. BAH
Mr Attila Lajos, the European Union ambassador and Head of Delegation to the Gambia, said the press must be free from state interference and that a critical independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.
The EU official made these remarks during the launch of the EU project on Journalism and Media Capacity Building held on Thursday, 6 October 2016, at Kairaba Beach Hotel.
“The press must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials, it must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour,” said the EU Ambassador.
Mr. Lajos further noted that the press must enjoy the protection of the Constitution so that it can protect people’s rights as citizens.
“It is only a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizens,” said the EU Ambassador.
He added that it is only such kinds of free press that have the capacity to expose corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in the society.
He underscored the fundamental importance of the media in promoting democracy, adding that it is also fundamental to political life.
Mr. Lajos also said that the press provides investigation and examination to assure that power is checked and decision makers are held accountable.
He said these words are not his, but that of former South African leader and statesperson, Nelson Mandela.
Speaking on the project, the EU Ambasador said this Journalism and Media Project is a component of the EU funded governance programme in the Gambia.
He said the budget is 10 million Euros, equivalent to D500 million dalasi, adding that a tune of 690,000 Euro, approximately 35 million dalasi, is dedicated for the Journalism and Media project for a period of six months.
“No other sector has the outreach capacity for reaching decision makers and the general public as the media has,” he noted.
The EU Ambassador, however, noted that the media is also a driver of economic growth, adding that investors look to establish themselves in countries where there is a free media so they have unhindered access to reliable and credible source of information which in turn allow them to make informed decisions.
“The objective of this project is to contribute to better democratic governance, through improving freedom of the press, and the quality information available,” said Ambassador Lajos.
Further dilating on the objectives, he noted that the project seeks to promote excellence in journalism, and innovative curricular as supporting journalism education is an important part of developing a free and independent media among many other objectives.
The EU Ambasador said UNESCO has been identified for the implementation of this project as this UN agency has neutral mandate to support fields of communication, media and journalism and has a longstanding experience in capacity building of media professionals to meet international standards.
In his opening statement, Sheriff Bojang, the Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure (MOICI), said the Government of the Gambia still upholds its commitment to provide an enabling environment for the media to ensure press freedom, responsible and balance journalism.
“Following the repeal of the national Media Commission Act in 2004, the government is still collaborating with the Gambia media fraternity to facilitate that atmosphere of professionalism within a self-regulated environment,” said the information minister.
He said MOICI has outlined a detailed plan and engaged UNESCO for support to implement the plan with all media stakeholders that will lead to an all-inclusive regulatory body.
Minister Bojang added that these includes the review of the National Information Communication Infrastructure Policy called NICI of 2004 which, he said, will take a full consideration in the formulation of a National Information Policy.
He said over the years the government has committed in creating a platform for the media which leads to the availability of various radio stations and varieties of media outlets for the populace.
The information minister said regardless of its size, the Gambia has 18 commercial and 7 community radio stations and that there are at least 10 newspapers operating daily, weekly, or on a monthly basis, as well as one public television network and three radio stations owned by the national broadcaster GRTS.
“However, we are on the verge of transitioning our broadcasting system from Analogue to digital. This digitalization can usher in more channels up to 80 Tv channels to accommodate new television stations and to provide new programs with better picture quality,” he disclosed.
Minister Bojang said there is relative press freedom in the Gambia as Foroyaa has been here operating for a long time and have been living up to their task in engaging in critical journalism and making sure government knows that there are people watching them.
“To make a blanket statement that there is no press freedom in the Gambia is rather vacuous,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of the UN Country Representative, Dr. Charles Sagoe-Moses, WHO Country Representative, welcomed the launching of the media and capacity building project.
Dr. Sagoe-Moses also emphasised the importance of the project, citing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, which states “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this rights includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek and receive information and ideas through any media and regardless frontiers”.
He said to further buttress the importance of press freedom, each year, 3 May is set aside to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and pay homage to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
The project when successfully implemented, said Dr. Sagoe-Moses, will contribute to the 2030 Development Agenda’s goal, (SDG 16), which is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
For his part, Jean-Pierre ILBOUDO, Ph.D. UNESCO Representative to Namibia, speaking on behalf of the UN Resident Coordinator, noted that UNESCO and its stakeholders have met several times to discuss, to exchange and to assess needs in order to determine the content of the Journalism and Media project.
He further took the opportunity to express his gratitude to UNESCO and all the journalists of the Gambia who participated in the designing of the project.
“Some of those who had really assisted us in this process have left us forever; Mr. Momodou Sanneh, former Secretary General of the National Commission of UNESCO for the Gambia, and George Christensen, who was advocating for the community radio,” he said.
At this juncture, he invited all the participants to observe a minute silence for the departed souls.
He concluded that a code of conduct is necessary through a regulatory body of the media established by the state as an independent structure and a self-regulatory body established by the journalists themselves to develop a culture of self-criticism of their productions.
Dr. Abubakarr Senghore, the Minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, in his remarks, highlighted the importance of capacity building for journalists and media practitioners as a key issue.
“There is a need to observe professionalism and the ethics of journalism,” he added.
The launching was attended by members of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), local media chiefs, journalists, EU and UNESCO officials, A representatives from the National Assembly, NGO community, among others.