‘Right to Information a Guiding Principle for Participatory Democracy’ – Information Minister

By Fatoumatta K Jallow

The Information Minister, Demba Ali Jawo, on Thursday 10th August 2017, highlighted the need for the right to information as a guiding principle for participatory democracy, since it is an informed population that can effectively contribute to the construction of governments and political institutions. Mr. Demba Ali Jawo was speaking to participants at a two- day stakeholder workshop on transparency and accountability of public institutions, at a local hotel in the Senegambia area.

The U N Resident Coordinator, Ade Lekoetje, said the stakeholder workshop is held due to renewed efforts by government to initiate key reforms that will help build strong and independent institutions and processes, to strengthen democratic governance in the country. ‘‘The current political dispensation provides a golden opportunity to restore people’s trusts in state institutions, promote respect for the rule of law, and ensure better protection of human rights,’’ she remarked.

She said access to information and freedom of expression is an international human right norm embedded in key human rights instruments. ‘‘Article 19 of both the UN declaration on human rights and the international convention on civil and political rights, state that the right to freedom of expression includes not only freedom to impart information and ideas of all kinds, but also freedom to seek and the achievement of governance goals requires that information be widely available,’’ she added.

She said the UN believes that priority must be given to those who are poor, vulnerable and frequently excluded from mainstream governance processes and institutions; that these groups, more often than not, lack visibility and they should be enabled so that they influence national policy priorities and access resources; that this is within the context of the sustainable development goal, SDGs.

In conclusion she said the strategic importance of enacting a freedom of information bill should be seen not just as an essential pillar of governance intervention, but as a prerequisite for addressing wide-ranging poverty issues experienced through powerlessness and lack of voice. In effect, access to information based on this freedom of information bill, can be regarded as key for all development interventions, including gender equality and empowerment, the environment, climate change, youth and the demographic dividend, she added.

Mr. Ali Demba Jawo, the Minister of Information Department who spoke earlier, said the new democratic dispensation in the country, has a broad aspiration for the new Gambia. Key amongst the priorities he said include healing the division of the past and establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights and the right to freedom of expression.

“The right includes the holding of opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers,” he said.

He said people need information to be able to adequately express themselves on matters of governance, holding leaders accountable, influencing service delivery and decision-making and for promoting and protecting human rights.

He held that access to and exchange of information is vital in setting the development agenda of the country; that governments that are liberal in sharing information with the citizenry, are more likely to develop faster than those who withhold or give piecemeal information.

“Access to information helps make public authorities accountable for their actions and allows public debate to be informed better and made more productive,” Mr. Jawo said.

In conclusion he said unnecessary secrecy in government leads to poor governance and defective decision-making. “We must realize that government and public sector bodies have to be seen to be open and transparent by nurturing access to information in order to improve public confidence and trust.’’

Attorney General Abubacarr Tambadou said as part of their reform agenda, they have included a reform of media laws as part of their law and justice reform agenda, in addition to their criminal justice law.

“We certainly see the importance of the media in a democratic society and a very crucial role that they have to play,” he said.

He added the government is supporting and providing the space for us to develop as a society in the various sectors, but particularly in sectors that will strengthen respect for the rule of law and democratic governance and the media has a crucial role to play in this.