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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

AG warns NAMs against legislating career-damaging laws for public servants

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By Tabora Bojang

The Attorney General and Minister of Justice has cautioned National Assembly Members against legislating laws he feels are a threat to careers of public servants.

His comments followed a heated debate Tuesday among NAMs who are divided on what penalties should be imposed on public servants who would intentionally or willfully deny researchers, journalists and other citizens once the access to information bill is legislated.

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Dawda Jallow was addressing lawmakers at the National Assembly building as they consider stages of the access to information bill.

The chairman of the Assembly’s select committee on education, training and ICT Alhagie Mbowe whose team was tasked to meet stakeholders on the bill, said his committee recommended a fine of D250, 000 and 2 years imprisonment for any public servant or person who would intentionally destroy, conceal, or alter information.

“They should be punished in the hardest way possible to serve as a deterrent to others. This is why the committee proposes  both a fine and an imprisonment,” Mbowe added. 

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However, Member for Serekunda Halifa Sallah proposed a fine of between D10,000 to D100,000 or a jail term not exceeding six months.

“This is a democratic instrument. It is not a fascist instrument. We are teaching people to respect the fundamental rights of people to gain access to information. So, having this penalty would serve as a lesson that it is wrong to do so but I don’t see any reason why we have to make it excessive before the lesson is learnt. That is not how you teach people in a democracy,” Sallah argued.

Wuli East lawmaker Sedia Jatta disagreed with his colleague and party member, calling for “tougher sanctions” on public servants who would violate the law.

“If you are fighting with somebody and you want to make him or her afraid of you, you hit him or her very hard. So, this D250,000 is actually nothing. [Any official who violates this law] must go to jail.”

Responding to the queries, AG Jallow reminded lawmakers that the objective is to ensure information holders do not serve as a stumbling block or frustrate those seeking it. 

He said there was no leniency in the lawmakers’ arguments.

“I don’t think this is lenient because public servants may lose their careers by virtue of being convicted. We need to bear in mind that the custodians of this information are generally public servants. If they are charged under these offenses… they [public servants] would automatically lose their job because it is a criminal conviction,” he argued.

Following the heated debate which lasted for more than an hour, lawmakers finally agreed to amend the clause to range between D50,000 to D250,000 or an imprisonment of 6 months to one year, subject to the discretion of the courts.

The bill was referred to a third reading before approval by the plenary. 

The ATI bill, tabled since 2019, is seeking to provide a framework for ordinary Gambians and media personnel to access public records and information held by public authorities. 

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