Gambian democracy: How to balance data protection and citizens’ rights to freedom of information

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By Abdoukarim Sanneh

The Gambia and our new democracy should be built on the crucial compact that we the citizens will have access to reliable information and can at all times use that information to participate in government, civic decision making.

In the Gambia with the recent Diplomatic Passport saga we have seen individual sensitive data being posted on the social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Many of the people who posted such information defeat their actions within political moralism for holding the government within the annals of transparency and accountability.

Morality and legality are two separate philosophical discourses in legal thought and political philosophy.

The aim of this article is to shape a discourse for the government of the Gambia to enact Data Protection and Freedom of Information to shape our pathway in nurturing functionally effective democratic society.

Privacy and Data Protection are commonly recognised two separate rights and in essence they are considered vital components for a sustainable democracy.

For example in European Union Countries, human dignity is recognised as an absolute fundamental right. In this notion of dignity or the right to privacy or private life, to be autonomous, in control of information about yourself, to be let alone plays a pivotal role. Privacy is not only individual rights but also a social value.

With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, almost every country in the World recognised in some way and put it as a constitutional provision about citizens’ rights to privacy.

The right to privacy or private life is enshrined in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The right to privacy does not feature in the African Charter on Human and People’s Right and these may be one of the reasons why at these of age of information and technology revolution Gambia and many African Country are yet to developed Data Protection Laws to control how people’s personal information is used by organisations, businesses or the government. While the right to privacy is recognised in other international human instruments, data protection is not yet.

Data Protection is about protecting any information that identified us as living species in biological terms Homo sapiens.

In all over the world governments and companies collect information about its citizens.

Some of these information are sensitive data and these include your gender/ sex, address, date of birth, ethnicity, religion, health conditions.

The notion of data protection originates from the rights to privacy as an instrument in preserving and promoting fundamental human rights values.

With the diplomatic passport saga and sharing of sensitive private information of our fellow citizens on social media such as Facebook and Twitter clearly indicated that the Gambia need not only a relevant Data Protection Legislation but Freedom of Information Act.

The right to information in a functioning democracy is vital for preventing corruption and abuse of power.

When citizens can access key facts and data from government, it is more difficult to hide abuses of power and other illegal activities like the recent diplomatic passport saga, and can hold government to accountable.

Access to information also empowers citizens by informing their voting, giving them a chance to speak out against injustice and ensuring they know their rights.

For example in my home country of United Kingdom, to protect civil liberty values such as rights to privacy and freedom of Information led to the genesis of two pieces of legislation which Gambia could use as model for adoption into their domestic legislation for citizens widespread enthusiasm of their rights to know in this budding democracy. United Kingdom put strict rules about the holding and protection of sensitive data by Data Protection Act 1998 and 2018 and provision for disclosure of information held by public bodies with the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Data Protection Act governed areas around lawful handling and processing personal data and the breach of which can lead millions of pounds fine to government agencies, companies and institutions for breach data protection laws and regulations.

Under these laws and regulations citizens have the rights to know what kind of sensitive information/data institutions are holding about them and the purpose of using that data.

With Freedom of Information Act 2000 this legislation helps to empower the public to access information held by public authorities.

Freedom of information Act in UK creates statutory rights for citizens to access to information in relation to bodies that exercise functions of public nature.

These piece of legislation also empowered citizens and make Freedom Information Request to access recorded information held by public sector organisation.

It is a fact that public scrutiny enhances moral principles of probity, transparency and accountability. Democracy is different from authoritarianism because it embraces liberal values of equity, justice and fairness.

To put scrutiny with duty of care, protection of human rights values such as rights to privacy we set rules and set of procedures to make our society functionally effective.

Gambia need to manage flow of information and public access to information.

Put an end to days of Yahya Jammeh’s totalitarianism which in the past landed many of our citizens in Mile II prison with charges such as giving false information to public officials can only be a thing of the past when we created atmosphere that empowered statutory right of citizen’s access to information.

For example with the diplomatic passport saga with Freedom of Information Act in place, newspapers like Standard Newspaper can make Freedom Information request to the Department of Immigration or Ministry of Foreign Affairs to know how many diplomatic passports have been issued by the Government of Gambia and whom are the diplomatic passport holders.

Access to such information reduces whistleblowing and protects breaches like people’s sensitive date or information such as date of birth, name, gender/sex, nationality, age etc shared on the social media forums like WhatsApp groups, Facebook and Twitter.

Where there is a freedom of information request, it goes handling safeguards like data protection to uphold health and safety and duty of care.

We are a budding democracy.

Since the removal of Yahya Jammeh both executive and legislative arms of our Government have not done much to enact new laws that will nurture sustainable democratic pathway to respect individual rights to privacy, respect to civil liberty values, equity and justice for all.

Our society is advancing and still our politics is archaic and is often driven by emotional sensationalism.

We have to change the crude politics of tearing each other apart if not we will continue to nurture quasi democracy and its intolerant intrinsic.

We have to adopt and replicate good practices from other parts of the world.

We are a small country like Cape Verde. With its stable semi- President representative democratic system that country is ranked the most democratic nation in Africa and the 26th most democratic country in the world in 2018 democracy index.

Note: – The author is a native of Brufut. He has a Postgraduate degree from University of East Anglia in Environment and International Development and undergraduate degree in Environmental Science from University of Bolton.

He currently works in Public sector organisation in East London as development planner.