Law Hub Gambia, a legal resource and knowledge platform, hosted a panel on ‘The Gambia: Realizing the Right to Information’ during the Law via the Internet Conference, the foremost international conference bringing together communities involved in all aspects of free access to law organised by AfricanLII, CanLII and Lexum.
The webinar, which took place on Wednesday 23 September 2020, was geared towards discussing the implications of the changing landscape (including the Access to Information Bill,2020) and explored how access to legal information can be enhanced? The panel also discussed the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to strengthen the rule of law in The Gambia.
Dr Satang Nabaneh, the Founder and Editor of Law Hub Gambia, in introducing the panel noted the importance of having such a timely given panel on enhancing access to information given the transitional processes ongoing in The Gambia. The 1997 Constitution of The Gambia does not guarantee in specific terms a right of access to information. However, The Gambia has made progress in signing and ratifying numerous core international human rights treaties since the change of government in 2017 and undertaking legislative reforms.
Saikou Jammeh of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) spoke on the journey to adopt an access to information law. He highlighted that the GPU initiated the drafting of the Access to Information bill in 2016, supported by the Gambian government, civil society organizations, and international bodies with interest in issues of freedom of information. He emphasised the importance of collective movements pointing out that the campaign for the enactment of access to information in The Gambia has been championed by a consortium of citizens and organised civil society to ensure an effective right to information regime. This was premised on the idea that a campaign for access to information can only be successful if built from the grassroots and with the participation of ordinary citizens and also that such a campaign be related or linked to the direct concerns of citizens in their diversity and day to day challenges.
Bintou Jaiteh, Legal and Policy (Gambia) of Article 19/West Africa, gave an overview of the existing legal framework on access to information with a focus on the Access to Information Bill, 2020. The Bill when enacted will provide for the right to access public records and information & provide for the procedure to obtain access to that information. The Bill amongst others, aims to promote transparency, accountability good governance and development by educating people about their rights. She highlighted the need to ensure that the legislative environment is in line with international human rights treaties.
Sirrah Jah, Legal Officer at the National Human Rights Commission spoke on the vital role of the Commission in enhancing the fundamental right of access to information. She dilated on the mandate of the Commission, which includes the promotion and protection of human rights and monitoring, investigating, and considering complaints of human rights violations. The Commission’s role in promoting access to information include awareness raising, dissemination of guidelines, and ensuring access to legal materials. On protecting such a right, complaints of violations could be considered as well as collaboration with CSOs/bodies like National Agency for Legal Aid to enable free access to legal information and legal aid. The Commission can support citizens in exercising this and all human rights.
On the potential of ICTs in strengthening access to information including legal information, Alieu Sowe, the Founder and Country Director of Give 1 Project-The Gambia acknowledged that The Gambia lags behind when it’s comes to ICT development. He expressed hope that with an access to information law, the government will be compelled to improve on the ICT infrastructure to enable easy access to public information. The Covid-19 further exposed these realities in the country as everything is at standstill. Recently a virtual court has been improvised and this can only be a reality if we have an improved tech infrastructure.
The discussions also centred on the need for strong political will in improving public’s access to information including legal information and the need for the National Assembly to enact the Access to Information Bill, 2020.
Given the current Gambian climate, coming from 22 years of dictatorship, such a law will be instrumental in enhancing democratic governance and promotion of transparency and accountability. There is indeed great need to build citizens’ capacities to demand the upholding of human rights. Information empowers people to demand their right to participate and improve realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, and by extension, promote transparency.