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Statement by the Civil Society Coalition (CSO) on Access to Information on the 2nd Year Anniversary of the Signing of the Access to Information Act, 2021

Aug 25, 2023

Date: 25th August, 2023

Venue: Ministry of Information Conference Hall, Kanifing

Good morning,

  • The Honourable Minister of Information
  • President of the Gambia Press Union
  • The Permanent Secretary Ministry of Information
  • Members of the CSO Coalition on ATI
  • Members of the Press
Chair of the CSO Coalition on ATI, John Charles Njie, speaks at Friday’s press conference marking the 2-year anniversary of the signing of the Access to Information Act, 2021, while the GPU President, Muhammed S. Bah, sits closeby.

We welcome you all to this very important press conference organised by the CSO Coalition on Access to Information in collaboration with the Ministry of Information, to Commemorate the Second Year Anniversary of the Signing into law of the Access to Information Act, 2021.

This press conference is meant to highlight the progress made and the challenges faced in the implementation of the ATI law, as well as look into the opportunities that a full implementation of the law would bring.

Background

The Gambia joined other West African peers into adopting an access to information legislation through the National Assembly in July 2021, which was assented to by the President of the Republic a month later. This was the first time in the history of The Gambia for right of access to information to be legally recognized as a human right.

This legislative framework grants the citizens – and everyone else – the legal right of access to information that the government and private entities keep on behalf of the public.

This follows an unprecedented five-year CSO-led right-to-know campaign, which has in great ways, increased public interest on access to information in The Gambia.

The law is aimed at proactive and organised dissemination of public records and information to the people.

The commitment from the government to recognised this right was welcomed and commended by various stakeholders, including the CSO Coalition, donors, local and international human rights organisations, some of whom provided technical support to the ATI bill drafting process in The Gambia between 2019 and 2021.

 

Progress

The Ministry of Information (MoIn) is the government agency responsible for ensuring that all the necessary tools and mechanisms are put in place for the effective application, use and implementation of the law.

These includes the establishment of the Information Commission, the Appointment of the five Commissioners, making regulations for effective implementation of the Act (including the fees chargeable for information requests, the form/templates for information requests, etc), and all the digital and physical structures needed to fully operationalize the law.

According to the MoIn, it has so far conducted or in the process of developing the following activities and mechanisms as part of its work towards the operationalisation of the ATI legislation:

  1. Developed a TOR/Framework for Implementation of the Law (ATI Implementation Roadmap 2023)
  2. Developed a Strategic Plan
  3. Developing a government-wide Communication Strategy
  4. Conducted a study tour to Ghana in 2022
  5. Conduct a study tour to Liberia from 18th to 29th June, 2023
  6. Planning another study tour to South Africa in 2023
  7. Developing a government readiness survey for the implementation of the ATI law
  8. Conducted training for government information officers
  9. Creating awareness of the ATI law through audio messages in local languages

 

CSO Support to the Implementation of the ATI Law

The Gambia Press Union, which serves as the Secretariat of the CSO Coalition on ATI in collaboration with development partners and members of the Coalition have so far implemented several activities geared towards supporting the implementation of the ATI law. These includes the following:

  1. In November 2022, the GPU, in consultation with various stakeholders, developed a National Roadmap for the Implementation of the Access to Information Act. The roadmap identifies the physical, administrative, digital, policy, and capacity related gaps in the implementation of the ATI legislation; and recommend solutions to addressing these gaps. The roadmap also highlights the opportunities that come with the implementation of the legislation, and the way forward for the civil society, government, media and private sector; and reinforces the benefits of ATI as a powerful tool to make government accountable and transparent.

 

  1. In December 2022, the GPU and the CSO Coalition on ATI conducted six community town hall meetings in Banjul, Kanifing Municipality, and the West Coast Region – to raise awareness of the ATI legislation, its benefits, and how the public can utilise it to contribute to improving transparency and accountability both at the local and central government levels. This activity was supported by the Danmark-based Civil Society Fund, CISU.

 

  1. In January and February 2023, with support from the National Democratic Institute, the GPU also conducted trainings for 20 Journalists, 20 Civil Society Activists, and 25 Government Information Officers. These trainings were meant to build the capacity of government information officers to know and perform their duties and responsibilities of facilitating access to information; for journalists to utilise the legislation to ensure transparency and accountability in government; and to increase the knowledge and understanding of CSOs of the law in order for them to be able to use the law to create public awareness.

 

  1. In July 2023, the GPU also trained 25 Community Radio Journalists on the ATI law, for them to understand the law and be able to use it as an important tool for everyday news reporting, in their talk shows, current affairs programmes and also for open-source investigative journalism. This project, supported by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, IFEX, is meant to strengthen the democratic process in rural regions and rural communities in The Gambia by promoting the right of access to information both in knowledge and practice among community journalists, local government authorities, grassroot civil society organisations, and members of the public.

 

  1. In August 2023, a consultancy was launched to Develop a Simplified Version of the ATI legislation with support from the United Nations Democracy Fund, UNDEF. The most important sections of the Access to Information Act will be simplified in a non-technical, commonly used everyday language that will be precise and comprehensive for members of the public to directly understand the law without needing further legal interpretation. The handbook will also be translated into audios in English and seven local languages.

 

A pose after the press conference with some members of the CSO Coalition on ATI

Challenges

As a country, having an access to information legislation is not the be all and end all of our quest as a nation to ensuring people fully enjoy their right of access to public information or ensuring transparency and accountability in government and governance processes.

From the above, we observed that very little progress has been made with regards to the implementation of the Access to Information Act, 2021, especially with regards to the most important and major issues that would ensure people enjoy the right to information.

 

For example:

 

  1. The Roadmap which was supposed to give direction and serve as a strategic plan for the implementation of the Access to Information law which was submitted to the Ministry of Information 28 November, 2022, have not been adopted by the Ministry as the National Roadmap. Instead, despite the consultations with the Ministry before the development of the document, the Ministry has decided to develop a new roadmap – a clear duplication of efforts and a waste of resources. This has significantly affected the implementation of the law as the Ministry currently lacks a clear direction for the operationalisation of the law. We have however resolved with the Ministry to work on synchronising the roadmaps and have one that we all can work with.

 

  1. A fundamental challenge in the implementation of the access to information law is the establishment of the Information Commission. The law provides for the establishment of a Commission whose primary duty would be to promote and protect the right of access to information. The Commission would also be responsible for monitoring the implementation of the legislation, and would have powers to hear appeals for information requests refused and to make orders for such information to be produced or released. Despite the creation of a budget by the Ministry of Information for the establishment of the  Commission in 2023, we are yet to see much activity in this direction, seven months into the calendar year.

 

  1. The ATI law provides for the Appointment of Five Commissioners. These Commissioners are to be appointed by the President in consultation with the Public Service Commission, subject to approval by the National Assembly. It’s been two years since the signing of the law, not a single Commissioner has been appointed. It is the position of the CSO Coalition on ATI that creation of the Key stakeholder Consultative forum by the Ministry of Information, is a step in the right direction as it provides an inclusive approach to dealing with key issues in the implementation process.

 

  1. As per the ATI law (section 7), each public body should develop an implementation plan on how they will implement the law with regards to proactive and reactive disclosure. These implementation plans should be submitted to the Information Commission. However, there is no Information Commission two years after the signing of the Access to Information Act. As a result, the culture of hoarding public information which was entrenched during the dictatorship still continues. Journalists, civil society, the private sector, students  and members of the public still face challenges accessing public information from public institutions – despite the existence of the ATI law.

 

  1. We learnt that the Ministry of Information and other Government officials have embarked on study tours to Ghana and Liberia and are planning to go to South Africa. We have recently received the report of the Liberia visit and await that of Ghana to understand what lessons they have learned, what lessons would be incorporated into our implementation strategy – to allow scrutiny to ensure the right processes, procedures and ideas are adopted for the implementation of the ATI Law.

 

Opportunities

The Access to Information Law provides for a lot of opportunities for the Gambia, and once fully operationalized, it will play an essential role in our democratic process.

  1. The law provides an opportunity to debunk lies and counter misinformation and disinformation, and will help mitigate against hate speech and encourages intercultural understanding.
  2. The law could help combat extremism, promote informed decision-making and enhance transparency and accountability.
  3. Once citizens begin to fully enjoy their right of access to information, it helps bring the government closer to the people and it also helps build public trust and confidence in the Government.
  4. It also helps to create a better business environment, make government more effective, helps in tracking public money, and even guarantees better health care delivery.

 

Conclusion

The right to information is a fundamental human right which is guaranteed globally by key international and regional instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

These instruments and our ATI legislation also facilitate freedom of choice, one of the defining characteristics of a democratic society and open government.

The right of access to information that is in the possession of the public bodies and relevant private entities utilising public funds, is one way of promoting good governance, improving and strengthening the culture of transparency and accountability.

While right to information is a priceless component of a democratic society by ensuring participation in public affairs, the slow-paced implementation of Gambia’s Access to Information Act, 2021, has a very significant impact in the country’s reform process and the desire to create an open government that allows for scrutiny and effective public oversight.

We, therefore call on the Ministry of Information, to expedite the process of implementation of the ATI law and as well continue to involve all relevant stakeholders in the process. Setting up the Information Commission, the Appointment of Commissioners, and having a Roadmap for the implementation must be a top priority.

To all Government agencies we call on you to cooperate in this process and make informations readily available to the public. To our development partners we appeal to you once again for a more robust support to the implementation of the ATI law. To all Gambians it is our duty to request for information and test the political will and if indeed our laws are enforced.

We wish to once again express our appreciation to the Honorable Minister and his team for recommitting to the full implementation of the law. Thank you all for your kind attention.

 

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