Introductory Statement of Hon. Demba Ali Jawo, Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure
15 years of the Declaration of principles on freedom of expression in Africa
A side Event on the margins of 61st session and 30th Anniversary of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Thursday 2 November 2017, Senegambia Beach Hotel
Abubacarr Tambedou, Attorney General and Minister of Justice
Mme Pansy Tlakula, Outgoing Chair of the ACHPR & Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights
Rev. Barney Pityana, Former member of the ACHPR, and co-chair of the drafting committee of the Declaration of principles on freedom of expression in Africa
Mme Fatou Jagne Senghore, Director, ARTICLE 19 West Africa
Saikou Jammeh, Secretary General, GPU
Thomas Kleinveld, Defend Defenders
All Protocols Observed
I want to begin my introductory statement by acknowledging the efforts and friendship of the keynote speaker, Mme Pansy Tlakula, Outgoing Chair of the ACHPR & Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights to Gambian journalists and the human rights community in The Gambia. She has championed our cause globally and several of her reports to the Commission mentioned specifically the plight of Gambian journalists during her tenure.
Although I am here in my capacity as Information Minister, I will not do justice the 15th year celebration of the Declaration to or my colleagues in the media who symbolically, will be commemorating in six weeks, the 13th anniversary of the death of the late Deyda Hydara, Founder and Editor of The Point newspaper, who was gunned down on December 16, 2004.
Deyda was a staunch champion and promoter of the Declaration passed two years before his untimely death. Had the previous regime, respected even in its barest minimum certain clauses of the Declaration, events like the circumstances leading to Deyda’s death, the disappearance of Chief Ebrima Manneh, the detention, imprisonment, violence towards and eventual exile of numerous Gambian journalists and the burning down, illegal shutting of media houses over the past 22 years would have been avoided.
The approach and manner in which the former regime treated the press and journalists speak volumes and are in stark contrast to the Declaration, particularly, sections 1 Guaranteeing of Freedom of Expression, Section 2 Interference with Freedom of Expression and Section 3 Diversity. This will always serve as reminder and such, should encourage our administration, as a State Party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to leave no stone unturned, in making sure that these principles are applied and applicable to the day to day lives of Gambian journalists, social commentators and the public at large.
Article XI (eleven) 1 of the Declaration indicates that attacks, threats and the killing of media practitioners of destruction of their material undermines independent journalism and the free flow of information and further obliges State parties to “take effective measures to prevent such attacks”.
I am glad that my colleague, the honourable Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Abubacarr Tambadou is also here as a special guest to grace the occasion. Attending this event, on the back of the historic appearance of the head of state and President of the Republic of The Gambia, Adama Barrow at the opening of 61st Session of the ACHPR, and his strong declaration that this government will do everything it takes to ensure that human rights and the dignity of all Gambians are respected, should be interpreted as yet, another commitment by key members of this government, in particular the two of us, tasked to ensure that the rights of journalists, the rights of the public to free expression and the right to access information are enjoyed by all Gambians.
I can reassure you that since our appointment, our two ministries and partners like Article 19, who have been constantly present in The Gambia and on the scene, seeking to push for media reforms, to protect journalists and pushing for mechanisms to ensure the free flow of information and divergent views, have been consulting closely on the best and most feasible way possible that we could ensure that freedom of expression and access to information are not just abstract ideas but become a reality for all Gambians.
Our two ministries have also engaged the Gambia Press Union and other institutions concerned by and interested in the state of freedom of expression and access to information in The Gambia. It is also our intention to engage cabinet on decisions taken by the ECOWAS Court in respect to the late Deyda Hydara and Chief Ebrima Manneh to ensure that justice although delayed, will not be denied.
You’ll certainly agree with me that after 22 years of a repressive regime, where structures were deliberately dismantled by the former regime to ensure that they entrench themselves and deprive the public of the right to know, it is an enormous task to re-establish normal state media relations. What is certain however is that our Government sees the Gambian media as a partner in ensuring that processes to ensure meaningful change for Gambians from all walks of life.
Another certainty is that oppression of journalists and human rights defenders is a thing of the past. It is in the interest of the country and our Government that The Gambia progresses from its dismal ranking of press freedom and human rights violator.
I cannot be more satisfied at the timing of this event (coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the ACHPR) and the raison d’etre to why The Gambia was chosen to host such an institution.
The quality of discussants and the co-organisers speaks volumes and I look forward to recommendations that would simplify our work and prevent us in re-inventing the wheel. Our guest speaker has championed a model FOI Law, which we intend to use in drafting our own national model. We thank her for her efforts in strengthening the democratic space and support to Gambian and other African journalists over the years.
All three discussants come from institutions that have been present and engaged to ensure that the rights of journalists and the right to free expression, access to information are respected in The Gambia.
ARTICLE 19 which has been constant in working to support free speech and media freedom in The Gambia for several years now, will also bring its regional and international expertise to play in guiding us within the context of the MOU signed between the organisation and our two Ministries. I must acknowledge here the support they have also given to my Ministry in enabling us hire a competent media and communications advisor, to put in place a Comprehensive Communications Strategy for The Government and to assist us in media law reforms.
The Defend Defenders program in Uganda has also been a keen follower and contributor to easing the troubles faced by some of our exiled colleagues. At some point, a former president of The Gambia Press Union served as an executive board member of the All Africa Human Rights Defenders Program as the Focal Point for African Journalists. They have firsthand knowledge of the situation in The Gambia and can play an important role in helping us define the role and future of journalists/human right defenders.
The Gambia Press Union also stands to be counted as one of the, or the only Institution that defied the notorious dictatorial regime of Yahya Jammeh at a great cost to its membership and leadership over the years, their experience and expertise gathered and documentation of violations of the rights to freely express themselves, access information and attacks against their members over the years, will certainly serve as a guide and stark reminder of the need to urgently address gaps within our legal and policy systems to ensure the right to freedom of expression of all Gambians.
An anecdote to indicate that we intend to respect the right to free expression and freedom of speech is the fact that within the short time since my appointment in February, I have met the leadership of the press union and attended most of their events, in fact, the number of GPU events I have attended so far, far exceeds the total number of media related events attended by all my predecessors combined in the past 22 years.
I have an open door policy towards the union and intend to consult and partner with them in all processes geared towards improving the state of affairs vis-à-vis the State and the Press. I can however safely say here that attacks on the media, refusal of access to information and threats to the lives of journalists who express themselves freely is a thing of the past.
The media and journalists have an immense role to play in our Government’s agenda to reconcile this nation. Their contributions to allowing the public access to platforms for exchanges and for divergent view cannot be underestimated.
My colleague, the honourable minister of Justice here present has announced the formation of a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) in the coming months, This Government relies on the media as a partner to ensure the victims and public’s right to know, and to further ensure that the media houses, including the state owned GRTS put in place policies geared towards promoting peace and unity.
Coming from 22 years of media repression, My Ministry understands that much more than media law reforms is needed to address the various challenges including the economic viability, capacity deficits and standards needed to ensure that our Gambian media can compete fairly alongside its counterparts in the sub-region. As such, we are currently developing a needs assessment database both for the state owned and private media to ensure that measures we take to mitigate violations of rights of journalists, promote freedom of expression and enhance access to information holistically address the current challenges faced by the Gambian media. And to ensure that their capacity is enhanced to enable them play in the efficient manner, their role towards national development initiatives, peace building and national unity.
The Gambia Government is committed to strengthening the media, enhancing and protecting the rights of all to freely express themselves and the rights to access information. In the coming weeks and months, we will be engaging our natural partners, the media without whom all Gambians will live in darkness as to initiatives put in place to ensure that we rebuild our broken nation and stand to be counted among the countries that respect human rights, particularly the rights of journalists and human rights defenders. It is our intention to regain our place as the human rights capital of Africa.
I thank you all and look forward to meaningful, thought provoking afternoon.