By Awa B. Bah

As part of efforts to strengthen freedom of expression and access to information for the citizenry and stakeholders, the Gambia Press Union (GPU) on Tuesday 17th October 2017, commenced a three- day capacity building workshop for Civil Society Organizations and civil servants on Freedom of Expression, at a local hotel in Senegambia. The workshop is funded through the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) project.

The UNDEF project was created by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2005, as a United Nations General Trust Fund, to support democratization efforts around the world. UNDEF supports projects that strengthen the voice of civil society and promote and encourage human rights, with the participation of all groups in democratic processes.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, the Minister of Information, Communication and Infrastructure, Demba A. Jawo, said communication is the key to every success undertaken including national development. Mr. Jawo said the right to information is a fundamental right of all people, regardless of their social status; that it is only when people are given unfettered access to information, that they can make informed choices on how they can effectively participate in every endeavor, including national development.

“We all know what we have gone through for the past twenty-two years when information was not only suppressed, but peddlers of information such as journalist and ordinary citizens, were subjected to all sorts of harassment,” Mr. Jawo said. He said Gambians witnessed how journalist and ordinary citizens were arrested, harassed and slapped with bogus charges in court coupled with the arbitrary closures of media houses for simply doing their work. 

Mr. Jawo said henceforth, people’s fundamental rights to information will be guaranteed and respected at all times. Freedom he said, goes with responsibility and we should be cognizant that whatever we do, must also go with responsibility; that there is no doubt that as long as we put into consideration the rights and welfare of others in whatever we do or say, we shall achieve the objective of transiting to a much better future. He said his Ministry has been very impressive by a draft road map for media reform, instituted by the GPU and its collaborators. He commended the GPU and its partners in helping to achieve comprehensive media reform strategy in the Gambia.

In his welcome address, the President of the Gambia Press Union, Bai Emil Touray, said the forum will provide participants with the opportunity to interact and exchange ideas with a view to enlarge the space for freedom of expression. He said the Gambia was one of the hottest spots in Africa for the exercise of freedom of expression. He noted that there is no reason why the Gambia cannot become a model for freedom of expression in Africa.

The Gambia Government he said, has made it abundantly clear that it will repeal the laws hindering the exercise of freedom of expression and creating the enabling environment for its citizens to make informed decisions. The forum he said, is relevant and timely because freedom of expression is the corner stone of all rights, without which no right can be expressed. This he said, is why the GPU is reaching out to stakeholders, with a view to ensure that the country ushers in a new democratic phase. The GPU’s objectives he said cannot be realized without the participation of civil society. He finally encouraged citizens to express their rights in a responsible and respectful way.

The Deputy Executive Director of TANGO Madi Jorbateh, said freedom of expression is the heart of a democratic society for all human rights, facilitating the enjoyment of all other rights. Access to public information he said, will allow citizens to hold Government and public servants accountable. Holding Government accountable he said, will aid Government to assess the concerns and demands of its citizens. He commended and encouraged the GPU to further strengthen their efforts in the fight for the flow of public information.

The Secretary General of GPU, and the coordinator of the UNDEF project Saikou Jammeh, said the new Gambia is a reality, showing evidences of its changes in the quality of cooperation among stakeholders and collaborators, to produce the long- awaited Gambia.

The UNDEF project he said, was conceived in 2015 to improve the environment of freedom of expression in the Gambia, so that the GPU and partners will work to setting up a media regulatory body that will entertain those concerns from individuals that are aggrieved by what is published by news media.

The three-day capacity building forum he said, brings together public information servants of Government and civil society actors to be exposed to models of information laws and the values of freedom of expression. Lack of understanding freedom of expression he said, will pose a challenge in gathering information. He challenged participants to interact and make good use of the resource persons.

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