ARTICLE 19 welcomes the signing of the Access to Information (ATI) Act by the President Adama Barrow on 25 August. The law is the first step towards enabling the right to access to information in the Gambia. Once fully implemented, it will enable individuals to obtain information from public institutions. The law is also a key instrument in increasing transparency and accountability of power holders, allowing more effective participation in the democratic process.
On 1 July 2021, the Access to Information Bill was enacted by the Gambia National Assembly. The process of enacting the Bill has been to a large extent led by civil society through a National Coalition on Access to Information launched in 2018. From the beginning of the process, the Gambia Press Union (GPU), together with the civil society coalition, worked with relevant ministries including the Ministry of Information and Communication and the Ministry of Justice until the Bill was enacted. ARTICLE 19, as part of its support to the Government reforms, has held a series of consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, including the security sector, parliamentarians, civil society organisations (CSOs) and elected local government officials, to promote transparency and the enactment of an ATI law in the Gambia. As part of the drafting committee, ARTICLE 19 provided technical assistance to review the Bill for its alignment with international standards on ATI.
Welcoming the signing of the law, the Gambia Press Union President Sheriff Bojang said:
“We welcome the new law. It took a long time, but we are happy to have it. ATI, if effectively implemented, will constitute a key to a democratic society and will foster greater transparency, accountability and participation in the decision-making process. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the partners, including ARTICLE 19, for all the efforts made for this piece of legislation to be adopted and for all the work carried out so far for a free and pluralistic media in the Gambia”.
He however cautioned that “having an Access to Information Law will not result in a culture of accountability and transparency in the public service unless individuals test this law and the government is willing to be transparent”.
This law comes at the appropriate time, just a few months before the presidential election. The law provides for the right to access public records and information held by public authorities or by individual and legal persons providing services for them. The law creates obligation for proactive public disclosure and also puts in place the procedure to file access to information requests, the time limit for public institutions to respond, the grounds for denial and how to appeal against a request being denied.
Greater opportunities for citizens to participate in public life
In this particular electoral year and for the future, citizens of the Gambia now have a legal basis to hold their leaders and political actors accountable on different subjects of public interest. The Act could be a basis for the electorate to request and receive information from political actors on their programmes, their alliances and plans for justice and reparations for human rights violations..
Welcoming the inclusive and participatory process that led to the adoption of the law, Bulakali Alfred Nkuru, Deputy Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 West Africa, said:
“The signing of the Access to Information Law is a victory for democracy in the Gambia. It is a move towards a more transparent governance and citizens’ participation in public life. Now those running public affairs in the public and private sector have to do better and make information available for all. There is no excuse to hide public information out of limitations set by the law. I want to praise the GPU and all CSO stakeholders for their engagement in this process. This is a good example of how civil society and government institutions can work together to advance democracy and development.”
“The ATI law will not only ensure people can exercise the right to access information, but will also strengthen other fundamental rights, such as the right to health and education and the right to access land, among others, and bring more transparency and accountability to public institutions. ARTICLE 19 will continue to work with all stakeholders for effective implementation of the mechanisms provided by the law.”
With the existence of an Access to Information Act, the Gambia has made a further effort to bring its legislation in line with its regional and international obligations to promote and protect the right of access to information. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, for example, has provided member States with a model law on access to information as well as principles on freedom of expression and access to information in Africa, encouraging governments to adopt laws that facilitate access to information. Public authorities and those operating services for them must work towards ensuring proper archiving and record-keeping in order to aid accessibility of information. ARTICLE 19 calls on the Gambian government to demonstrate political will for the effective implementation of the services provided by the law. This must include the establishment of appropriate mechanisms and processes that will ensure the implementation and full realisation of the rights provided by the Access to Information Act, such as the Information Commission. In turn, the Information Commission must respect the principles of gender representation and impartiality of its members, as well as allocate sufficient resources to effectively enable it to carry out its oversight role in total transparency, freedom, and independence.
ARTICLE 19 will keep working with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that access to information is exercised and fully implemented.
Bintou Jaiteh, Legal Policy Assistant, ARTICLE 19 Gambia E:firstname.lastname@example.org
Aissatou Diallo Dieng, Executive Assistant, ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa