By Ndey Sowe
Ebrima Sillah, the minister of Information Communication and Infrastructure (MOICI), has revealed that President Adama Barrow-led administration is committed to ensuring that Access to Information Bill 2019 is enacted and implemented in The Gambia.
The said bill, after the second reading in December 2019 at parliament, was referred to the Assembly Business Committee who then committed it to the select committee on Education, Training and Information Communication and Technology (ICT).
In June 2020, parliamentarians adopted the aforesaid select committee report on the bill. The GPU and its partners now await the bill’s adoption by plenary.
Minister Sillah, while speaking at a seminar on Tuesday hosted by the Gambia Press Union (GPU) and funded by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said government’s commitment to the principles of access to information will help enhance the development process of the country.
“Once this bill is passed and becomes law, it will be mandatory on public officials to divulge public information,” he said.
However, Minister Sillah said there are sets of information that should be given out and not those that are classified.
Mr. Sillah, a former journalist, said since 2017 a number of initiatives have been taken by the government to ensure that they broaden the space of freedom of information and of the media.
He revealed that when they were consulted on the access to information bill, they saw it as an important issue and necessity, noting that the bill will also help the government to deal with the spreading of plethora rumors and misinformation in the country.
“I want to assure the Gambia Press Union of our commitment to fulfilling our obligation under the law, and we will continue to work with you in ensuring that we have a pluralistic but also a responsive media in this country that can lead up to the task of engaging but also informing the citizenry for them to make inform decisions and choices,” he said.
Speaking further, Minister Sillah said there is much excitement about the bill because once it is enacted; The Gambia will be among the countries in West Africa that have enacted the law and ensure its operation.
Commenting on the seminar which brought together government information officers to discuss on the bill, Minister Sillah said it is an essential part of ongoing process the government, GPU and Civil Society Organization (CSO) Coalition partner with to ensure the capacities of information or communication officers at the various ministries are enhanced and built on the issue of access to information.
He said it also aims to show what roles and responsibilities they have in terms of helping the media and the public in general to access public information that are not classified.
“Now that we have this law, giving out classified information will be a thing of the past. The development of the country cannot be achieved without a robust information system in place,” Minister Sillah said.
Also speaking at the seminar was John Charles Njie, the Chairman of the CSO Coalition on Freedom of Information.
Mr. Njie commended GPU for its tireless efforts to ensure access to information bill was pushed before the national assembly and sensitize the public about it.
He also thanked the government through Minster Sillah for their dedication and commitment in having an access to information law.
“Government cannot do it all,” he said. “Sometimes we blame government unfairly and we must compliment the efforts of government wherever and whenever we can. That is what GPU initiated with the support of the CSO to process a bill.”
Mr. Njie explained that when the bill was passed to the ministers of information and justice they both pledged and committed themselves to ensure that the bill gets to parliament.
“We are proud to say, and this is the first time that a bill initiated from CSOs has so much been endorsed and accepted by the government and passed to parliament in the shortest possible time. The Gambia has being late in having an access to information law but we have also registered unprecedented success in the sense that CSOs and government have been able to work hand in hand to bring this efforts to reality,” he said.
Njie said the former government was so hostile to CSOs to the extent of not taking any piece of legislation for them to pass it to parliament. To him, the current government has opened its doors to them.
He tasked information officers to be responsive, while ensure they support government in making sure that information is disseminated when the bill is enacted.
“Access to information is not only for journalist, is for everybody,” he said, while adding that The Gambia is far behind in the development ladder and need to pick up pace.