By Lamin Njie

The Gambia Press Union has said that the new security measure introduced by the Office of the President violates international best practices on press freedom.

GPU on Saturday convened an emergency general meeting in response to a new policy by the State House requiring journalists to undergo security screening at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) for accreditation to cover the presidency.

The new measure was announced last week by the Office of the Director of Press and Public Relations (DPPR) at the Office of the President.

The director of Press and Public Relations Amie Bojang Sissoho has vowed to implement the measure.

But Gambian journalists on Saturday met to discuss an issue that is already being politicised and have agreed to stay away from the exercise.

A communique issued by the GPU on Sunday said: “The screening by NIA, renamed SIS, is in addition to a State House-prepared accreditation form already filled by journalists giving every information about their work and as well submitting their national identity cards. In essence, the information given was enough to be used for background checks,” the union said. Now in addition to this, with the new policy, journalists are required to go before a panel of NIA officials for security screening which could last for about an hour.”

“Since the announcement, the GPU issued a media alert urging journalists to stay away from any such arrangement until it exhausts consultations with the relevant authorities on the matter, the GPU said. The GPU has had brief engagements with and made its position known to the Office of the DPPR.

“Following hours of discussions at the GPU offices, we the media professionals in The Gambia hereby resolve that: We acknowledge that the Office of the DPPR has over the past two years cooperated quite well with the press and has made tremendous efforts towards facilitating the work of the press on matters of coverage of events involving the presidency; We recognise the improved environment for press freedom. We recognise the ongoing efforts by the government working closely with the media towards improving the relationship between the government and the media; We recognise our constitutional right to hold the government accountable to the people.

“Access by journalists to such important office as the Office of the President is crucial in pursuant of our mandate as the watchdogs; We acknowledge that institutional arrangements such as press accreditations are sometimes necessary to ensure security, and law and order. We are ready and willing to respect and comply with any such measure that aims to promote, not to curtail, press freedom. We however are convinced that while background checks by security on journalists may be the norm, nowhere in the world does the process of issuance of press accreditation involve screening in the form of a panel of intelligence personnel.

“We therefore consider the screening process as required by the Office of the DPPR as an interrogation, not a background check. We have taken a common position that screening of journalists in this fashion by the NIA is a non-starter.

“It violates international best practices on press freedom as it places unnecessary barriers to the exercise of the right of the journalist to inform the people of what the government is doing on behalf of the tax payers. We are of the view that the new measure provides room for abuse of press freedom that it could be used in the future to shut out media professionals who are deemed to be critical of government and government officials

“In view of this, the emergency meeting resolves that no journalists should subject him/herself to any NIA screening. Complying may bring about long term safety complications for journalists. GPU will not intervene if any such person gets into trouble arising from complying with the new requirement. The meeting also called on the GPU to continue engaging the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure and the DPPR with a view to bringing accreditation procedures in line with standards that support the freedom and safety of media professionals.

“In conclusion, The Gambia is emerging from two decades of dictatorship during which journalists were tortured, jailed and exiled. When this government came, one of the things they promised the people was an improved environment for the protection of human rights and press freedom. A lot has been achieved in this direction. We are thus urging the authorities to refused any temptation that could derail this progress.”