By Madi Jobarteh
The passing of the Access to Information Bill by the National Assembly and its signing into law by the President marks one of the most significant democratic gains registered by the new Government since 2017. With this law, the Gambia has now joined 10 other west African countries that have all created this law. This is indeed a significant democratic achievement for which the National Assembly and the President deserve the utmost commendation. I hope the Government will waste no time but to go ahead to urgently establish the Information Commission and ensure the full implementation of the Act.
Access to Information (ATI) or Freedom Information (FOI) law, also called Sunshine Law, is one of the most instrumental tools necessary to strengthen democracy, good governance and development. It is a law that recognizes and guarantees the right of citizens to access information that is in the custody of public institutions or even private companies or entities which utilize public resources or deliver public services.
To ensure public access to information, the law requires either that public authorities proactively publish information about their activities or members of the public can request information from public authorities, or both. It is pertinent that citizens and the Government bear in mind the issue of proactive disclosure by public authorities to highlight the obligation of public institutions to share information even before citizens request such information. This is provided for in the Act.
It is important to also bear in mind that the law does not state that every information shall be disclosed or provided to citizens. Rather, it has indeed exempted certain information from disclosure so as to protect the privacy of individuals as well as protect information whose disclosure may undermine the country’s security, economy and other vital interests. The procedure for the request and disclosure of information is however quite explicit as to prevent any doubts.
Public officials particularly must be educated to better understand and appreciate the value of freedom of information law as a tool that can only enhance their professionalism, efficiency and effectiveness in delivering public services. Therefore, public officials must recognize first and foremost, that the sovereignty of the Gambia resides in the people of the Gambia; that public institutions derive their authority from the people and perform their duty for the people. This is the language of the Constitution which provides the rationale and the obligation for public institutions to enforce this law.
Secondly, public officials must know that the Government receives public resources from the taxes that citizens pay and the loans and grants it receives on behalf of the people. The Government engages with other countries in the name of, and on behalf of the people. Citizens, businesses, organizations and institutions register, apply and share information with public officials every day. From birth to death, a citizen gives a lot of personal information to public institutions. Hence public officials must know that the information generated in the course of their work does not belong to them, rather these pieces of information are public properties that must be protected, and shared with the public according to the law.
Now that there is the Access to Information Act, let all citizens familiarize themselves with the provisions of the Act, and make use of it in their own interest. The benefits of this law are that it sheds light on the work of the Government hence it is useful in preventing and combating corruption, abuse of office and poor performance by public institutions and officials. Without citizens making use of the law, it will be rendered useless.
The Act has provided for the creation of an Information Commission to oversee the enforcement of this law. It has provided that within 18 months of the coming into force of this law, public institutions should provide an operational plan to the Commission stating how they will implement this law. From the President’s Facebook page, this law came into being on 25 August 2021, hence on or before 25 February 2023, all public institutions should provide their operational plans to the Information Commission. Let’s track and monitor them.
The Access to Information Act is not for only journalists and civil society. This law is for all Gambian citizens. Let us utilize this law and make sure that the Gambia Government is open. Freedom of information is a fundamental human right that is guaranteed by the Constitution. It is one of the first rights expressed by the UN General Assembly in 1946 as necessary and instrumental for all other rights.
While we commend the Gambia Government and the National Assembly, it is now incumbent on each and every citizen to make use of the law as well as demand that public institutions re-organize themselves in order to better and fully implement this law.
For The Gambia Our Homeland