The United Nations General Assembly in December, 1993, set aside May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. The UN’s decision followed a recommendation adopted by African journalists, in Namibia, at the 26th session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991. This forum produced the Windhoek Declaration, which recognises independent and pluralistic media as both a fundamental pillar for and driver of democracy and economic development. Since then, journalists and press freedom advocates world over take time, on May 3, to ‘evaluate press freedom, defend media from attacks and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession’.
Every year, the Gambia Press Union, as a champion proponent of freedom of expression, press freedom in particular, organises public lectures in celebration of fundamental principles of press freedom. Our May 3 events bring together journalists, policymakers and press freedom advocates to pay tribute to the courageous work of journalists; reflect on the challenges and achievements in the attainment of press freedom. May 3 affords an opportunity to collectively renew commitments to creating an environment where freedom of expression will be the touchstone upon which the country’s democracy and development would be consecrated.
May 3rd is a special occasion for the GPU. In our 2014 WPFD commemoration, the doyen of Gambian journalism, Mr Swaebou Conateh, revealed that the recommendation for the UN to proclaim WFPD came from two Gambian journalists – Deyda Hydara, co-founder of The Point, and Kenneth Best, founder of Daily Observer.
In 2015, on GPU’s invitation, regional director of the UN Office of the High Commission and Human Rights, Muhamane Cisse Gouro, flew from Geneva to commemorate the Day with us, and joined by African Union Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Pansy Tlakula.
In 2016, on May 3 2016, the GPU commemorated World Press Freedom Day, under the UNESCO theme: Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms: This is Your Right. This event coincided with the launch of the EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM AWARD organised by the Gambia.
The Gambia is a party to a huge haul of international and regional legal instruments protecting freedom of expression and access to information, including the right of every citizen to seek, receive and impart information. They include the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. Besides, there are domestic legal guarantees of fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom of expression. They include but not limited to the 1997 Constitution, the Women’s Act 2010, and the Children’s Act 2005. There therefore, is recognition by the government of the important role of freedom of expression and access to information in democracy and development.
However, in practice, the Gambia is criticised over its human rights record. The country is lagging behind other countries in Africa in world press freedom indexes amid accusations of violations and restrictions on the fundamental right to freedom of expression and access to information. Even the Director General of the public broadcaster GTRS, in 2015, told the National Assembly that prevailing limitations to freedom of expression and access to information undermines the ability of the national broadcaster to meaningfully play its role in national development.
There are enduring legal and administrative restrictions as well as political, economic and cultural challenges to media freedom and development. There are unresolved cases of murder, enforced disappearance, arbitrary closure of media houses, arson and physical attacks on media businesses and personnel.
World Press Freedom Day serves as a reminder to citizens of the importance of press freedom – that in dozens of countries around the world, Gambia included, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.
The UN agency responsible for media, UNESCO, has a good relationship with the GPU, dating back several decades. The NESCO-NATCOM office supports a number of training and advocacy campaigns by the GPU, aimed at enlarging the space for the exercise of press freedom. This includes being the traditional main sponsor of the World Press Freedom Day events.
Our World Press Freedom event increases awareness on freedom of expression and press freedom; engage with the government for improved environment for freedom of expression; and mobilise civil society and international community in joint advocacy for freedom of expression and press freedom.