Sign up for weekly updates

NGOs protest government's barring of forum on freedom of expression

(MFWA/IFEX) - The following is a joint statement by MFWA and several other IFEX members, as well as other organizations:

Free expression and journalist organisations prevented from holding a Forum on freedom of expression in The Gambia

Dakar, June 23, 2006: The Coordinating Committee set up by the government of The Gambia to oversee the African Union (AU) Summit has barred civil society organizations on the continent from holding a forum on freedom of expression in the country. The forum was scheduled to take place in Banjul, the capital, on June 29 and 30, prior to the Summit.

In a letter sent on June 19, 2006 to "The Association of Non-Governmental Organisations" (TANGO) and copied to the Kombo Beach Hotel, which had been booked as venue for the Forum, the General Coordinator of the Summit, Mr. Bolong Sonko, who is also a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of The Gambia, told the hotel management to suspend the freedom of expression forum until the government approves it. The Gambian government therefore effectively stopped the NGOs from holding the forum.

We view the Gambian government's action as a declaration of its hostility to human rights. It is also a violation of the Constitutive Act of the African Union. It is unacceptable for the Gambian authorities to attempt to subject an NGO forum, particularly one aimed at discussing an issue as fundamental as the right to freedom of expression, to governmental approval.

The freedom of expression forum was singled out for obstruction by the Gambian authorities. Other civil society meetings focused on less "sensitive" issues have been given the green light to proceed. This action indicates clearly that the "topic" of the forum, which is "Freedom of Expression in Africa", poses a major threat to the Gambian government, whose preoccupation appears to be how to polish its image with the African Union Summit. It is a clear testimony to the fact that President Yahya Jammeh's government is afraid of the possibility of NGOs using the AU Summit to criticise his regime's widespread violation of human rights.

In recent months, since the government announced the foiling of an alleged attempted coup d'état, President Jammeh's much-dreaded security agents have arrested scores of Gambian citizens, including journalists, lawyers, members of his own government and army, and even the speaker of the Gambian Parliament.

The state of fear imposed on the people of The Gambia is such that citizens are afraid to have any conversation whatsoever about public affairs. The regime has closed down several newspapers and radio stations, and has frightened and gagged most of the newspapers not yet closed.

It is for this reason that the Network of African Freedom Expression Organisations (NAFEO) declared President Jammeh's government "the most violent violator of press freedom in West Africa" today, and The Gambia one of the six "hotspots" of freedom of expression violations in Africa.

The African Union offers a new framework for good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law. It is therefore unacceptable and intolerable that, despite being the host of the African Union Summit, the Gambian government persists in silencing free speech and trampling on the basic rights of Gambians.


Accordingly, the signatories to this Statement hereby:

1. denounce and protest the Gambian government's high-handed action and violent repression of human rights in The Gambia;

2. call on the leaders of democratic governments attending the Banjul Summit to reject the Gambian government's action against the planned freedom of expression forum;

3. demand that the AU makes it obligatory on any host government to permit civil society organisations to organise their forums during all AU-authorised events, including summits;

4. demand of leaders of democratic governments attending the Banjul Summit that they condemn the widespread and unending violent attacks on human rights in the Gambia.

5. call on the Heads of State and Governments of the AU to take urgent steps to ensure that the Gambian government respects its obligations under international human rights law.

Media Foundation for West Africa