…..Why freedom of expression advocates are unhappy – By Kemo Cham – Advocates of freedom of expression are angry with the Gambia based African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS).
The Gambian Executive Director of the Banjul based Centre, Hanna Foster, is at the center of this confrontation that has freedom of speech advocates up in arms against the decision of her officer to remove freedom of expression from the agenda of a panel discussion in the forthcoming 49th Ordinary Session of African Commission.
This represent a damaging image for the center as it could mean its executive director maybe complicent in President Yahya Jammeh’s clamp down on freedom of expression.
For some time now there have been rumours of a tussle between advocates of freedom of expression and Mrs Foster, who sources accused of reluctance to have Freedom of Expression included in the Agenda of the NGOs Forum preceding the 49th session of African Commission on Human and People’s Rights scheduled for 25 – 27 April 2011.
The African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies was established in Gambia in 1989, by
an Act of Parliament. And in 1995, it became an autonomous and independent Pan-African NGO. It was established as an implementing arm of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to uphold and promote Article 25 in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which states that ‘State Parties [have] the duty to promote and ensure, through teaching, education and publication, the respect of the rights and freedoms contained in the Charter as to see to it that these freedoms and rights as well as corresponding obligations are understood.’
But it appears these values of the Commission, as indicated by the move by the Banjul based ACDHRS, are under serious threats. And the Federation of African Journalists is particularly concerned about what it described as a “complicated and dishonest” move by Hanna Fosters’s office.
Given President Jammeh’s belligerent stance against human rights advocates, there has been increased opposition to the continued presence of the center in Gambia. The period between 2009 and 2010 saw the most intense campaigns mounted against the Gambian president who makes no secret of his intolerance of human rights advocates, especially journalists.
In 2009, Jammeh went as far as threatening to “kill” human rights defenders, who he described as “saboteurs”.
In an interview with journalists, Hanna Foster, in her capacity as ACDEHRS Executive Director, defended the Gambian president by saying she never heard him (Jammeh) threatened rights defenders. Her defense of the president sparked shock waves within the human rights community, especially journalists who had been the actual target of Jammeh’s anti-free speech crusade.
And now, Mrs Foster is at the receiving end again; this time for ensuring that journalists do not get the chance to express their views on freedom of expression.
In a statement released today, Monday 17 April 2011, the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), expressed “disappointment” over the development.
FAJ is the African Regional Organisation of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents more than 50,000 journalists, comprising 41 journalists’ trade unions and associations in 39 African countries. It has been at the centre of intense campaign to have freedom of expression included in the panel of what is one of the foremost discussion forums on human rights matters.
The Forum on the Participation of NGOs in the Ordinary Sessions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights is one of the main advocacy tools that the Centre uses to promote networking among Human Rights NGOs. And with journalists facing worrying challenges in terms of safety and security, especially in countries like the Gambia, the continent’s journalists leaders see the Banjul held NGO forum as vital for their campaign.
“FAJ wishes to state categorically that ACDHRS’s decision to exclude freedom of expression from the agenda is unfair, undemocratic and unacceptable, and the Centre’s decision is additional support to and a tool for those who flagrantly violate freedom of expression and freedom of press in Africa,” Monday’s statement from the Federation of African Journalists, signed by its president Omar Faruk Osman, reads.
According to FAJ, the ACDHRS secretariat gave late submission as a reason for its exclusion of freedom of expression as an agenda item in the forum. But the journalists organisation said it received the brochure and the information from the event’s host and the main organiser, Hanna Foster’s African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS), on 25 March, “which was also the date of the deadline for registration for NGO Forum.” It noted that in the circulated brochure by ACDHRS, freedom of expression was included in the “proposed agenda” of the NGO Forum. Apparently, it was later removed.
FAJ said in further correspondences with the Secretariat of ACDHRS, they brought it to their attention that freedom of expression was top in the agenda of the ACHPR session. And that should the organisers, who circulated the brochure, be true to their intentions, Freedom of Expression should be included in the agenda of the NGO Forum and not rejected and removed.
“Though the reason for the rejection of our request for Freedom of Expression panel in the NGO Forum was given with untrue rationale, we still await the reason for the removal of freedom of expression from the “proposed agenda” according to the brochure, which also indicated that the NGO Forum agenda is guided by the agenda of the ACHPR session,” the FAJ statement said.
It stressed that the decision by the Center “is far removed from the defence of human rights and a major blow to the credibility of the Centre and the NGO Forum.”
Efforts to reach Mrs Foster’s office for a reaction to this story proved futile.