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Environment

Commonwealth must advocate rights or face irrelevance

Human rights and dismantling of laws that curtail press freedoms will dominate the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Such efforts are urgently needed in countries like Gambia, where journalists are under threat.

A Gambian holding one of the country's weekly newspapers

Gambian laws put stiff limits on freedom of the press

The 10 Eminent Persons Group (EPG) has told Commonwealth leaders that if the organization is to have relevance in the 21st century, it must rediscover its role in promoting the rule of law and democratic values.

The Commonwealth should focus fresh attention "on violations of human, political and civil rights if the association is to continue to command attention on behalf of its member states and if it is to retain the respect of its own people," an EPG report said.

Continuing persecution of journalists in Zambia highlights the urgency of reforms needed to ensure a free and independent press.

Draconian press laws

Among the measures suggested to restore the credibility of the Commonwealth - which is headed by Queen Elizabeth II - is the repeal of all laws curtailing freedom of the press, and a demand to immediately dismantle all homophobic laws. Both of these measures are controversial, especially in Africa.

Heads of government meeting in 2009 formed the EPG to advise leaders on reforms for a stronger, more relevant Commonwealth.

The group's main recommendation at the Perth meeting is the appointment of a special commissioner for the rule of law, democracy and human rights, and mandating the organization's secretary general in London to draw attention to serious and persistent violations of human rights.

A diver at the Commonwealth Games in 2010

The Commonwealth is better known for sporting events than for its policy meetings

Known as Commonwealth of Nations, countries in the organization - with the exception of Rwanda and Mozambique - once belonged to the British Empire. Members of the intergovernmental organization act on common values, including the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Gambia is one of the countries in the Commonwealth's spotlight this year (meetings are held every two years in different parts of the world). Africa's smallest country, Gambia is an intriguing microcosm of all the hopes and problems that affect its larger neighbors.

Gambia's 1.8 million people joined the Commonwealth after the country's independence from Britain in 1966. An army coup in 1994 installed President Yahya Jammeh, who has introduced draconian press laws that make it hard - if not impossible - for journalists there to work independently.

Fighting for press freedoms

Five years ago, Jammeh critic Ebrima Manneh was whisked away from his office at the Daily Observer newspaper, never to be seen again.

Since then, journalists in Gambia and in other parts of the world have mounted campaigns to trace the whereabouts of Manneh.

Seven years ago, Deyda Hydara, editor of the publication The Point - and one of Gambia's best known journalists - was killed in a drive-by shooting. Most journalists and diplomats believe this was an assassination ordered by the country's security police.

Billboard wishing President Jammeh a happy 46th birthday

Jammeh claims he will not be ousted in upcoming elections

Two of Gambia's best known writers, Aloa Ahmed Alota and Demba Ali Jawo, wrote in the preface to their book "A Living Mirror - The Life of Deyda Hydara," that journalists must have the courage to dig deep and find out what happened to such intrepid reporters.

"For all those who feared that anyone linked with this book might be gunned down after its publication ... we would have them know that somehow, somewhere, someday, we shall all die – nobody lives forever, not even assassins and their bloody paymasters," the pair wrote in their book.

Free speech font-liners

Men like Alota and Jawo are on the front line in a verbal war against dictatorship. They continue to stick to their guns by talking to visiting journalists abut what needs to be done to remove laws that hamper free expression.

To date, Jammeh has paid scant attention to foreign critics.

Presidential elections will be held in Gambia on November 24, and the head of state told followers in July that he would remain in power.

"Elections will not make me lose power, nor will military coups," Jammeh said. "Anybody who thinks that the opposition is going to win the forthcoming elections is daydreaming."

As Alota and Jawo continue their dream of making press freedoms in Gambia viable, the Commonwealth could play a role.

Author: Trevor Grundy / ss

Editor: Sonya Angelica Diehn

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