The International Day of Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) will be commemorated on the 28th of September 2021. IDUAI is an opportunity to highlight the importance of expanding access to information laws and their implementation worldwide, in order to build back strong institutions for sustainable development and uphold the vision of information as a public good. This year’s theme is “The Right to Know- Building Back Better with Access to Information.” As it has been shown that access to information plays a key role in holding governments accountable, ensuring transparency, and promoting sustainable development, IDUAI calls for more awareness on how access to information can be promoted at all levels.
What is the right to know?
According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of expression and information. The right to access information is of particular relevance in a democratic society. Access to information is a precondition for meaningful participation in the decisions that shape our societies, and also for holding those in power accountable for their actions. It enables people to know and understand the world around them and to take part in it. The right to information transcends political and cultural borders and boundaries. Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provide for equal access to information and prohibit discrimination against certain groups or categories of people. Also, the SDGs offer an opportunity for the world to recommit to the right to information and to translate this into renewed and sustained action.
Why is this important?
Access to information strengthens governments, supports civil society and builds citizens’ capacity to take part in the decision-making process. It is important for those affected by decisions to understand their impact in order to hold their government accountable. In every developed and developing country, a right to information is in place. However, many people in these countries are still not aware that this right exists. If an individual or group of people are aware of their rights, they can access, and ensure effective use of, information. We have the power to build information systems that are strong, accountable and accessible to everyone, in order to create a world that is healthier, more equal and more just.
How can we build back better with information?
In the last twenty years the right to information has led to a breakthrough in many countries around the world. Most countries have adopted some kind of freedom of information law. In the last three years the world has made a major commitment to the right to information with the adoption of the Open Government Partnership and the Sustainable Development Goals. In order to build back better with information, we need to ensure that the right to information is expanded in the public and private sector. Beyond securing the right to information, it is important to include all human rights defenders in the efforts to create a more transparent and accountable Africa. The right to freedom of expression is an essential right. It means freedom of expression without regard to the content or viewpoint of the expression. It is also about those who exercise their rights democratically, which is informed by the respective country legal frameworks.
There are challenges for disseminating knowledge. But one goal we can all embrace is to increase access to accurate and timely information, and giving information to our citizens for the use of building stronger democracy, equality and respect for human rights. In our report Civil Society efforts to monitor SDG target 16.10 of 2021, which revealed that many populations across the globe have little to no factual information about the COVID-19 virus, and measures that their governments take in this context. But access to reliable information is crucial in times of crisis and can literally save lives. Reliable information is vital to critically scrutinize governments’ policies and spending of taxpayer’s money.
And while people lack factual information, disinformation is on the rise. The report shows that while the right to information, and legislation and constitutional guarantees securing the legality of this right, is intrinsically important to transparent and accountable democratic governance, right to information does not equate access to information. While circumstances vary between countries, sectors and MDAs, it is not enough to solely judge on outputs. What is equally imperative to consider is governments, MDAs, civil society, the media and stakeholders and their ability to play their part in effective RTI implementation. This means assessing both political will and having a consultative dialogue, but also considering and addressing capacity issues such as sensitization, training, punitive action for noncompliance, the building of strategic partnership between government and civil society and the innovative possibilities of ICT to ensure that citizens have de facto access to the right to information as a fundamental freedom and human right.
Africa Freedom of Information Centre, together with its Partners, will host regional events in commemoration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information 2021. Keep an eye on our website for more information and subscribe to our newsletter for updates.