2016 Theme: Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms – This Is Your Right!
“On this World Press Freedom Day, I urge all Governments, politicians, businesses and citizens to commit to nurturing and protecting an independent, free media. Without this fundamental right, people are less free and less empowered. With it, we can work together for a world of dignity and opportunity for all.”
– Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Freedom of Information as Fundamental Freedom and Human Right
Freedom of information can be generally defined as the right to access information held by public bodies.
As it is explained in the UNESCO publication Freedom of Connection, Freedom of Expression (2011): “In so far as freedom of expression is deemed to be one of the fundamental civil rights supporting democratic processes, freedom of information is required in order to ensure that citizens can vote in an informed way, and that they can hold their governments accountable through public scrutiny.”
Furthermore, in the UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 34 on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the connections between imparting expression and access to information is strongly linked to the right for the citizens to take part in public affairs. Journalism has a major role to play in this regard. The right to information is linked to wider transparency in society, as highlighted in the 2015 UNESCO study ‘Keystones to foster inclusive Knowledge Societies: Access to information and knowledge, Freedom of Expression, Privacy, and Ethics on a Global Internet’, mandated by the UNESCO Member States.
The study further underscores the importance of user empowerment to deal with information and communications, such as through Media and Information Literacy. Again, journalism is central to all these aspects. A major obstacle to open access to information is overreach in governmental secrecy. States should be able to keep some information confidential in line with legitimate purposes and processes set out in international human rights laws. However, information from administrative and executive authorities, concerning for example laws and public expenditure, should generally be accessible to everyone. Hence, freedom of information both helps provide oversight over governmental bodies, as well as the possibility to hold them accountable, and this right strengthens the relevance of press freedom and independent journalism.
Since the adoption of the world’s first freedom of information law in modern-day Sweden and Finland in 1766, more than 90 other countries have adopted such provisions. However, there are issues such as whether exceptions are narrowly tailored; whether there is protection for whistle-blowers, and whether there is impact on relevant information held by private entities. Implementation of freedom of information raises issues such as whether the laws are well-known, in terms of high public awareness; whether requests are administered efficiently and whether there are high fees for the requester; and whether information is published by own initiative or released upon request.
Another issue is that even in countries where there are freedom of information laws or legal provisions, journalists may have difficulty in accessing, understanding, and subsequently using the raw data or information. This is where data journalism can play a role in accessing and interrogating data and mashing up data sets to produce results that inform audiences “something new about the news”. Differential access to information along gender lines as well as the gender-disaggregation of information, are additional key issues.
When journalists are empowered to use freedom of information laws to bring hidden information to light, they can amplify their potential to enhance the accountability of institutions as part of the SDG conception of sustainable development. Proactive steps by states to open up records can also greatly help to ensure transparency in public administration.
In these ways, freedom of information is closely linked to a culture of openness and the idea of participatory democracy, both of which are key to sustainable development. It is also important to promote a broad range of cultural expressions in media, in order to develop media diversity and the inclusion of minority groups in the media landscape.
Protecting Press Freedom from Possible Censorship and surveillance Overreach
In the digital age, press freedom is confronted by growing challenges of arbitrarily blocking access to online information, limiting or punishing cyber-expression, and arbitrary intrusions on digital privacy. These developments impact on those who do journalism, on others who express themselves online, and also on those who receive online information indirectly through multi-step flows.
They may also unjustifiably limit the diversity of cultural expression, a principle enshrined in the 2005 UNESCO Convention on The Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. These phenomena curb both people’s access to information as well as the range of information and expression online. There are serious implications of the increasing number of measures which regulate
Internet content through blocking of web sites and of communications tools in ways that exceed international standards requiring legality, necessity, proportionality and legitimate purpose. These steps constrain the ability of a society to make informed choices about development and democracy, a priority for UNESCO in building the foundations for inclusive, knowledge societies. They may also represent a form of prior restraint, pre-emptively presuming an act of communication to be guilty of an offence rather than testing it in court after actual expression.
An inter-related issue is the challenge of possible surveillance overreaching. The right to privacy is well-established as a precondition for freedom of expression, and for the protection of journalists’ confidential sources. Privacy intersects also with anonymity, and with the use of encryption. An absence of these facilities can seriously inhibit the free flow of information, something that may have particular implications for people seeking to challenge gender inequality as well as for challenging expressions of advocacy for hatred on gender lines.
Where journalistic source protection is compromised, there may be cover-ups of corruption, intimidation and exposure of sources’ identities with repercussions on them. In the long term, this can contribute to sources of information running dry and to self-censorship in society at large.
In this regard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion has also assessed the issue through a 2015 report noting that in situations “where States impose unlawful censorship through filtering and other technologies, the use of encryption and anonymity may empower individuals to circumvent barriers and access information and ideas without the intrusion of authorities”. The report further calls on States to have national laws which recognize that individuals are free to protect the privacy of their digital communications by using encryption technology and tools that allow anonymity online.
The legal frameworks that protect the confidentiality of sources of journalism are essential to reporting information in the public interest. However, these frameworks are under significant strain in the digital age, and there is a need to revise and strengthen them – or introduce them where they do not exist. UNESCO, with the support of funding from Sweden, has commissioned research by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) which explore an 11-point assessment tool for consideration by Member States for pinpointing areas where source protection frameworks can be improved.
Press freedom and access to information are essential to democracy and to sustainable development. Journalism helps make this so. Sometimes referred to as a “watchdog” of political and societal institutions, journalism is also much more: it demonstrates freedom of expression for society at large, it puts new questions on the development agenda, and it empowers citizens with information.
It provides a context in which the diversity of cultural expressions can flourish. For all these reasons, strengthening the conditions for journalism is key to developing a culture of openness, access to information and fundamental freedoms. To this end, World Press Freedom Day 2016 seeks to advance the right to information, press freedom, and the environment for journalism to done in safety. It resonates with contemporary global issues and opportunities. In this way, around the world, it should be possible for stakeholders to continue to take the Day to an ever higher level of visibility, relevance, and impact.