Last week, International Day of Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) took place. The theme this year was how “the implementation of access to information laws can build back strong institutions for the public good and sustainable development, as well as strengthen the right to information and international cooperation in the field of implementing this human right.”  Free Press Unlimited organised an online event on the importance of access to information, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar aimed to highlight the efforts being made to enable access to information, as well as reflect on the role of media actors in this work. Representatives from UNESCO, EU International Partnerships, the Africa Freedom of Information Centre, and many local African partners joined for this event.
Jaco du Toit from UNESCO opened the session. He highlighted the fact that access to information helps people make safe choices and particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, accurate and timely information is crucial. Du Toit also discussed the role of information laws. One of the main priorities of UNESCO is access to information, and they encourage the adoption of statuary guarantees and the implementation of information laws. While 132 countries have these laws in place, some countries limited their access during the pandemic. Thus, du Toit emphasised the critical role strong institutions play in the implementation of access to information laws.
Thomas Miller from the EU spoke next. Miller made the point that some governments have used the pandemic to abuse their power. In addition, he remarked that access to information is getting more difficult just as it becomes more critical and the threats to journalists have increased. Towards the end of his speech, Miller defined access to information: “it is about the facts and getting close to the truth.”
Bo Rosenfelt Clausen from the Africa Freedom of Information Centre spoke at the end on the state of access to information in Namibia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. A study was carried out to assess the status of public information in these four countries. The main conclusion drawn from this study is that Right to Information (RTI) guarantees are crucial, and they are dependent on proper resources and training. Moreover, effective implementation of right and access to information is in the interest of both the government and civil society.
After the keynote speeches, participants were put into breakout rooms to discuss three questions regarding access to information.
What role does the media play in promoting (or hampering) rights to information laws?
The role the media play as a go between for the public and the government was discussed by participants. For example in South Africa, thanks to the Promoting of Access to Information Act, media workers can request information by filling out a form and sending it to the government department. However, it was noted that while information laws like these are in place in many countries, media workers still struggle to access information. Thus, civil society can play a role in supporting the media.
How can information provision be gender-responsive?
It was agreed that there is a gender gap in the media which affects information provision. Women need to become more involved in the media and they should be encouraged to take on managerial roles. If the gender gap within the media is bridged, then the information provided will be more gender responsive. In addition, the need for information to be made more accessible to women was raised.
What type of information should not be disclosed?
Participants discussed how highly sensitive information such as information that could exacerbate conflict, should not be disclosed to the public. Assessments of the socio-political situation should potentially be made before information is shared. However, it was also noted that if information is withheld, citizens cannot make informed decisions. In addition, citizens need to trust the information they are getting. A possible way to build trust is for the relationship between the government and media workers to be improved.
A few important conclusions can be drawn, both from the keynote speeches and the discussion that followed. Firstly, access to safe information is more critical than ever, and if citizens trust the information they are receiving, they can make informed decisions. Secondly, bridging the gender gap within the media will help to make gender provision more gender-responsive. Finally, even if information laws are in place, they constantly need to be strengthened and they should be supported by strong institutions. If all these factors are combined, it will help improve access to information worldwide.