Freedom of Information

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Freedom of Information (FOI) can be defined as the right to access information held by public bodies. It is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognized by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom to “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

FOI has also been enshrined as a corollary of freedom of expression in other major international instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the American Convention on Human Rights (1969).

FOI legislation reflects the fundamental premise that all information held by governments and governmental institutions is in principle public and may only be withheld if there are legitimate reasons, such as typically privacy and security, for not disclosing it. Over the past 10 years, the right to information has been recognized by an increasing number of countries, including developing ones, through the adoption of a wave of FOI laws. In 1990, only 13 countries had adopted national FOI laws, whereas there are currently more than 90 such laws adopted across the world. 

UNESCO’s mandate as set out in its 1945 Constitution specifically calls on the Organization to “promote the free flow of ideas by word and image”. This mission is reflected on UNESCO’s Medium Term Strategy Medium-Term Strategy for 2008-2013 (34 C/4), and particularly in its strategic programme objective of enhancing universal access to information and knowledge.

Freedom of information is also central in the framework of the World Summit of the Information Society, which has reaffirmed freedom of expression and universal access to information as cornerstones of inclusive knowledge societies.

Further, the relevance of FOI has also been highlighted  in the Brisbane Declaration on Freedom of Information: The Right to Know (2010), the Maputo Declaration on Fostering Freedom of Expression, Access to Information ad Empowerment of People (2008) and the Dakar Declaration on Media and Good Governance (2005), all emerging from UNESCO’s annual celebrations of World Press Freedom Day.

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