27.04.2010 - UNESCO Office in Kabul

World Press Freedom Day- Freedom of information: The right to know

@UNESCO/Mohammad Amin Sadiqi

UNESCO is the only UN agency with the mandate to promote freedom of expression and its corollary, freedom of the press. The UNESCO Constitution calls on the organization to foster the “free exchange of ideas and knowledge” and the “free flow of ideas by word and image.” Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are thus among the guiding principles of UNESCO, and freedom of information may be deemed to be part and parcel of the Organization’s core mandate to support them.

Democratic participation depends on people who are well-informed, this being a pre-condition for their effective monitoring and assessment of their leaders’ performance, as well as for their meaningful engagement in public debate and decision-making processes that impact their lives. Freedom of information therefore represents an important instrument for the public to hold government and other actors accountable, and contributes to deter secretiveness, corrupt practices and wrong doing. Better information flows can also enhance government efficiency and responsiveness, while strengthening citizens’ trust in those who govern them. Freedom of information is often associated with well-functioning markets and improvements in investment climates. For all the above reasons, it has been increasingly acknowledged as a key to democracy and socio-economic development.

Freedom of information may be interpreted narrowly as the right to access information held by public bodies or, more broadly, as including access to and circulation of information held by other actors. It is intrinsically linked to the basic human right of freedom of expression. Freedom of information is therefore also fundamentally connected to press freedom, representing a crucial element to enable media to strengthen democratization, good governance and human development through its roles as a “watch-dog over the abuse of power (promoting accountability and transparency), as a civic forum for political debate (facilitating informed electoral choices), and as an agenda-setter for policymakers (strengthening government responsiveness to social problems)”. In turn, complete realization of the right to know cannot take place without a free, independent, plural, ethical and professional press.

The notion of freedom of information was recognized by the United Nations as early as in 1946, and has long been enshrined as part of the basic human right of freedom of expression in major international instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. More than two centuries have passed since adoption of the first freedom of information (FOI) law. There has much more recently been an unparalleled increase in the international recognition of freedom of information as a right included under freedom of expression, thoroughly addressed in the revised edition of Toby Mendel’s book Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey and in his regionally focused contribution, The right to information in Latin America: A comparative legal survey. While in 1990 there were 13 countries with national FOI laws, currently this legislation exists in more than 80, with another 20 to 30 countries actively considering its introduction. The number of national constitutions and High Court rulings guaranteeing freedom of information has also grown. At the global and regional levels, an increasing body of declarations, treaties and jurisprudence has specifically alluded to freedom of information as a fundamental corollary of freedom of expression.

Despite significant progress and emergence of a world community of advocates for freedom of information, there are still many factors constraining advance toward fully achieving its promise to empower individuals and further accountability, transparency and the fight against corruption. This paper reviews some of the main issues and challenges, stressing the contribution of traditional news media and information and communication technologies (ICTs) in facing them.


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