Access to information
Information can change the way we see the world around us, our place in it, and how to adjust our lives in order to maximize the benefits available through our local resources. Fact driven decision-making can significantly alter our political, social and economic perspectives. The right to access information can be interpreted within the legal frameworks that support Freedom of Information as it applies to information held by public bodies, or in a wider sense to encompass both access and circulation of information held by other actors, where it becomes intrinsically linked to Freedom of Expression.
Freedom Of Information and the transparency it promotes, has a direct consequence on fighting corruption, which in turn has a tangible impact on development. Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn often identified government corruption as the primary hindrance to development and an independent media sector as the number one tool to fight public corruption.
The Basis of informed decision-making
Information is power. Freedom of Information and Freedom of Expression work against the concentration of information within the hands of a few. Of course, all information is subject to interpretation. For this reason, the clearinghouse function of an open and pluralistic media sector is critical to a better understanding of any issue.
In terms of encouraging the empowerment of citizens, Freedom Of Information is at the heart of a participatory democracy. Consider the consequences of an uninformed electorate going to the polls; consider the consequences when information flows are curbed or manipulated in times of political crisis or ethnic strife. Freedom of Information promotes a true sense of ownership within society and therefore gives meaning to the concept of citizenship.
The practicalities of access
Freedom of Information does not guarantee access. Even if governments were to become models of disclosure through e-governance by putting their information online, without a means to access that information people would not be more empowered. Internet connectivity and IT resources have become crucial to unhindered access to information. This is also true for accessing national or international news or even simply to provide a plurality of media options. If the absence of connectivity or equipment can highlight the digital divide and the ensuing knowledge gap that separates developing and developed countries, groups within a country can also become further marginalized by their inability to access information on the internet.
We must not underestimate the importance of access to technologies and infrastructure, which are still cruelly lacking in many parts of the world. What can the concepts of “digital revolution” or “information society” effectively mean to 80% of the world’s population who still have no access to basic telecommunication facilities, or to approximately 860 million illiterate individuals, or to the 2 billion inhabitants of the planet who still have no electricity? The priority given to narrowing the digital divide in every respect is therefore fully justified.
Learning to use new technologies or, in other words, building media and information literacy must be a primary objective as these advancements are coming in the area of information access and sharing.
Ensuring freedom for the media around the world is a priority. Independent, free and pluralistic media are central to good governance in democracies that are young and old. Free media can ensure transparency, accountability and the rule of law; they promote participation in public and political discourse, and contribute to the fight against poverty. An independent media sector draws its power from the community it serves and in return empowers that community to be full a partner in the democratic process.
Freedom of Information and Freedom of Expression are the founding principles for open and informed debate. New technology will continue to evolve and allow citizens to further shape their media environments as well as access a plurality of sources. The combination of access to information and citizen participation in media can only contribute to an increased sense of ownership and empowerment.