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IDUAI 2021: An urgent need to expand access to information laws and their effective implementation worldwide

In the framework of the International Day of Universal Access to Information, UNESCO and its partners organized seven webinars and a dozen events around the world on 28 and 29 September 2021.

Marking the International Day, the discussions initiated the process for updating the 2004 Policy Guidelines for the Development and Promotion of Governmental Public Domain Information. Speakers from different geographical regions provided insight into the best approaches to improving the guidelines from a rights-based perspective that would lead to effective implementations of related laws. The suggested changes will contribute to an updated version of the guidelines and further consultations in 2022.

The events organized around the world highlighted key aspects about the guidelines and the way forward, focusing on the role of access to information laws in building back better institutions after the pandemic. They also addressed access to information as the right that could enable other rights in the Decade of Action and the achievement of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development, particularly Sustainable Development Goal 16 to promote “just, peaceful and inclusive societies.”

As UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, Tawfik Jelassi pointed out in his opening remarks, “132 UN Member States have adopted constitutional guarantees or enacted access to information laws. This is a major achievement, but more can still be done to extend this fundamental right to all countries worldwide.”

We must encourage governments to adopt access to information laws and support the implementation of such guarantees when they already exist. Importantly, we must also ensure that capacities and resources exist to ensure that legal frameworks translate into real access to information and this real benefits for citizens.
Tawfik Jelassi, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information

Speaking during a panel on new trends, Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy and Chair of FOIAnet agreed that this right is “more and more recognised”. 

The right to information has gone from strength to strength from being recognised as a human right, then reflected in the SDGs, and subsequently officially declared to be a UN day in 2019. All of this is due to the key role this right plays in democracy, development and the fulfilment of personal goals. That is why we are celebrating it on this day.
Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy and Chair of FOIAnet

Contributing to discussions on how to mainstream Access to Information issues in the Universal Periodic Reviews at the UN Human Rights Council, was Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the Council and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations for Fiji.

For the UPR to be an effective mechanism, it is essential that all stakeholders, states, civil society organizations and international organizations, have access to information, and especially information on the human rights success stories and challenges each state faces. “Indeed, for states to make informed, perceptive recommendations to one another, stakeholders need to be made aware of and analyze human rights related information from all states.
Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of UN Human Rights Council

In implementing the right to information, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of oversight bodies was highlighted.

Implementation [of laws] is where things are falling down. And that’s why it’s absolutely critical to have independent commissioners or an oversight body that can ensure that things are actually moving forward, that governments are putting things into place, that it doesn’t stop at the law, that it goes into implementation so that people actually have the ability to have someone to turn to if those rights are not being realized in practice. Without having someone looking at the store, nothing happens.
Quinn McKew, Executive Director of Article 19

Also taking part in the webinars, Elizabeth Tydd, Information Commissioner at the Information and Privacy Commission in New South Wales, Australia, warned about the risk that with the use of  artificial intelligence, in “information may be locked away from citizens further by virtual utilization of the technology”. She argued that “it is important to preserve enshrined rights , so that a move towards a digital government doesn’t diminish the right to information”.

The implementation of the right to information in the digital era was also at the heart of the discussions. Citing some examples of use of digital technologies Sanjay Pradhan, CEO of Open Government Partnership (OGP) declared "Access to Information can be supported through digital technologies. For instance, Colombia created interactive web platforms and call centers that support Access to Information for blind and deaf citizens".

Several panelists highlighted the digital divide - the gap between people who have access to modern information and communications technology and those who don't. Glenn Hampson, Founder and Director of the Open Scholarship Initiative (OSI) referred to the need for an “Open Renaissance”, the idea of providing open access to scientific information and sharing knowledge by using digital technologies.

The IDUAI events also saw a handover ceremony at UNESCO from the 2021 host of World Press Freedom Day, Namibia, to the 2022 host which will be Uruguay. Press freedom is a key complement to the right to seek and receive information, by providing the legal framework for imparting expression to the public. Journalists are important users of freedom of expression laws, alerting the public to significant information that is disclosed by governments either proactively or on request.

The events have been organized together with the following partner institutions : Freedom of Information Advocates Network (FOIAnet), Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), the International Conference of Information Commissioners (ICIC), Article 19, Open Government Partnership (OGP), Access Info Europe, National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and Personal Data Protection of Mexico (INAI), International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) as well as two UNESCO intergovernmental programmes, the Information for All Programme (IFAP) and the International Programme for the Development of Communication.