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UNESCO promotes SDGs to the world’s Information Commissioners, discusses cooperation

A keynote speech and a special session were opportunities for UNESCO to promote access to information as part of sustainable development this week, at the 11th International Conference of Information Commissioners, convened during 10-13 March 2019, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The conference enabled UNESCO to explain its role as custodian for global monitoring of SDG 16.10.2 on “public access to information and fundamental freedoms”, and how Information Commissioners could be part of this process.

“Support for the UNESCO data collection process going ahead will really help to sustain the international momentum for building up access to information,” said Guy Berger, UNESCO director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development in a keynote speech.

He briefed Information Commissioners about UNESCO’s template for the data collection, and encouraged them to use the same template and data for national reporting to parliaments, as well as for their engagement in country level national SDG monitoring processes.

Engagement with both the global and national SDG monitoring could amplify impact, and “convince actors to take your role with greater appreciation, as well as increase the resources available for your work,” Berger told the Commissioners.

He further alerted them that UNESCO member states had declared 28 September as the annual “International Day for Universal Access to Information”, and encouraged participation in events on this date.

Highlighting the digital aspects of access to information, Berger also urged the Information Commissioners to engage with UNESCO’s Internet Universality principles. In addition, he drew attention to the way the Universal Periodic Review process at the UN Human Rights Council, could be relevant to the work of Information Commissions.

“In as much as you provide independent and authentic access to information held by the state, as a human right as well as a bulwark against information of fraudulent provenance, rumour and disinformation, added Berger.

“Along with professional journalists, Information Commissioners are an oasis against the desertification processes of disinformation.”

Opportunities provided for promoting access to information by such UN platforms as Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the International Day of Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), as well as reporting within the SDGs High Level Political Forum (HLPF) were discussed at a dedicated session titled “Engaging Information Commissioners in the 2030 Agenda”. It was moderated by UNESCO programme specialist Marius Lukosiunas.

Guy Berger, the first speaker of the session, focused on the role of UNESCO in organising the monitoring and reporting of SDG 16.10.2. He also highlighted UNESCO's role in coordinating global commemoration of IDUAI, aimed to strengthen the visibility of access to information and called upon the commissioners to join the global and national commemorations using the “OpenTalks” format. Berger concluded suggesting that the UPR could serve as the excellent UN platform, aimed to strengthen access to information laws based on international standards.

Andrew Ecclestone, formerly Senior Investigator of the New Zealand Ombudsman’s Office shared his opinions regarding the possibilities of information commissioners to advance access to information within the SDG context. He also emphasised the enabling character of SDG 16.10.2, pointing out that access to information plays a crucial role in the implementation of all SDGs.

Alison Tilley, an advocacy advisor with the Democratic Governance and Right Unit at the University of Cape Town, focused on the need for research to better understand access to information related data.

Lucy Ndungu, Kenya’s Access to Information Commissioner, spoke about the acute need to develop the capacity of information commissioners’ offices in African countries. She also discussed a wide range of actions to be taken to promote access to information for special groups, such as people with disabilities, youth, women, etc.

Another panel at the conference was moderated by UNESCO associate programme specialist Dian Kuswandini. Titled “Enforcement, monitoring and supervision of ATI/FOI laws: International and regional experiences regarding cooperation”, this event highlighted that the capacity to report on ATI/FOI implementation as one of the main challenges faced by ATI/FOI oversight institutions in Africa.

Gilbert Sendugwa, Executive Director of Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), said that producing an annual report consistently was an important step to negotiate resources to address capacity challenges faced by ATI/FOI oversight institutions.

“They (ATI/FOI oversight institutions) said they didn’t have resources, but then an annual report would be an instrument to engage parliament and those others concerned on the needs and the challenges that they have,” Sendugwa said.

The experience from the network of Information Commissioners in Latin America serves as a good example. By producing a good assessment on their activities and needs, they managed to attract funding resources from the European Union.

The discussion concluded that sharing of burdens and benefits through regional and international cooperation does not only contribute to improvements at the national level, but also helps build trust, reduce regional disparities and increase cohesion in one territory. This includes cooperation in the area of fundraising and peer-to-peer learning.

With grants to UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication, made by Sweden, The Netherlands and Germany, Information Commissioners from eight African countries were also supported by UNESCO to join their counterparts from some 30 other countries attending the event.