Welcome remarks of the Resident coordinator of the UN system in Namibia International Day for the Universal Access to InformationSep 28, 2016
The free flow of information and ideas lies at the heart of the very notion of democracy and is crucial to effective respect human rights. In the absence of respect for the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, it is not possible to exercise the right to vote, human rights abuses take place in secret, and there is no way to expose corrupt, inefficient government.
Central to the guarantee in practice of a free flow of information and ideas is the principle that public bodies hold information not for themselves but on behalf of the public.
These bodies hold a vast wealth of information and, if this is held in secret, the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under international law as well as most constitutions, is seriously undermined.
The importance of the right to access information held by public bodies, sometimes referred to as the right to know, has been recognised in Sweden for over 200 years.
Importantly, however, over the last ten years it has gained widespread recognition in all regions of the world. This is reflected in authoritative statements signalling the importance of this right by a number of international bodies, including various UN actors and all three regional human rights systems, in specific guarantees for this right in many of the new constitutions adopted in countries undergoing democratic transitions and in the passage of laws and policies giving practical effect to this right by a rapidly growing number of countries and international organisations.
A fundamental value underpinning the right to know is the principle of maximum disclosure, which establishes a presumption that all information held by public bodies should be subject to disclosure unless there is an overriding public interest justification for non-disclosure.
This principle also implies the introduction of effective mechanisms through which the public can access information, including request driven systems as well as proactive publication and dissemination of key material.
While Namibia is preparing its Access to Information bill, a number of questions face those tasked with drafting and/or promoting legislation guaranteeing the right to know in accordance with the principle of maximum disclosure.
How should the regime of exceptions be crafted so as to strike an appropriate balance between the right to know and the need for secrecy to protect certain key public and private interests?
How extensive should the obligation to publish and disseminate information be and how can the law ensure that this obligation grows in line with technological developments which significantly reduce publication costs?
What procedures for requesting information can balance the need for timely, inexpensive access against the pressures and resource constraints facing civil servants? What right of appeal should individuals have when their requests for information have been refused? Which positive measures need to be taken to change the culture of secrecy that pervades the public administration in so many countries, and to inform the public about this right?
Within the UN, freedom of information was recognized early on as a fundamental right. In 1946, during its first session, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59 which stated:
Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the UN is consecrated.
In ensuing international human rights instruments, freedom of information was not set out separately but as part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948,10 is generally considered to be the flagship statement of international human rights. Article 19, binding on all States as a matter of customary international law, guarantees the right to freedom of expression and information in the following terms:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a legally binding treaty, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and, as of December 2002, had been ratified by some 149 States. The corresponding provision in this treaty, also Article 19, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The year 2016 is the first year of marking 28 September as the “International Day for Universal Access to Information” (IDUAI), proclaimed by UNESCO Member States in November 2015.
Civil society groups, in particular working through the global network, Freedom of Information Advocates Network or FOIAnet, have already long noted the date, although under a different label, but the general focus is the same.
As a result, prospects now exist for partnerships between UNESCO, as the key UN agency working in this area, and civil society as well as with many other actors.
Each constituent brings its accumulated expertise, resources and interests in regard to the relevant information issues, thereby offering the potential to complement and combine activities in the interests of greater impact.
The International Day for Universal Access to Information falls within a long history of UN attention to this area.
Universal access to information is bound up with the right to information, which is an integral part of the right to freedom of expression. It is also covered by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
UNESCO resolution 38 C/70 requests the UNESCO Secretariat to draw the attention of the UN General Assembly to the IDUAI for its consideration and possible adoption. Steps have been initiated accordingly.
The International Day for Universal Access to Information has particular resonance/relevance with the new 2030 Development Agenda, and in particular with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 16.10: Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.
In March, the UN Statistical Commission approved inter alia the proposal of an indicator “Number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information.” This proposal will pass to the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for adoption when its Coordination and Management Committee meets on 1-3 June 2016, and the UN General Assembly is expected to adopt the framework later the same month.
Thereafter, the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) meets on 11-20 July – this is the central body for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and which will monitor progress towards the SDGs.
To conclude, let me welcome all our partners here present: the government of Namibia through the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Action Namibia, the Editor’s Forum of Namibia, the African platform on Access to information, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA).
Please let’s celebrate this very particular Day.
Let us congratulate all the activists of the access to information in Africa.