[FoME] Access to Information: UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.10

Christoph Dietz Christoph.Dietz at CAMECO.ORG
Mo Sep 28 09:20:13 CEST 2015

>>> GFMD Secretariat<communications at gfmd.info> 25.09.2015 22:55 >>>

Ensuring public access to information: the UN's new global goal

The Kingdom of Sweden was the first country to adopt legal guarantees
for freedom of information and a free press. The passage in the Swedish
parliament of "His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of
Writing and of the Press" in 1766 abolished censorship of books and
newspapers and required authorities to provide public access to all
official records. Two and a half centuries later, the rest of the world
is about to follow Sweden’s lead.

World leaders are to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at
a United Nations summit from 25 to 27 September. The new SDGs, which
succeed the Millennium Development Goals due to expire in 2016, commit
all 193 UN member states to an ambitious development agenda by 2030.

The agenda calls for poverty eradication, environmental protection,
gender equality, disease prevention, universal schooling, 'inclusive'
growth, and good governance and includes, for the first time in an
international agreement of this kind, a commitment to public access to
The target, SDG16.10, states plainly that all countries pledge
to:"ensure public access to information and protect fundamental
freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international
agreements." This new commitment has potentially transformative
implications for the free flow of information and independent media
development worldwide. 

Historic agreement to open up official information

The world's governments have never before jointly recognized the
principle that people should have the right to all information in
government hands unless officials can show why specific information
should not be public, whether for privacy or national security or other
demonstrably legitimate reasons.

The UN's understanding of "public access to information" goes well
beyond requiring access to what is conventionally defined as public
information, such as laws, budgets, records of government deliberations
and policy documents, and officially compiled economic and demographic
data. It includes, at a minimum, all information relevant to each and
every one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Those goals and their
169 associated targets encompass an extraordinarily broad range of
public policy issues and objectives, all requiring extensive data,
debate and public analysis.

In turn, that requires enforcement of the right to "seek, receive and
impart information, through any medium, and regardless of frontiers," as
stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and acknowledged
in the new global commitment under SDG16.10 to "protect fundamental

While more than a hundred of the UN's member states have enacted their
own access to information laws, most of these laws have been passed only
recently and in many countries, effective implementation has barely
begun. The operating premise of most governments historically has been
that information in official hands is shared publicly only at the
sovereign discretion of those same officials. With the adoption of
SDG16.10, now (at least in principle) the onus is being placed on
governments to proactively disclose information or to explain why
certain information is not being made public. For most countries, that
is a radical change from legal systems developed under centuries of
monarchical and other forms of authoritarian rule. 

Long-time coming

Even in the long-established democracies of the West, legal recognition
of the public’s right to information is a relatively recent development.
In the United States, despite constitutional guarantees of free speech
and press freedom, it was not until 1966 that the Congress passed the US
Freedom of Information Act. France first ratified a similar law in 1999
while Germany took until 2005 to adopt a freedom of information act. The
UK, where wide-ranging official secrets restrictions had long limited
the scope of press freedom, also enacted an access to information law
for the first time in 2005. Then-prime minister Tony Blair would later
call the act one of the most "naive, foolish, irresponsible" of his
government’s initiatives. ("It is a dangerous act," Blair wrote after he
left office, voicing the usually unspoken misgivings of many elected
officials in countries with such laws, because, he contended, its
limitations on the confidentiality of official discussions and documents
are "utterly undermining of sensible government.")

Perhaps the best national model for SDG16.10 since Sweden’s pioneering
example can be found in South Africa, whose post-apartheid constitution
of 1993 states: "Everyone has the right of access to any information
held by the state; and any information that is held by another person
and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights." That
latter clause underscores the principle that "public access to
information" should include access to any information relevant to
people’s rights, and by extension to national and global development,
including information from privately held corporations and other
nongovernmental sources.

The guarantee of access to information in South Africa's constitution
was seen by its drafters as a necessary complement to its strong,
unambiguous commitment to freedom of expression: "Everyone has the right
to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other
media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of
artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific
research." These mutually reinforcing principles are also both
recognized in SDG16.10.

Applies to all nations, not just developing ones

The SDGs aren't legally binding they are, after all, only 'goals,'
inherently aspirational and voluntary in nature. But the experience of
the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shows that most countries take
these global goals quite seriously, filing annual progress reports to
the UN, which were then reported online, publicly and globally. Through
press reports and academic monitoring and civil society vigilance, the
pace of MDGs achievement became national news in most developing
countries over the past 15 years.

The key difference between the SDGs and the MDGs, however, is that
while the latter applied almost exclusively to developing countries, the
former are designed to be universal, applying to all member countries.
And just as all countries can do better in reducing inequalities or
strengthening women’s rights and environmental protection, so too can
all countries do more to "ensure public access to information."

For most developing countries, and for many marginalized communities in
more developed economies, ensuring public access to information will
require more than just legal reforms. It will also require closing the
digital divide, with the ultimate goal being universal and free (or at
least affordable) internet services, and ensuring the world’s online
information resources are open to everybody. This objective is addressed
elsewhere by the new UN goals but as an economic development imperative,
not a rights-based educational and empowerment tool. Target SDG9(c)
states: "Significantly increase access to information and communications
technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the
Internet in least developed countries by 2020."

Ensuring access to information will also require extensive training for
independent media professionals so they can make the freedom of
information requests necessary for investigative journalism, and for all
areas of development reporting, including reporting on the progress of
achieving the SDGs. Journalists, along with civil society activists and
academic research specialists, are among the few who will use these
legal tools professionally for public-service purposes. Their
experiences in trying to access information through these legal
mechanisms provides the best evidence of whether the system is working
in the public interest, as it should, or not.

Need to agree on how to measure access to information

The next challenge is to ensure that the indicators chosen by the UN to
monitor SDG16.10 will actually ensure public access to information.
That’s not yet certain. UN member-states still have to agree on a set
of indicators to monitor the sustainable development agenda's goals and
targets. This task has been assigned to a committee of member-state
statisticians known as the Inter-Agency and Experts Group, or IAEG.
The IAEG will hold its next meeting in late October, with stringent
restrictions on civil society participation, in contrast to its initial
meeting in New York in July.

The IAEG intends to present its recommendations by the end of the year
to the UN Statistical Commission, which in turn, is to agree upon a
final set of official UN indicators for the SDGs at its annual meeting
in March 2016. There are strong pressures from many governments to
arbitrarily limit both the number and scope of SDGs indicators,
especially in the area of human rights and governance, which national
statistical offices rarely measure and often consider inherently
subjective and dangerously political.

Still, the aim of SDG16.10 should be to make passage and implementation
of such laws a universal norm by 2030, and this should be clearly
reflected in the indicators for this target. Verification of such laws
is a straightforward matter of public record. The actual implementation
of such laws is also verifiable. It should be assessed as an ongoing
process: All countries at all stages of development can always do
better. UNESCO or some other designated UN body could provide a template
for SDG 16.10 progress reports, offer technical support as requested,
and publish the reports in a publicly accessible online database. Though
standardized in format, these reports should recognize that the baseline
for every nation is different, for a variety of socioeconomic and
historical reasons.

This requires different national priorities, with different metrics,
from expanding Internet access and legal reforms to systematizing the
online publication of official information. These different national
needs and starting points should be acknowledged in this UN reporting
process. Above all, SDG16.10 requires appropriate official UN indicators
and monitoring plans.

Groups specialized in freedom of information and media, such as the
Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) where I work, Article 19 and
the International Federation of Library Associations, have all argued
that an indicator that specifically monitors legal provisions for
'ensuring public access to information' is essential for the achievement
of SDG16.10, in keeping with the spirit as well as the literal text of
this target.
Without a dedicated indicator of this kind, SDG16.10 would be
functionally meaningless for most countries. As already noted, a
majority of UN member states have already adopted freedom of information
laws. The aim of SDG16.10 should be to make passage and implementation
of access to information laws a universal norm by 2030.

GFMD has proposed to the UN the following indicator for SDG16.10: "The
adoption and implementation of legal guarantees and mechanisms ensuring
public access to information, including but not limited to information
relevant to each and all of the SDGs." The GFMD proposal is similar in
intent to the draft 16.10 indicator submitted to the UN Statistical
Commission by UNESCO: "Number of countries that have adopted and
implemented constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for
public access to information."

GFMD also supports the complementary inclusion of a proposed
multitarget indicator for the 'protection of fundamental freedoms' under
SDG 16.10, as well as an indicator specifically monitoring public access
to information. The following indicator has been proposed jointly by
UNESCO, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the
International Labor Organization for five SDG targets: 5.2 (violence
against women), 16.1 (violence and deaths), 16.3 (rule of law), 16.6
(accountable institutions), and 16.10 (protection of fundamental
freedoms): "Number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced
disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists,
associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates
in the previous 12 months."

This makes sense. Press freedom is a prerequisite for ensuring public
access to information, as SDG16.10 requires. This freedom is imperiled
by unpunished reprisals against journalists and civic activists, which
the UN already documents, as it should. But as the three sponsoring UN
agencies recognize, this second indicator by itself is not intended to
promote or monitor open public access to information in all countries.
In many countries, the free flow of information is routinely constrained
without recourse to attacks against independent journalists. In some
countries, there are no independent journalists at all. And even in
countries with considerable freedom of expression, there are often both
formal and informal barriers against the disclosure, dissemination and
discussion of what should be public information.

Both indicators are essential, reflecting the two mutually reinforcing
but distinct components of the SDG16.10 pledge to "ensure public access
to information and protect fundamental freedoms." Let’s hope that the UN
member states in the UN Statistical Commission can be persuaded to agree
and to help make the SDGs' promise of free and open information, by and
for all, a new 21st century reality.

by Bill Orme
( mailto:%20bill.orme at gmail.com) 

is the UN Representative of the Brussels-based Global Forum for Media
Development (GFMD). A former director of the Committee to Protect
Journalists and correspondent in the Middle East and Latin America for
The New York Times, the Los Angeles Time and The Economist, Bill served
over the past decade as spokesman for the United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP) and an advisor on media projects in Africa for the
Gates Foundation and the UN Peacebuilding Office. 

Article published on GFMD
 and Deutsche Welle website
-------------- nächster Teil --------------
Ein Dateianhang mit HTML-Daten wurde abgetrennt...
URL: <https://listi.jpberlin.de/pipermail/fome/attachments/20150928/63a71c08/attachment.htm>

Mehr Informationen über die Mailingliste FoME