[FoME] UN's historic freedom of information agreement
ute.lange at dw.com
Mo Sep 28 17:25:28 CEST 2015
UN's historic freedom of information agreement
By Christian Gramsch, Director, DW Akademie
The most crucial item carried by most refugees on their difficult journeys
are their smartphones. Why? Because smartphones are sources of vital
information – for mapping routes, receiving updates about the political
situation, making their journeys safer, and hearing from their loved ones.
Smartphones also allow refugees to share their experiences and communicate
with others. Here we are talking about fundamental human rights: the right
to freedom of movement, the right to physical integrity, the right to
family, and the right of freedom of expression and information.
Alongside other basic rights, the United Nations has included the right to
access information as part of their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),
which were adopted this past weekend at the UN Sustainable Development
Summit 2015 in New York.
This is a historic step.
It is historic because it is the first time that a global development
agreement is committing to advancing freedom of information. The 17 goals
in the UN's Agenda for Sustainable Development go further than the
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000. As well as tackling
issues like poverty, hunger and disease, the SDGs incorporate goals such
as economic growth, social participation and environmental protection.
The new universal goals also demonstrate global solidarity – they apply
equally to all of the 193 UN member states regardless of whether they are
a developing or an industrial nation.
Freedom to information is set out clearly in goal 16, under target 16.10
to: “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms,
in accordance with the national legislation and international agreements.”
But is a commitment like this actually going to make the world a better
The answer is no, and yes.
No, because the target's wording is vague and ambiguous. Because the
target doesn't mention 'media' or 'freedom of expression'. Because the
target refers to national legislation, but such legislation is often weak
and poorly implemented, if at all, and makes it an ill-suited point of
No, because all the new goals and their associated 169 targets are
surprisingly conventional given the world is in the middle of a digital
revolution. The goals and targets fail to acknowledge how information
technology, data and global connectivity can help reach the development
goals. While universal and affordable Internet services are included
elsewhere as a separate target, this is foreseen as an economic measure,
not a fundamental right driving social and political development. The
agenda fails to incorporate a pledge not to misuse the Internet for
surveillance purposes, and to close the digital divide between those with
unfettered access to information technology and those who only have
limited or no access whatsoever.
And no, because at this stage, the goals and their targets are abstract
formulations and no one really knows whether they can be achieved by 2030.
Considering the extensive and controversial political discussions
surrounding the SDGs, we expected more. The UN member states should have
included goals for freedom of expression and independent media (both
conventional and digital) as well, instead of only committing to freedom
However, there are several good reasons to answer the question with a yes.
Yes, because target 16.10 is a chance to advance the flow of free and
independent information and communication. The issue is now on the
international agenda, and we can – and must – discuss how we go on from
Freedom of expression and information are not just fundamental rights;
they are also prerequisites for realizing other human rights. This hold
true for refugees with smartphones, patients and doctors facing the Ebola
crisis in West Africa, and Ukrainians seeking information in a time of
Only when people have access to relevant information and can freely
express their opinions can they actively help solve their own problems.
The link between freedom of expression and democracy, good governance,
peace and economic development has been demonstrated in numerous studies.
There is a positive correlation between independent media and reduced
corruption, political stability, a more effective rule of law, a higher
per capita income, and increased public spending on health.
An example of this is Mongolia. Over the past few years the country, which
shares borders with Russia and China, has laid the legal basis for freedom
of the press. Despite various setbacks, press freedom is progressing and
the quality of reporting has improved. At the same time, the economy is
growing and civil society is using its new found opportunities to
contribute to the democratization process.
Conversely, authoritarian political systems, weak markets and restrictive
laws weaken freedom of expression, and as such, weaken development as a
whole. The East African country of Burundi is a case in point. Political
unrest has not only paralyzed the nation's economy, it has also crippled
freedom of the press and access to information. Journalists in Burundi
live in fear, and numerous media companies have been forced to shut down.
But there is another, more important reason why target 16.10 can make the
world a better place. The inclusion of access to information in an
international agreement means states have to act upon it.
DW Akademie, as part of Germany's international broadcaster, DW, has been
active in this regard for the last 50 years. From its beginning as a
journalism training center, DW Akademie has developed into an organization
that focuses on wide-ranging, long-term development projects. DW Akademie
provides comprehensive consulting services to its partners, and we work
collaboratively with our partners to navigate the changing digital world.
Mongolia serves again as an example of this. Consultants from DW Akademie
were involved in transforming the country’s state broadcaster into a
public-service broadcaster. We are now supporting civil society
stakeholders in founding a media council and are strengthening
investigative journalism initiatives.
But we are also active in countries with more adverse conditions. In
Burundi, for example, DW Akademie media experts are working with local
radio stations in remote areas – such stations are often the only source
of information for rural populations. We are also involved in media
literacy projects for school children and citizen journalists.
Things now need to move ahead at the UN level. Once the goals are signed,
the UN still has to agree on indicators to monitor whether the goals are
being met. DW Akademie, on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for
Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), is involved in discussions
with UN expert committees in this regard.
There is still much to do to advance freedom of expression and freedom of
information, and in this way, advance other human rights as well. Because
the UN's new Sustainable Development Goals are only sustainable when the
situation improves for all of those suffering from displacement, poverty,
ill-health and oppression.
Commentary published on DW Akademie website and on the Huffington Post's
Hauptabteilung Training und Kommunikation
Deutsche Welle (DW)
T +49.30.4646-8508 (Berlin)
ute.lange at dw.com
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