Societies need to make the right to information real, and to protect its champions, according to Jeffrey Sachs, special advisor on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the UN Secretary General, and professor of sustainable development at the University of Columbia, New York.
He was speaking at the launch event of UNESCO’s new report on access to information this week, within the context of the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) reviewing SDG progress.
The SDG review at the UN includes assessing performance on Goal 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions, which includes SDG target 16.10 on achieving “public access to information and fundamental freedoms”.
“SDG 16.10 is fundamental to the SDGs as it is about accountability, and about an honest assessment of how many people are living in poverty and attending school, of rates of deforestation, and about the state of the rule of law, criminality and justice”, said Sachs.
Although disclosure of certain information was not always popular with governments, the SDGs need “systematic global evidence and data on where RTI laws are working, and where they are not working,” he affirmed.
The UNESCO report launched at the meeting examines the adoption and implementation of legal guarantees to access to information in 43 of the countries participating in the Voluntary National Review (VNR) at the HLPF this year.
The survey finds that while there is progress, more is needed. Further, it assesses that that improved record-keeping and continued monitoring – especially involving national Information Commissions – can improve performance on 16.10.
Speaking for civil society, Maarten Visser of the Dutch NGO Free Press Unlimited explained how his organisation and Deutsche Welle Akademie had partnered with UNESCO to ensure successful data collection for the new report.
“We also worked in five countries to encourage inclusion of SDG 16.10.2 in the Voluntary National Review reports being tabled this week,” he said.
Three information commissioners at the meeting explained their work and co-operation with UNESCO in advancing access to information through data-collection using the Organisation’s template.
Sri Lanka’s Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena said there was a huge change between the pre- and post- RTI periods in her country in regard to citizens’ expectations about openness, transparency and accountability.
She cited an example of a woman’s use of the law to regain ownership of land that had been improperly confiscated.
From Sierra Leone, Immanuel Seaga Shaw told how his commission had succeeded in persuading state entities, including the police, to make information proactively available. “RTI is not just about political accountability, but also about advancing economic and cultural rights,” he said.
From Mexico’s National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and the Protection of Personal Data (INAI), Blanca Ibarra told how the RTA network of Latin American information commissioners served to exchange knowledge and experience.
She elaborated that the independence of such entities was also being pursued by encouraging information openness at local levels. INAI had played a significant role in developing public interest rules for the classification of government records in and creating a digital platform, she stated.
Opening the event, which was hosted by the mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands was the country’s Deputy Minister for Development Co-operation, Birgitte Tazelaar. “Access to information is not guaranteed by freedom of information laws,” she cautioned, adding that there needed to be implementation as well as practical and technical access for the public.
She also announced the hosting of UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day global conference in The Hague next year.
Closing remarks came from Marie Ottosson, deputy director of Sweden’s Sida. “We need informed and engaged people if we want to achieve the sustainable development agenda”, she argued, adding that a rights-based approach is essential.
Statistics about implementation could be complemented by thinking “upstream” about agenda-setting and promoting issue recognition, involvement of people in development, and in forecasting trends in access to information, said Ottosson.
As custodian agency for SDG Indicator 16.10.2, UNESCO leads the monitoring and reporting on access to information via its Communication and Information Sector’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC).
The work has been made possible through the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Germany and The Netherlands.