IDUAI 2020: UNESCO calls to strengthen legal guarantees for access to information in times of crises

On 28 of September, UNESCO and its partners celebrated the International Day for Universal Access to Information as the UN International Day for the first time in its history.
Celebrations were held under the slogan “Access of Information—Saving Lives, Building Trust, Bringing Hope” and the UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, in her message emphasised that in a world where COVID-19 has caused chaos and complexity, access to reliable and verified information is more important than ever. Information is essential for encouraging healthy behaviours and saving lives – rumours and inaccurate information can be as lethal as viruses. Outlining continued action, the UNESCO Director-General urged governments to “adopt access to information legislation, and to strengthen the implementation of such guarantees where these already exist” in recognition that access to information is a norm in sustainable development and a prerequisite for human rights.

Following Ms Audrey Azoulay’s video message, an online High-level panel discussed the importance of access to information in times of crises. The panel brought together Aziz Abdukhakimov, the Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan, Lenn Eugene Nagbe, Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism, Liberia, Xing Qu, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, Sylvie Briand, Director of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases Department, World Health Organization, María Barón, Chair of Open Government Partnership Steering Committee, and Sinéad McSweeney, Vice-President and Managing Director of Twitter. The Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan announced that the government of Uzbekistan expressed its commitment to hold an international conference on the occasion of the International Day for Universal Access to Information in Tashkent in the fall of 2021 in cooperation with UNESCO.

The panel addressed the advantages of having constitutional, statutory and policy guarantees for public access to information in times of crises as well as the implementation of sustainable policies through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis. The event reinforced the call for a wider implementation of access to information laws amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussing access to information procedures and how they enable transparency, the panel highlighted how access to information gives people knowledge and protects them from health emergencies.

Following the High-level panel, the UNESCO celebrations continued during the week with six Open Talks webinars in partnership with the UN family, as well as international organizations such as the Open Government Partnership, the International Commissioners International Conference and the Media and Information Literacy Coalition. Webinars were also organized in cooperation with civil society organizations such as the Centre for Law and Democracy, the Freedom of Information Advocates Network and Access Info. Additionally, experts from Article 19, Transparency International and the International Council of Archives provided their insights.

These webinars addressed transparency and openness as the standards for implementing Agenda 2030 in times of crisis and the significance of access to information laws in resolving health emergencies. Speakers and participants also highlighted the importance of measuring the implementation of access to information laws, mainstreaming the needs of young people in addressing the infodemic, and how access to information is a remedy against disinformation.

The speakers in their interventions supported a call on Governments outlined in the UNESCO Director-General message to “commit to the common good – by developing the innovative use of digital technologies for building resilient information infrastructures, and by creating favourable environments for safe and transparent data collection mechanisms that strengthen record keeping and enable accurate analysis of issues in the public interest.”[2]

During the celebrations, UNESCO launched a World Trends Report’s policy brief titled “The Right to Information in Times of Crisis” drafted by the experts from the Centre for Law and Democracy. The brief presented during the webinars, provided practical reference points for Member States to develop their policies in the field of ATI in times of crises. Among others, recommendations presented the following regarding the maintenance of right to information (RTI) systems during COVID 19 outbreak:

Access to information should be seen as part of the response and not as an external burden;
Experience proved that it is possible to maintain RTI systems during a health emergency. Health emergencies may result in logistical barriers to the processing of requests for information, but workarounds could be sought to this;
Digital technologies supported by extensive proactive disclosure provide robust means to maintain RTI systems during health emergencies.
The webinars also enabled UNESCO to preview some findings from its survey data arising from 63 responses by member states and their territories. The survey, designed in conjunction with the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, was carried out as part of mandated monitoring of SDG 16.10.2 on legal guarantees for ATI and their implementation. A report on the full findings will be presented to the 32nd meeting of the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) in November.

Celebrations of the International Day also served as the platform for the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development (body co-founded by UNESCO and ITU) launching a comprehensive new study “Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation while respecting Freedom of Expression”. Furthermore, the celebrations drew attention to the significance of open science in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies.

The webinars represented well the global outreach of the UNESCO 2020 campaign on advancing universal access to information. Speakers of the webinars came from 30 different countries. UNESCO website registered close to 1400 participants from more than 60 countries. Academia, youth organizations, civil society, private sector, and public authorities were the active groups. UNESCO field offices and partners also organized several regional events in Africa, the Arab states and Latin America and the Caribbean. National celebrations were held in at least twenty-five countries.

Recognizing the importance of right to information, including as an enabler of all goals within the 2030 Agenda, the 74th UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 15 October 2019 proclaimed 28 September as the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI).

The proclamation followed the UNESCO’s General Conference resolution (38 C/70) adopted in 2015 declaring 28 September of every year as International Day for Universal Access to Information. UNESCO has been designated by the UN General Assembly as the custodian agency for global monitoring of Indicator 16.10.2 on access to information.