World Press Freedom event examines Freedom of Information

UNESCO’s flagship celebration of World Press Freedom Day (3 May) will take place in Helsinki, Finland, this year from 2 to 4 May. The agency says the overarching theme of the celebration is Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms. The event will focus on Freedom of Information and Sustainable Development, Protecting press freedom from censorship and surveillance overreach, and Ensuring safety of journalists online and offline.

In its news release, UNESCO says “freedom of information is a fundamental freedom and a human right, inherently bound up with the broader right to freedom of expression. It covers the right to seek and receive information, and it complements the right to impart information which is the freedom to make information public via the right to press freedom.

In its dual dimensions of freedom of information and press freedom, freedom of expression is a right of high significance for other rights, as well as for sustainable development. It contributes to the 2030 Development Agenda’s goal (SDG number 16) to: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. In this way, freedom of expression as a whole is vital to achieving SDG target 16.10: “Public access to information and fundamental freedoms”. This highlights the significance of UNESCO’s new International Day for Access to Information, to be marked each 28 September.

Freedom of information defines the degree of openness and transparency within a society. Any limitations on the access to information side of communications, impact on the imparting side, and vice versa. The two dimensions are essential for the full exercise of the right to free expression.

Freedom of information encompasses in the first instance the right to access information held by public bodies, which is conducive to participatory democracies, sustainable development, and good governance. It allows for public scrutiny, oversight, participation, and empowerment. Currently around 90 countries have adopted freedom of information legislation. A contemporary debate on the wider application of the right so as to gain access to public-interest information held by private sector bodies, for example information about carbon emissions which is vital for monitoring efforts to counter climate change.

Implementation of freedom of information raises issues such as whether the laws are well-known, in terms of high public awareness; whether requests are administered efficiently and whether there are high fees for the requester; and whether information is published by own initiative or released upon request. The gender disaggregation of information, and gender-sensitive application of freedom of information are also significant concerns.

Journalism has a major role to play in actualizing the right to information in the interests of the wider pubic. Another issue is that even in countries where there are freedom of information laws or legal provisions, journalists may have difficulty in accessing, understanding, and subsequently using the raw data or information. In order to make full use of the right to information, journalists need press freedom.”