UN's historic freedom of information agreement

By Christian Gramsch, Director DW Akademie, Bonn / Germany
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 place?

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 reference.

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 of information.

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 here.

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 armed conflict.

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 German site.

Ute Lange
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