Today is the International Day for Universal Access… So what?

South Africans might think that the long-running debate over the Secrecy Bill is a local affair. In fact, it’s a global question about transparency in the digital age. And while this is very relevant to journalists everywhere, it’s also something of direct relevance to each and every person.

We all know that the Internet – which underpins platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp, makes possible unprecedented opportunities to make information available to everyone. This is wonderful for individuals who message their friends and family. It also allows for websites like this one.

Yet we also need to think about how governments and companies are using the Internet today. Are they helping to reduce the costs of access? And are they really making available all the information that we need to know?

Online transparency and the Secrecy Bill

Information about office hours, and ID book application forms? Information about service and sourcing tenders? What about company policies on pollution and impact on the environment – can we find that?

Technology is not an obstacle today to pro-actively put useful information online.

The issue rather is whether those with power have developed a deep and sincere culture of openness and transparency.

And, to come back to the Secrecy Bill, the critical democratic issue is over who can draw the line about what information the government and business decide not to make public.

That raises the questions: whose information is it, and who has the right to access it?

Governments hold information on behalf of the public; ergo – anything to be kept hidden should be an exception to the general rule of accessibility.

A secret contract with Fifa cannot be considered to be such an exception. Genuine exceptions might be information about people’s medical records, or about truly national security issues.

Yet, even with these exceptions, the international standard is that public interest may still justify some disclosure. Take for instance, information showing a cabinet minister jumping the queue for a liver transplant, or data about the illegal torture of a suspected terrorist.

The international standard is also that people who are denied information can appeal to an authority independent of government that is empowered to assess and make the judgement call about secrecy. This safeguards against excessive secrecy.

When it comes to companies, it is increasingly recognised that even these private sector actors also need to reveal information where public interest is confirmed – like who owns the business, and what safety standards they apply. What 28 September offers is a chance to take forward these kinds of issues.

Loopholes still need to be plugged

The International Day for Universal Access to Information is a day that partly owes its origins to the breakthrough 250 years ago in Finland and Sweden where the world’s first freedom of information law was passed. It took another 200 years before the USA followed on. Since then more than 100 countries worldwide have these laws, including in South Africa.

Yet, in many cases, the legislation is not fully implemented, and loopholes still need to be plugged. Officials obstruct, and companies prefer to operate in the shadows.

These problems can be addressed through using the new Day to call for reform and improvement.

This has a special connection to South Africa, because the Day also owes its origins to a conference in Cape Town back in 2011, back at the dawn of South Africa’s vibrant Right to Know campaign.

It was in September that year that the Pan African Conference on Access to Information was convened by a coalition of civil society groups (and organised on their behalf by the writer of this article).

The gathering produced a declaration known as the African Platform for Access to Information – calling for an international day on information access to be recognised.

The declaration was successfully proposed for adoption by South Africa’s Pansy Tlakula, in her capacity as Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information. Her appointment is by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, which in turn is set up by the African Union.

Public access to information and fundamental freedoms

Another South African connection was the participation in 2011 of the Open Democracy Advisory Centre, which joined forces with civil society and editors’ groups around the continent.

It was the joint coalition that followed up in the form of direct meetings with UNESCO Member States in subsequent years. The result was UNESCO last December proclaiming the International Day for Universal Access to Information, for observation each 28 September.

The Day resonates with the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals, especially number 16.10 which recognises the importance of “public access to information and fundamental freedoms” as a key target to be achieved globally over the next 15 years. Powerful videos about how this objective links to achieving the other SDGs – like gender equality, poverty and climate change – can be found at the UNESCO site IPDC Talks.

Around the world this year, the Day is being marked in scores of countries. Namibia for instance is having three commemoration events; while Mexico has a three day focus. Conflict-afflicted Afghanistan has a big public campaign; Morocco will also mark the occasion.

It is not the first time an African initiative has led to a new date being recognised on the international calendar. The 1991 Windhoek conference resulted in 3 May being declared World Press Freedom Day. That momentum produced “Windhoek+20” in the form of the 2011 Cape Town conference.

In this first year of observing the new Day, it is especially important for Africans to take the lead in ensuring that the continent’s sunlight is strengthened and that information darkness becomes a thing of the past.

That way, ill-doing cannot take place in secret, and the public will be exposed to the truth about society’s challenges – and to solutions to resolve them.

More stories in Issue 76

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