Information, a Public Good: World Press Freedom Day 2021
By Arushi Arney | May 03, 2021
Democracy bleeds into the ways of modern society. And in many ways, we, the people, are what keep it standing. At the age of 9, I attended my first class about the forms of government. And distinctly, I remember my teacher explaining the way Monarchy and Dictatorship fell, through the means of history. I remember her explanation of how all nations fought for independence and how they gained their status as republic and democratic countries. I recollect curiously asking her, in my limited 9-year-old vocabulary, "Why? Why is democracy the best form of government for us?" I say that I was satisfied with the answer. I still believe in it, after all.
Democracy, you see, places the right amount of faith in humanity and gives citizens the autonomy to choose who rules them. It respects our rights to Freedom and equality. And as we start building our own lives in the world, the memorial words of President Abraham Lincoln still strike our ears: "A government of the people, by the people, for the people."
Like any other human in the world, it took me more growth and maturity to understand the true weight of those words. I like to think that I have now, for the revelation did not only bring me much more understanding of my rights as a citizen – but also of how important it was for a country to have authentic journalism. The press, they say, is the fourth pillar of democracy. It exists to bridge the gap between the government and the people. It acts as a third eye to deliver citizens the transparency our government owes us.
World Press Freedom Day 2021
Today is May 3, a day declared to be 'World Press Freedom Day' by the United Nations. With little known and much to be discussed, a question is raised, what is today about? As stated in the official UNESCO website: "May 3 acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom."
This day plays a significant role in the history of free-voice journalism. A history that goes way back to 1991, in a UNESCO conference held in Windhoek, Namibia. The original event took place from April 29 to May 3, 1991. It featured several African independent journalists gathering at the UNESCO seminar and several UN agencies, 12 international agencies, and 63 participants from 38 countries. The 3-day endeavour aimed to "Promote an Independent and Pluralistic African Media", an urgent topic at the time due to the constant violence and pressure faced by African media professionals. The event ended on May 3, creating the "Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press".
"The establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development."
- Extract of the Windhoek Declaration
Since then, the Declaration marked one of the first political documents to uphold people's Freedom of speech, right to voice their opinions and access various independent sources of information. And in its memory, May 3 was soon announced as ‘World Press Freedom Day’ by the United Nations. The day is monumental in its efforts to liberate and maintain the free press and keep bringing ongoing journalistic issues to public light.
Each year, UNESCO releases a "theme" for the day, along with efforts and conferences worldwide to raise awareness. May 2021 will mark the 30th Anniversary of the occasion, and this year's theme is "Information as a Public Good". This year, we will deal with the importance of information being publically availed, explore the ways to strengthen journalism through production, distribution and reception of content, as well as progress in terms of transparency and empowerment while leaving no one behind.
Public transparency and the Right to Information
With respect to a democracy being for the people, the people need to be aware. Where will our taxes go? Why are there new trade policies being made? How does this new government fund work? On what basis was this arrest made? Public avail of information has a drastic effect on general commentary. The media acts as a source of communication to a country's citizens, and public transparency ensures authorities are held accountable. Information maintained by any or under the control of any public administration should be accessible under the universal Right to Information. This includes inspection of documents, records, notes, extracts, copies or samples of any work or material. All while, transparency only encourages everyday participation in the political processes, both by the media and the public. Modern democracy strengthens through the involvement of the people and the media.
However, confidentiality goes hand-in-hand with this. While Freedom to Information is essential, it still does have some constraints for valid reasons. RTI is intended to increase transparency but, it doesn't provide access to all government documents. However, the basis of which documents are confidential and which accessible are heavily dependent on the country. So, on auspicious occasion of today, let us take the opportunity to take assess the current status and accessibility of information around the globe.
Freedom to information around the world
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
As a result, nearly every country around the world has adopted Freedom to information in their governmental systems. Canada has an "Access to Information Act", which was established in 1983. This law allows Canadian citizens to demand records from federal bodies. Similarly, Belgium had amended Article 32 in their constitution in 1993 to include the right to access government-held documents. Australia has the Freedom of Information Act 1982, which applied to all "ministers, departments and public authorities". This Act was recently amended in 2010 with the appointment of the government office of the information commissioner.
On July 4, 1966, the Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the United States. On October 2, 1996, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments were signed by President Bill Clinton. The European Union recognizes this right under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Additionally, Article 42 of Charter of Fundamental Rights and Article 15 Treaty on the Functioning provides "the right to access documents of the institutions, bodies, offices and agencies of the Union, whatever their medium." The UK has established the Freedom of Information Act in 2000, which is legislative at a national level. Even smaller countries such as Sri Lanka passed their Freedom of Information Act in January 2005 and Right to Information on February 3, 2017. Ending on that note, let us evaluate the laws of our home country, India.
India's Right to Information Act, 2005
On June 15 2005, The Right to Information Act, also known as RTI, was made by the legislation of Parliament of India. On October 12 2005, the Act came into effect and had been implemented ever since. This Act was a replacement for the former Freedom of Information Act of 2002. Under the RTI Act, any citizen of India can request information from a "public authority". However, the Right to Information was not established as a Fundamental Right as it was not included in the Constitution of India. On July 19 2019, the Minister of State for Personnel Public Grievances and Pensions proposed the RTI Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha, which was then passed on July 25, 2019. The amendment changes Sections 13 and 16 of the Act. The original Act's section 13 and 16 detailed that the term of the central Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at five years (or until the age of 65, whichever is earlier), but the amendment changes the same, highlighting that the appointment will be "for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government". The passing of this bill had sparked a considerable debate in 2019, as it was widely believed that in effect, the terms of appointment, salaries and tenures of the Chief Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners could be manipulated on a preliminary basis, therefore threatening the right to Freedom of information of each citizen.
The RTI Act has played a significant role in the advancement of India's democracy over the years. With estimates of nearly 60 lakh applications being filed every year, it has been repeatedly dubbed as one of the most successful laws of independent India. It has given ordinary citizens and Indian journalists the liberty and the right to ask questions to government authorities and acts as an essential barrier so that government servants do not take any imperative decisions against the public interest.
Why is the Right to Information important in 2021?
With the whole world, especially India, in the midst of one of the most challenging times of the decade, RTI becomes more relevant than ever. The Covid-19 crisis is something that took everyone by surprise. Since then, governments all around the world have been trying to fight the pandemic. Government transparency and public access to verified knowledge such as the number of active cases, deaths, the status of resources, and medical procedures have never been more critical than now. Journalists worldwide are working tirelessly to provide the needed information to their countries because production, distribution and reception of content, statistics and numbers are essential to each of our lives today. In such a situation, government compliance is necessary. But in some countries, that is not the case.
For example, India is in a severe crisis. With lack of oxygen to breathe and lack of beds to be occupied by patients, the public requires answers. Answers that should be public knowledge, fall under any other fundamental human right, and quite literally determine the life-or-death of the country.
Let this article be your reminder to it.
A reminder of your right to demand for answers, regardless of your country. A reminder that this is a government built on a promise for, by and with you. A reminder that, you do, have the power to question.
Because democracy bleeds into the ways of modern society, and in many ways, we, the people, are what keep it standing.