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At IDUAI 2020, media stakeholders call for Access to Information legislation

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On September 28, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, led the global observance of the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). UNESCO’s General Conference proclaimed IDUAI in 2015, with the following objectives:

According to UNESCO, access to information is an inalienable human right that serves the public, in particular, civil society and the media. International Human Rights Law has been adopted globally.

When citizens have access to information, societies as a whole are empowered to contribute to sustainable development. Access to information is essential to strengthening accountability, to promote public health and safety, and to ensure other human rights.

The day, which had panel discussions highlighting the importance of access to information in saving lives, as well as the publication of The Right to Information in Times of Crisis, part of UNESCO’s World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, examined norms and principles concerning the right to information during public health crises.

In one of the webinars, tagged, African Media Stakeholders Virtual Conference, media stakeholders in the continent called for a common front in addressing the challenges facing access to information, media freedom, and safety of journalists, through the enactment and implementation of progressive legislation. They rallied for support of legislations that guarantee the right to access information in law and in practice.

Only recently, UNESCO sounded the alarm on a global surge in attacks against journalists covering protests. A new UNESCO report highlights a sharp increase in the global number of protests during which the police and security forces violated media freedom in the first half of 2020.

Between January and June this year, 21 protests around the world were marred by violations of press freedom, including protests in which journalists were attacked, arrested, and even killed.

UNESCO’s new report, ‘Safety of Journalists Covering Protests – Preserving Freedom of the Press During Times of Civil Unrest’, points to a wider upward trend in the use of unlawful force by police and security forces over the last five years.

In 2015, the police and security forces impeded journalists covering 15 protests worldwide. By 2019, that number more than doubled to 32. The report suggests that a troubling new threshold has been crossed, revealing a significant and growing threat to media freedom and freedom of access to information in all regions of the world.

In Nigeria, media practitioners, commentators, and stakeholders have continued to express concern that journalists, in the cause of their duties, are becoming victims of harassment, torture, unlawful arrest, detention, physical assault, and a threat to life.

A worrisome statistics, which was released by International Press Centre’s (IPC) Journalists Safety Desk, revealed that in the last eight months, 41 cases of attacks on journalists have been recorded.

Speaking at the IDUAI conference, which focused on access to information and the COVID 19 crisis in the continent, the gender dimension of access to information in Africa, and the inequality gaps and challenges in covering COVID 19, stressed the need for joint efforts among all the African media stakeholders in the dissemination of information.

In delivering the keynote address, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa Commissioner, Jamesina Essie King, stated that 30 State Parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ are yet to enhance national-level protection of the Right to Access Information.

“There is, therefore, a need for greater strides towards guaranteeing the right to access information in both law and in practice,” said King.

Also speaking at the opening session, Ms. Ana Elisa Santana Afonso, the Director and Country Representative of UNESCO Addis Ababa Liaison Office to AU and UNECA, urged the AU member states to enact the access to information legislation.

Alfonso noted that as frontline workers on COVID-19, the journalist needs access to information about the virus to be able to inform policymakers and the people on how to manage the risk posed by the virus to their health.

“Even though COVID-19 may impact information requests, the legal terms for processing and replying to freedom of information requests, should not be reduced with no apparent reason. The information on COVID-19 should also be processed free of charge, in particular, for requests on health and other aspects of crisis-related information,” said Afonso.

How are women impacted by inequality gaps in access to information legislation in Africa? This was the focus area by Dr. Yemisi Akinbobola, cofounder of African Women in Media. “When we consider, for example, the importance of digital tools like email, so simple to you and I, in finding and applying for jobs, we can see already how this limited and gendered access to digital technologies, both in terms of physical access and literacy access, already disproportionately economically disempowers women,’’ she said.

Salah Saddig Hammad, Head of African Governance Architecture (AGA) at the Department of Political Affairs of the African Union Commission (AUC) informed that access to information as a general framework of freedom of expression is a cornerstone of human rights and citizens cannot exercise their rights to vote effectively or take part in public decision -making if they do not have free access to information and able to express their views freely.

“Access to information is thus not only important for individual dignity, but also for participation, accountability, and democracy,” stated Hammad.

During the panel discussion of access to information and the COVID 19 crisis in Africa, Mr. Guy Berger, Director of Policies and Strategies in the field of Communication and Information UNESCO, stressed, “Access to information is crucial as inequality in information leads to inequality in power” and “strengthening public’s capacity to distinguish among different information is increasingly important in times of crisis.”

This was emphasised by Mr. Jeremy Dear, Deputy General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). He pointed out that the only way to encourage citizens to participate in the action of combating the pandemic was to have them adequately informed.

He said, “Democracy and public health depend on open and honest reporting. During this unprecedented coronavirus outbreak, media freedom affects our health.”

In the closing remarks of Ms. Lydia Gachungi, the Regional Adviser on Freedom of expression and the Safety of Journalists at the UNESCO Addis Ababa Liaison Office to AU and UNECA urged the African media associations and networks to lay aside their past difference and pull together in addressing the challenges facing the media sector in Africa. Highlighting some of the current media programmes UNESCO is supporting at the continental level, she emphasized on the multistakeholder approach as the preferred approach by the organisation and called on strengthened partnerships among all the media stakeholders.

Organised by the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) with the support of UNESCO Addis Ababa Office and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), media organisations across the continent, including the African Editors Forum (TAEF), African Women in the Media (AWIM), Article 19, Access Now and the Ethiopian Media Council called on more synergy and strengthened partnership in addressing the challenges facing the journalists and media houses in Africa.


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