By Tallulah Gordon, with art by Olga de la Iglesia
Held every September 28, the International Day for Universal Access to Information seeks to raise awareness of how everyone, everywhere, can be empowered to find, receive and understand the information they need. Though access to information (ATI) is difficult to define, according to UNESCO, it involves ensuring that everyone can access scientific, indigenous, and traditional knowledge in a language they can understand. People access information in many ways, including through formal education, print media and libraries. In the digital era, however, as more and more information is being shifted online, Internet access is an increasingly important determinant of ATI. In developing countries, lack of Internet access, social inequalities, and poorly enforced or absent legal rights to information must be addressed to ensure access to information can be made truly universal.
First recognised by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right of all “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media”, access to information is essential for international development. Improved access to information allows people to make informed decisions on their health and well-being, increases awareness of economic and social opportunities, and empowers marginalised groups to understand their legal rights. ATI also includes ensuring that citizens can freely request information held by governmental and public bodies. By allowing citizens to monitor government action, the right to request public information compels governments to fulfil their promises to the public – a key component of functioning democracies.
According to the IFLA’s Development and Access to Information report, three requirements must be met to ensure that everyone can have access to information:
Physical infrastructure. Given the wealth of knowledge available online and the speed at which it can be accessed, it is unsurprising that the Internet is increasingly regarded as one of the most important information sources in the modern world. Since the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, much development programming has focused on improving Internet infrastructure coverage, with 6 billion people now living in a region covered by a 3G network. Despite this, Internet use remains worryingly low in some regions. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 16% of households actively use the Internet, often because access to Wi-Fi or mobile data is prohibitively expensive. Across Africa, a 3G mobile phone plan costs an average of almost 10% of household earnings, suggesting the need to prioritise making Internet access more affordable.
Social equality. Economic, racial, and gender inequalities all influence the ability of people to make use of available information technologies. Worldwide, 12% less women than men use the Internet, in part due to women being less likely to read, write, or be digitally literate, and more likely to face time constraints like childcare or household chores. Access to information is nonetheless crucial for gender equality, helping women to better understand their rights and participate in decision-making processes.
Legal and political rights. Globally, 127 countries have adopted laws that provide citizens with the right to information (RTI). This should, in theory, ensure that they can request information held by public bodies, much like the Freedom of Information Act in the UK. Although the number of countries with RTI laws has increased in recent years, these laws do not always guarantee access in practice. Repealed only this year, Zimbabwe’s deeply unpopular Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) had strict requirements for information requests to be made and was repeatedly used to suppress media freedom – a crucial source of information. Requiring all mass media services to register with the government, the BBC and CNN were banned from operating in Zimbabwe under this law until 2009. In countries like Iran, media freedom is also threatened by rampant state-sanctioned harassment and violence against journalists.
What is being done?
NGOs are at the forefront of innovation towards improving access to information. This includes small non-profits like Climate Cardinals which, launched during the coronavirus pandemic, has encouraged self-isolating students to translate reputable information on climate change into languages such as Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. With peer-reviewed climate change information often only available in English, this can help to reduce the language barriers preventing people from accessing this essential information.
National governments, too, are increasingly seeking to make progress towards universal ATI. Launched in 2015, India’s government-led Digital India campaign is improving access to information through the Internet, including in the country’s traditionally off-grid rural areas. The campaign seeks not only to improve physical infrastructure through increased broadband coverage, but to train households on how to use information technologies. Providing government services and information online in all regional languages – including MyGov.in, a platform where citizens can crowdsource ideas for new government policies – the campaign also aims to widen political participation. As a result, India now has 560 million active Internet users, and this is expected to continue to rise. But with India’s digital gender gap still as high as 42% in 2017, more needs to be done to ensure that measures like these are gender-sensitive, and genuinely inclusive to all.
Development and Access to Information Report 2019 (IFLA and TASCHA)
Tallulah is Blog Officer at Development in Action and is studying for a masters’ degree in Public Policy at the London School of Economics.
Olga is an artist and photographer from Barcelona, Spain, whose work explores the boundaries between fashion and documentary photography. You can see more of her work here.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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