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About Freedom of Information (FOI)

Freedom of Information (FOI), or the right to information, can be defined as the right to access information held by public bodies. It is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognised by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

It has also been enshrined as a corollary of the basic human right of freedom of expression in other major international instruments, including the the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the American Convention on Human Rights (1969).

FOI legislation reflects the fundamental premise that all information held by governments and governmental institutions is in principle public and may only be withheld if there are legitimate reasons, such as typically privacy and security, for not disclosing it. Over the past 10 years, the right to information has been recognized by an increasing number of countries, including developing ones, through the adoption of a wave of FOI laws. In 1990, only 13 countries had adopted national FOI laws, whereas there are currently more than 90 such laws adopted across the world. 

UNESCO’s mandate as set out in its 1945 Constitution specifically calls on the Organization to “promote the free flow of ideas by word and image”. This mission is reflected on UNESCO´s Medium Term Strategy Medium-Term Strategy for 2008-2013 (34 C/4), and particularly in its strategic programme objective of enhancing universal access to information and knowledge. Freedom of information is also central in the framework of the World Summit of the Information Society, which has reaffirmed freedom of expression and universal access to information as cornerstones of inclusive knowledge societies. Further, the relevance of FOI has also been highlighted  in the Brisbane Declaration on Freedom of Information: The Right to Know (2010), the Maputo Declaration on Fostering Freedom of Expression, Access to Information ad Empowerment of People (2008) and the Dakar Declaration on Media and Good Governance (2005), all emerging from UNESCO´s annual celebrations of World Press Freedom Day.

FOI, participative democracy, governance and development

The free flow of information and ideas lies at the heart of the very notion of democracy and is crucial to effective respect for human rights. Democracy demands that individuals are able to participate effectively in decision making and assess the performance of their government. This participation depends on access to a variety of information held by public bodies. This can be for instance information on the laws or rights applicable in a country, or about the state of the economy, social systems, and other matters of public concern such as the use of public funds. Freedom of information thus contributes to government openness and accountability, and represents an important instrument to prevent and combat corruption. It can also help increase government efficiency and responsiveness, along with civic trust. Indeed, one of the most effective ways of addressing poor governance is through open, informed debate. Although the right to information is not a substitute for good governance, it both supports and aids its implementation. 

For all the above, freedom of information contributes to enhanced empowerment and equality of all social groups, including women and indigenous peoples. Furthermore, it is linked with well-functioning markets, improvements in investment climates and effectiveness of development aid. Thus, there is a growing recognition of its relevance to socio-economic development.

FOI: Some Key Challenges

The need to adopt laws to effectively guarantee freedom of information represents a critical challenge in many countries around the world. However, it is not enough to simply pass a FOI law for the principles of freedom of information to be established. FOI laws vary in content and scope, and their implementation relies on a multitude of factors: from the surrounding constitutional laws, to the availability of funds and well-trained human resources for its implementation, to the dynamism of civil society including the activism of transparency NGOs and of professional investigative reporters, and the capacity of the citizens to benefit from the law.

Even where a FOI law has been adopted, FOI can be curtailed by burdensome mechanisms for information access and weak enforcement, the arbitrary use of exceptions or reference to other legislation to deny public information access, the bad state of record-keeping and archive management systems, and poor monitoring of the law´s implementation. Governments are often not adequately equipped to provide timely responses to FOI requests or to proactively to make key categories of information available, and the public is generally not sufficiently aware of their right to access public information and of how to use FOI legislation. Often implementation of FOI legislation faces especially significant obstacles at the local level, and in some countries efforts to advance FOI have not sufficiently expanded beyond the executive branch.

However, perhaps the greatest challenge is not one pertaining to capacity, but to fostering a shift from a culture of secrecy to one of transparency. Therefore, the promotion of a change of mindsets in the public sector and of widespread public awareness and information demand is critical. Moreover, taking advantage of E-governance and ICTs to put FOI into action and for developing the means of encouraging citizen participation and promoting greater transparency is also crucial.

UNESCO works with governments and civil society to address the above challenges, fostering dialogue and providing technical advice in the process of drafting, approving and implementing FOI laws. The Organization also promotes broad awareness-raising on FOI and capacity building efforts targeting public officials, citizens, media, and other key actors.   It also promotes knowledge-sharing and contributes to standard setting by facilitating multi-stakeholder discussions on the topic at the country, regional and international level; as well as by supporting and disseminating research on the status of FOI worldwide and the extent to which existing laws are aligned with internationally-recognized principles.

Read more about freedom of information in the website for World Press Freedom Day 2010, which focused on “Freedom of Information: The Right to Know”, and the following sub-themes:

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