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Freedom of information as a tool for empowerment: Enabling protection and achievement of other rights

A fundamental premise for promotion of freedom of information is the tangible impact that the right to know can have on people’s lives, by facilitating the fulfillment of other rights.

A fundamental premise for promotion of freedom of information is the tangible impact that the right to know can have on people’s lives, by facilitating the fulfillment of other rights. Timely access to information empowers people by allowing them to participate in an informed way in decisions that affect them, while also holding governments and others accountable. It enables individuals to learn about their rights and so exercise them and act against their infringement. Free flows of information can also help uncover the misuse of funds that should be allocated for public benefit and positively impact on the quality of delivery. There are indeed success stories to illustrate how this has worked for many people. It is also clear that vital information does not reach the disadvantaged in many cases. For more widespread empowerment results through the right to know, there is a pressing need to foster information demand by the public, and particularly by the poor and vulnerable, women, youth and other groups that may suffer disproportionately from lack of information access. 

News media can help build awareness of the right to know and its benefits, and disseminate information related to essential matters such as access to public services, social development programs, income-generating activities and protection against domestic abuse, among others. Further, media can allow people to voice dissatisfaction, channel demands for accountability and responsiveness, and provide ways to participate in public debate. The role of community media enhanced by ICTs is particularly relevant in reaching the marginalized, especially those in areas not usually served by private commercial media. 

The significant role that the news media can have in advancing the right to know and empowerment presupposes that users of information channeled through them need to be equipped with sufficient capacity to critically receive it, assess it and use it. Thus, information and media literacy is an important pre-requisite. It provides people with skills to analytically interpret and engage with media content, and permits their learning on how to use key instruments facilitating freedom of information today. 

Food for Thought:

  • Demand for information held by public bodies is most often concentrated in a few groups (researchers, businesses, government officials, organized interest groups, civil society practitioners, among others). How can it be spread so that the right to know is exercised by those most in need of it? How can challenges related to literacy, lack of access to technology, remoteness, and language barriers be addressed? What should be the role of government, researchers, academics and civil society in fostering information demand? In particular, how can the media help in this?
  • Freedom of information seems to find particular obstacles at the local level, where the most significant decisions and actions for individuals often take place. What steps can be taken to reverse this trend? What part can the media play in these efforts?
  • What abilities need to be developed among the public so that information accessed through news media significantly furthers their empowerment? What kind of actions can be promoted to that effect, as well as to foster a widespread understanding and use of tools that facilitate FOI?
  • The potential of information can be hampered if people cannot act upon it. How can media contribute to facilitating people’s capacity to act based on newly accessed information?
  • How can government, media and civil society organizations ensure that the information they disclose or disseminate reflects people’s needs?
  • NGOs can be an important source of information of relevance to individuals’ lives, and of interest to journalists. These organizations often request information through FOI laws themselves. How can media partner with them to help disseminate such information? What kind of capacity can be fostered among NGOs so that they may present information in ways that are appealing for media to publish it?
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