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UNESCO and partners re-affirm commitment to promote Access to Information and fundamental freedoms in Eastern Africa

16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Over 100 participants from Eastern Africa and beyond representing line Ministries, parastatals agencies, parliament, private sector, civil society organizations, media, and the UN system have re-affirmed their commitment to promote access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms in Eastern Africa.

This commitment was made during a three-day online training workshop organized by Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) through the support of UNESCO and, in collaboration with the African Union Commission, Information Ethics Network for Africa, and the International Centre for Information Ethics (ICIE) under the theme “Building Knowledge Societies to ensure Public Access to Information and protect Fundamental Freedoms in Eastern Africa” from 17 to 19 August 2021. 

During his opening speech, Professor Hubert Gijzen, UNESCO Regional Director and Representative for Eastern Africa highlighted the importance of knowledge and information, noting that they had the capacity to positively impact people’s lives and transform societies, and as such needed to be preserved, accessed and shared for the common good.

He reiterated UNESCO advocacy for universal and open access to information and knowledge based on the recognition that these are public goods necessary for the advancement of societies and the protection and promotion of fundamental human rights.

UNESCO believes that knowledgeable societies must be built on four key pillars which include freedom of expression, universal access to information and knowledge respect for the culture and linguistic diversity and quality education for all.

Prof. Hubert Gijzen, UNESCO Regional Director and Representative for Eastern Africa

Professor Hubert Gijzen applauded the progress made in enacting access to information laws in Eastern Africa since 2015 when Uganda became the first country in the region to enact the Access to Information Law. He pledged UNESCO support to other countries in the region in putting in place similar legal frameworks.

During the training workshop, which was attended by access to information experts, the right to information advocates noted that there was a need to ensure that communities are empowered through access to information and knowledge.

In such a challenging period, where information is needed more than ever before, and in the prospects of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), you will agree with me that, access to information is the oxygen for the realization of all the other SDGs.

Mr. Gilbert Sendugwa, Executive Director, Africa Freedom of Information Center

Mr. Gilbert Sendugwa commended the East African region for strides made in enacting national legislations that guarantee citizens’ right of access to information, acknowledging in particular enactments in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Seychelles, albeit with gaps in implementation. He also urged Djibouti, Eritrea, Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Somalia, countries who remain without formal provisions for the right of access to information, to take similar path.

He expressed with confidence that with collaborative efforts, not only the region could achieve accountable and more robust mechanisms through adequate frameworks to facilitate disclosure of timely and accurate information, but it could also guarantee and protect public access to information, and build a credible sub-regional platform for dialogue between civil society and political and opinion leaders on access to information, and where policy makers’ ability to develop and implement interventions that respond to citizen’s needs is strengthened.  

Minority Groups Information Experts present in this training workshop decried the gaps in access to information by minority groups such as people with disabilities as well as ethnic and linguistic minority communities, who face multiple difficulties in accessing information.

To overcome this gap, information activists appealed to African governments, policy makers and advocates to ensure inclusive and universal access to information laws and related knowledge. 

In his presentation, Ambassador Salah S. Hammad, Head of the African Governance Architecture at the African Union Secretariat, African Union Commission, recalled regional standard setting instruments such as the African Human and People’s Rights system recognizing access to information as a cross-cutting right that was important for the realization of all human rights, including social-economic rights, and  reiterated its potential  to contribute to the social and economic transformation of the continent.    

He outlined the uncertainty and disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing to the fore the importance of fundamental human rights, not least of which is the right to access to information. He then referred to the Model Law on Access to Information in Africa adopted by the African Union Commission, to assist its Member States in the formulation, adoption or alternatively the review of access to information legislation and to ensure their effective implementation. This included citizens’ free and effective exercise of their right to vote or participate in public decision-making, which he said is also conditioned to access to information.

Dr. Dorothy Gordon, Chair of UNESCO’s Information for All Program (IFAP), called on information defenders to become ambassadors and experts in their communities, by sharing and promoting access to information knowledge and skills.

Access to information

During the training, Dr. Fola Adeleke, Information Expert from South Africa shared some instances creating the need for access to information and further argued that people strive for information to find a solution to a problem, gain a better understanding of a situation or even on a policy affecting them, but this could also be to take advantage of an opportunity, or simply to hold leaders accountable, among others.

Artificial Intelligence

Participating at this training, Prof. Yves Poullet, Vice-Chair of the UNESCO Information for All Programme (IFAP), alerted the audience on the need to regulate artificial intelligence, insisting on the ethical and legal aspects of this rapidly evolving technology, and challenges brought about by its use, including risks for the protection of fundamental human rights. He welcomed ongoing efforts led by UNESCO for the drafting of a Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, as this standard setting instrument will guide Member States on best ways for harnessing AI’s potential while dealing effectively with associated risks.