UNESCO, government, civil society, academic and media representatives address artificial intelligence, e-governance and other impacts on access to information in the Mekong Region
UNESCO webinar, including a special roundtable on Thailand’s Access to Information and AI Ethics laws, commemorates 2022 International Day for Universal Access to Information, 28 September.
By Ruohan Zhang,
Communication and Information (CI) Unit,
UNESCO Bangkok Office
Reinforcing public access to information must play a key role in good governance, the effective enforcement of anti-corruption policies, and building resilient and informed public health policies and democratic norms in the Mekong Region.
The International Day – proclaimed by the UNESCO General Conference in 2015 and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2019 – provides an annual platform for stakeholders to participate in international, regional and national discussions on policy and guidelines in the area of access to information, around a common annual theme.
UNESCO’s 2022 Asia-Pacific webinar brought together figures from government, civil society, media organizations and academia from the Mekong region, who explored how Digital governance and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can support new pathways for developing resilient societies, improving good governance, processing trusted information, and reducing information risks and digital barriers.
The webinar – jointly organized by UNESCO Bangkok and the Faculty of Communications Arts, Chulalongkorn University – included presentations by specialists from Cambodia, Thailand and Viet Nam on how civil society and other rights holders contribute to digital transformation through open access to public information, with an emphasis on cross-sectoral dialogue, inclusion, and empowerment. The webinar also featured a multi-stakeholder roundtable on Thailand’s Access to Information and AI Ethics laws.
World trends on legislation and implementation
In his opening speech, Mr Shigeru Aoyagi, Director of the UNESCO Bangkok Office, noted that IDUAI is a timely reminder of the critical importance of Universal Access to Information as a fundamental human right. For example, the widespread adoption of open access policies has played an important role in scientific and medical research, not least of all during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Aoyagi noted, ‘Access to quality information makes our human right to freedom of expression meaningful to maintaining peaceful and informed societies…Providing efficient access to accurate information is now widely accepted as a practical and life-saving necessity’.
Aoyagi further noted that the role of the UNESCO Bangkok will be to ensure that new international normative instruments and tools related to Universal Access to Information – including on Open Science and on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence – can be effectively mainstreamed among multi-stakeholder partners at regional, national and local levels.
Globally, UNESCO works to protect and strengthen Universal Access to Information in four primary areas:
• Countering disinformation in the civic realm;
• Supporting independent, quality journalism;
• Empowering people through Media and Information Literacy; and,
• Assisting Member States in meeting international standards on Freedom of Expression.
Universal Access to Information is essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, in particular SDG 16, Target 10.2, on the need to ‘ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’. Through an intergovernmental mandate to monitor SDG 16.10.2, which speaks to the need for countries to ‘adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information’, UNESCO is able to place due emphasis on marginalized groups, as well as promote gender equity in access to information.
Since 1990, the number of countries and territories globally that have adopted legislation addressing the right to information has increased from 14 to more than 135. International standards are also reflected in recent regional treaties, such as the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents and Model Law on Access to Information for Africa.
Digital innovation and transformation, including adoption of Artificial Intelligence, is impacting how governments operate and function. UNESCO’s newly-launched Working Group Report on Artificial Intelligence and Digital Transformation Competencies for Civil Servants unpacks the AI and digital competencies needed within the public sector, and provides guidance for civil servants and other actors to effectively use digital tools, develop digital transformation projects, and address complex governance challenges.
Civil society advocacy in Mekong countries
Mr Him Khortieth, Research & Advocacy Manager of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), an independent organization with a ‘mission to promote access to information and press freedom’, noted that at the present time, local media practitioners have certain difficulties in obtaining official documents. CamboJA is part of a working group comprising media organizations, CSOs, and local communities, including indigenous, women’s and youth groups, tasked with providing recommendations on the drafting process of access to information law to the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. While there are efforts to be made before legislation is enacted, the government of Cambodia has opened channels for consultation, enabling direct dialogues between civil society, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Justice.
In Viet Nam, according to research in 2021 by the Center for Education Promotion & Empowerment of Women (CEPEW), citizens had low awareness of, and few approaches to public information, including national land-use and master plans. Fewer than half of local state agencies have published district land use plans and land pricing frameworks online. CEPEW’s research has further noted that, due to the limited knowledge of local governments on the Law on Access to Information of Vietnam Law, which was introduced just a few years ago, the rejection rate of requests for information made by citing the Information Law was even higher than that of non-cited requests. This demonstrates the urgency of increasing public participation and educating government officers on this right and their obligation to provide information access.
Turning to Thailand, the open-access, civic-society platform WeVis provides public data and official documents of the Thai government to the public to help citizens make better-informed decisions bearing on their everyday lives. Disclosing the data that matters most to people, and employing user-friendly, or ‘intuitive’ technologies, can be the first step towards promoting a more participatory democracy through digital transformation. Designed by a group of young advocates, the WeVis website is equipped with digitalized documents, visualized graphics and user-friendly search functions to help the public monitor and track political campaigns, state budget allocations, and parliamentary data sharing.
E-governance and AI for strengthening public service in Thailand
Adopted in 1997, Thailand’s Access to Information Act has already been amended several times over the course of two decades in Cabinet Resolutions following multi-stakeholder consultations. Serving as the oversight centers of open data, webinar participants from Thailand’s Digital Government Development Agency (DGA) and the Office of the Official Information Commission (OIC) presented updates e-governance developments in Thailand. Dr Supot Tiarawut, President and CEO of DGA, noted that the DGA's online platform represents a big step toward government’s open-access provision of data, with more than 10 million users, to date. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of government agencies in Thailand have developed productive cooperation on the collection and public disclosure of health information.
The digital transformation and data collection across regions and sectors takes time, especially when local governments need to make a transition from paper-based work to digital modalities, no less while often lacking the necessary facilities and technology to do so. In addition, civil servants need skills-building to break technical and mindset barriers, and to help them to fully understand the societal benefits of open-access data.
Participants representing the Thai media and civil society expressed the belief that current legislation and its enforcement still have a lot of room for improvement, including the need to clarify ‘whether to open or not, what to open, how to open, and who to open’, suggested Mr Pongpiphat Banchanont, a senior editor with the online Thai news publication, The Matter.
Where to begin? First, legislation and government enforcement must ensure that data disclosure becomes a norm, and that only certain exceptions can be exempted. Information of direct public interest, such as national budget plans, tax expenditures, livelihood and health data, and corresponding consultation meetings, should priorities for disclosure.
Second, national law should standardize the template for data openness to make it easy to use. Although the traditional paper format for official documents has long helped to stem potential misuse of information, the Thai government should acknowledge and appreciate that its constructive interaction with the public enhances society’s trust in government accountability. The webinar further highlighted that a change in the current top-down mindset common among civil servants should be promoted, in order to empower local government officials with a measure of discretion and lend them confidence in responding to the public.
The webinar also discussed notable opportunities for emerging technologies, including AI, to facilitate transparent data openness and e-governance. Assoc Prof Dr Bhumindr Butr-Indr, Committee of AI Research Integrity, of Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency, suggested that AI can provide support in ensuring data security, identifying applicable law clauses, and creating disclaimers of law for policy development. Where duty bearers and civil advocates share the same goals, they should be joining forces for a smooth transition towards open data, the adoption of digital competencies equipment, and the introduction of advanced technologies to all Mekong Region governments.
Ruohan Zhang coordinates CI’s projects on media and information literacy education, UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), and the Memory of the World Programme.