Why Does Access to Information Matter? Experts Have Their Say

Why Does Access to Information Matter? Experts Have Their Say

Without access to information journalists cannot properly do their jobs and citizens could be left in the dark about matters of central importance to their lives. UNESCO Bangkok asked journalists, advocates and policy-makers from across Asia-Pacific: Why does access to information to matter?



H. E. Staffan Herrström, Ambassador of Sweden to Thailand

“Access to information, freedom to information is a right – no doubt about that. It is not a favor by governments to journalists. It is a right for us all. International bodies have recognized that freedom of information is a fundamental human right and that effective laws are needed to secure it. But it also crucial from the point of accountability and democratic governance. Apart from being a right it is also a tool to fight mismanagement, nepotism, corruption, waste with taxpayers’ money – and simply bad decision-making.”

Chutima Sidasathian, Journalist, former reporter at Phuketwan, Thailand

“With all the nations of ASEAN still struggling to embrace true democracy, the role of journalists and other information-providers has never been more important. Without accurate information about current events and human rights, the path to future prosperity becomes clouded by greed and the agenda is set by those who deserve less power, not more. Sorting right from wrong so often is left to small, dedicated groups of independent-minded journalists who only have the best interests of their homelands at heart. “

""Chutima Sidasathian, Journalist, former reporter at Phuketwan, Thailand

""Gwang-Jo Kim, Director, UNESCO Bangkok

Gwang-Jo Kim, Director, UNESCO Bangkok

“Access to information determines the ability of individuals to both participate effectively in decision making that affects their lives and to scrutinise the actions of their governments. It is therefore crucial not only for journalists and human rights defenders but for every single citizen in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Shreya Basu, Open Government Partnership's (OGP) Regional Civil Society Coordinator for Asia Pacific, Singapore

“Access to public information matters for giving meaning to democracy – allowing citizens to hold their governments to account and to make informed choices while exercising their civic rights and duties.”

""Shreya Basu, Open Government Partnership's (OGP) Regional Civil Society Coordinator for Asia Pacific, Singapore

Dyah Rijadi, Commissioner, National Information Commission of Indonesia

“Information is a basic requirement of everyone to develop personal and social environment. The right to access to information is a fundamental and basic human right and the disclosure of information is characteristic of democracies. The disclosure of information is also a means for optimizing public to oversee the governance.”

""Sinthay Neb, Director of the Advocacy and Policy Institute (API), Cambodia

Sinthay Neb, Director of the Advocacy and Policy Institute (API), Cambodia

“Cambodia has no law on access to information to safeguard people's rights, particularly the right to information. Access to information is a major human right and it is still restricted. To guarantee the people’s right to access information held by public authorities, a strong legal foundation is needed. Over the last twelve years, many civil society organizations in Cambodia, including API, have made significant achievements in the campaign for an Access to information (A2I) law in Cambodia. Under the leadership of the Ministry of Information and UNESCO Office in Phnom Penh, I do hope that the draft Cambodian access to information law will be completed by the end of 2016 with significant inputs from citizens through civil society organizations.”.

Freedom of information: Historical roots and modern movement

Freedom of information is the right of all people to access information held by public bodies. It reflects the fundamental principle that public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good. As such, this information must be accessible to all and can only be withheld if there are legitimate reasons for doing so, such as privacy and security.

In concrete terms, this means that all citizens should be able to, for example, access detailed information on states’ budgets or water quality reports. In some countries, however, citizens face significant barriers in accessing such information despite the direct impact it can have on their livelihoods and ability to be civically engaged.

The world’s first freedom of information law was passed exactly 250 years ago, in 1766, in what was then Sweden-Finland. But it was only after the Second World War that this right became recognized through international jurisprudence, and a global movement in favour of access to public information truly emerged.

A series of deep political, economic and social changes, along with the emergence of new technologies, have considerably accelerated this global trend over the last two decades. While by 1990, only 13 countries had adopted freedom of information laws, today, 104 countries at varying levels of economic development and different political systems have freedom of information provisions; however, there are only two ASEAN member states among them, Indonesia and Thailand.

Within its mandate “to promote the free flow of ideas by word and image”, UNESCO takes action to raise awareness on the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of information among the general public, particularly on World Press Freedom Day, May 3. At the country level, its actions range from capacity-building initiatives targeting government officials, citizens, members of the media as well as civil society organizations, to providing technical assistance in drafting and implementing freedom of information legislation.  

In doing so, UNESCO promotes 10 essential principles for freedom of information: