International Day of Access to Information: Baby finally delivered after 13 years

access to information

Mama has been pregnant for 13 years; certainly past the ideal nine months of pregnancy for any woman. When she would deliver – time and date – has been watched with lots of anxiety.

But Bingo! Here comes good news: Mama finally delivers on November 17, 2015. Baby is healthy and sound, and brings lots of joy and hope to family, friends and loved ones. It is named “International Day for the Universal Access to Information” to be celebrated annually on September 28.

That is the story and journey of the global civil society campaign towards the declaration of September 28 as Access to Information Day. The 13-year campaign was finally delivered when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) General Conference voted on November 17, 2015 to designate September 28 as “International Day for the Universal Access to Information”.

The Joy and Cheers 

For global civil society and like-minded organisations across the world this is indeed welcome news and precisely so for the significant benefits such a day brings. The International Day for the Universal Access to Information does not only to seek to raise awareness about the importance of the right of access to information but also provide a framework for the enjoyment of the right of access to information by all people.

As succinctly captured by UNESCO’s Executive Board “the establishment of a specific date provides a coherent message at the international level and facilitates coordination of joint initiatives on public awareness and elucidation by organizations in the coherence of a universally recognized day.”

Furthermore, Access to information is a fundamental human right – to seek, access and receive information. It establishes a legal process by which requests may be made for government-held information, to be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions. It is guaranteed by several protocols and charters such as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Article 4 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.

The Bated-Breath Moment

Already, international civil society advocates celebrated September 28 as “Right to Know Day” since 2002 when the idea was developed at a conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. Many more civil society platforms such as the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), African Freedom of Information Center (AFIC) amongst other regional and national level organisations and coalitions have engaged in several activities and vigorous campaigns to push for the adoption of the international day.

On October 19, 2015, the news that the Executive Board of UNESCO adopted a resolution recommending that September 28 be recognized as International Access to information Day was a good one and huge milestone in itself.  The commitment by African civil society groups and African countries to push the UNESCO resolution was highly instructive. As remarked by Nigeria-based Freedom of Information Campaigner Edetaen Ojo the adoption of the Resolution represents a major advancement in the 13-year quest by global civil society to have a day set aside annually to raise awareness about the importance of access to information throughout the world”. He said “When the Resolution is finally passed by UNESCO’s General Conference, it will be a gift to the world that Africa can be justly proud of.”

So with the baton handed to the 38th Session of UNESCO’s General Conference in Paris on November 3-18, 2015 came the real moment of bated-breath. Will the baby be finally delivered or another long wait lay ahead?

But alas! the International Day for the Universal Access to Information has been adopted. The approval by UNESCO’s General Conference came during its meetings in Paris and follows on support from a UNESCO Committee on November 11 and the UNESCO Executive Board on Oct. 19. 2015.

Certainly, this is a great milestone. But it also signals the beginning of more work ahead. International civil society still bears the onerous task of translating activism into real adoption of ATI legislation by many more countries and also ensuring that there exist implementation mechanisms for such legislation to become meaningful to the ordinary citizens.

Kudos to international civil society and more grease to our elbows for the task ahead!!!

Written by Abigail Larbi
Programme Officer for Media Development and Democracy
Media Foundation for West Africa Accra-Ghana