Governments Told to Implement Access to Information to Pre-COVID 19 Levels 

Ricardo Gutiérrez, General Secretary, EFJ
Ricardo Gutiérrez, General Secretary, EFJ

18 Rights groups have emphasised that access to information, even in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic, is essential for empowering citizens to hold governments accountable.

The rights groups which made the statement on the occasion of the International Right to Know Day, therefore, called on governments to promote access to information through freedom of the press, freedom of expression and ultimately ensure the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

They noted with regret that more than six months after the declaration of the pandemic, while many governments worked towards restoring normal operations despite challenges created by the pandemic, other governments continued to delay or even refuse freedom of information requests relating to crucial information about the pandemic and how governments are using public funds.

This situation, they noted negated the rights of citizens to access information, participate in public discourse and hold their governments accountable.

Specifically, the groups noted that in many countries, legitimate public health concerns, as well as the rights to assemble and move freely, were curtailed while other democratic processes such as in-person meetings with and between elected representatives were restricted.

Other challenges included the curtailing of the media and civil society from documenting and exposing the abuse of power by governments.

“We  (therefore) call on all governments and public authorities to ensure that the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is not a pretext for limiting citizens’ right to information. Legal and practical processes for accessing information should now be restored to pre-pandemic levels and even improved upon,” they said in a statement.

“The transparent and timely sharing of information with the public, on both a proactive and reactive basis, is crucial for protecting public health, preventing corruption, safeguarding democratic institutions and improving policy and-decision-making,” the statement added.

The rights groups stated emphatically that access to information should be used as the right tool by investigative journalists and NGOs to monitor the work of government institutions adding that this will uncover the numerous examples of corruption and poor, often non-inclusive, policies undermining COVID-19 responses and recoveries around the world.

The rights groups which then called for an open and transparent government approach said it was the only way to ensure that humanitarian aid and trillions of dollars of emergency financing were judiciously utilised for the benefit of the citizens.

“Governments must immediately restore laws and practical systems for implementing access to information to pre-pandemic levels and improve them in line with international standards and best practice,” the rights groups stated.

The rights groups are Media Rights Agenda; Access Info Europe; Article 19; Access to information programme, Bulgaria; Campaign for Freedom of Information; Canadian Association of Journalists; Centre for Law and Democracy; Center for Media Studies &Peace Building, Liberia and ePaństwo Foundation.

Others are Freedom of Information Center of Armenia (FOCIA); Global Forum for Media Development;  Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA); K-Monitor; mySociety; Privacy and Access Council of Canada and Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association; Sharon Polsky BIS MAPP and Transparency International