International Right to Information Day 2020: African Media Experts Call for Access to Information Laws

Louis Thomasi, Africa Regional Director, IFJ
Louis Thomasi, Africa Regional Director, IFJ

On the occasion of the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), African Media stakeholders have called for a common front in addressing the challenges facing access to information, media freedom and safety of journalists on the continent, through the enactment and implementation of progressive laws.

Speakers at the African Media Stakeholders Virtual Conference in commemoration of the 2020 International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), rallied for support of legislation that guarantees the right to access information in law and in practice. With a special focus on access to information and the COVID, 19 crisis in Africa; the gender dimension of access to information in Africa; and the inequality gaps and challenges in covering COVID 19, the need for joint efforts among all the African media stakeholders was emphasized.

In delivering the keynote address, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa Commissioner Jamesina Essie King, stated that 30 State Parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights are yet to enhance national-level protection of the Right to Access Information. “There is, therefore, a need for greater strides towards guaranteeing the right to access information in both laws and in practice”’ stressed Commissioner Essie King.

Organized by the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) with the support of UNESCO Addis Ababa Office and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), media organizations across the African continent, including The African Editors Forum (TAEF), African Women in the Media (AWIM), Article 19, AccessNow and the Ethiopian Media Council called for more synergy and strengthened partnership in addressing the challenges facing the journalists and media houses in Africa.

Speaking at the opening session, Ms Ana Elisa Santana Afonso, the Director and Country Representative of UNESCO Addis Ababa Liaison Office to AU and UNECA, further urged the AU member states to enact the access to information legislation. “Even though COVID-19 may impact information requests, the legal terms for processing and replying to freedom of information requests, should not be reduced with no apparent reason. The information on COVID-19 should also be processed free of charge, in particular, for requests on health and other aspects of crisis-related information” said Ana Elisa.

Ambassador Salah SaddigHammad, Head of African Governance Architecture (AGA) at the Department of Political Affairs of the African Union Commission (AUC) informed the participants that access to information as a general framework of freedom of expression is a cornerstone of human rights and citizens cannot exercise their rights to vote effectively or take part in public decision -making if they do not have free access to information and are able to express their views freely. ”Access to information is thus not only important for individual dignity, but also for participation, accountability and democracy”, stated  AmbassadorHammad.

How are women impacted by inequality gaps in access to information legislation in Africa? This was the focus area by DrYemisiAkinbobola, co-founder of African Women in Media. “When we consider, for example, the importance of digital tools like e-mail, so simple to you and I, in finding and applying for jobs, we can see already how this limited and gendered access to digital technologies, both in terms of physical access and literacy access, already disproportionately economically disempowers women’’.

During the panel discussion of access to information and the COVID 19 crisis in Africa, Mr. Guy Berger, Director of Policies and Strategies in the field of Communication and Information UNESCO, stressed that “access to information is crucial as inequality in information leads to inequality in power” and “strengthening public’s capacity to distinguish among different information is increasingly important in times of crisis”.

This was further emphasised by Mr. Jeremy Dear, Deputy General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). He pointed out that the only way to encourage citizens to participate in the action of combating the pandemic, was to have them adequately informed. He further said that “Democracy and public health depend on open and honest reporting. During this unprecedented corona virus outbreak, media freedom affects our health”.

In her closing remarks,  Ms. Lydia Gachungi, the Regional Adviser on Freedom of expression and the Safety of Journalists at the UNESCO Addis Ababa Liaison Office to AU and UNECA, urged the African media associations and networks to lay aside their past differences and pull together to address the challenges facing the media sector in Africa.
Highlighting some of the current media programmes UNESCO is supporting at the continental level, she emphasized on the multi-stakeholder approach as the preferred approach by the organisation and called on strengthened partnerships among all the media stakeholders.

This activity was made possible through the financial support of UNESCO Addis Office, UNESCO MultidonorProgramme for Freedom of Expression and the Safety of Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ).