UNESCO Issues New Policy Guidelines for Development and Promotion of Right to Information in National Frameworks

Audrey Azoulay
Director-General of UNESCO

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has published new policy guidelines to provide advice to access to information stakeholders, including UNESCO Member States, civil society and the academia, about regulatory approaches to the institutionalization and implementation of access to public sector information frameworks.

Titled “Policy Guidelines for the Development and Promotion of the Right to Information in National Frameworks”, the 41-page publication, according to UNESCO, can be used as a framework of principles, strategic and regulatory approaches, and models, by policymakers and officials, interested in the institutionalization, the implementation and the assessment of public sector information data (PSID) access processes within the public bodies.  

The guidelines provide advice to Member States, academia, and civil society about contemporary developments around the accessibility of public sector information and data, and builds on work done 20 years ago, when UNESCO produced the publication “Policy Guidelines for the Development and Promotion of Governmental Public Domain Information”. 

The earlier publication addressed information management issues in public administration but UNESCO said following dramatic changes in technology and institutions over the last two decades, its Secretariat asked leading experts in Access to Information (ATI) from around the world to review the 2003 guidelines. 

The experts were Indian social activist working on issues of transparency and accountability, Mr. Anjali Bhardwaj, who is a co-convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information in India; Dr. Magued Osman, the Chief Executive Officer of the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research “Baseera”; Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda in Nigeria, and Mr. Toby Mendel, Chair of Freedom of Information Advocates Network and Director of the Center of Law and Democracy in Canada.  

According to UNESCO, the experts advised that an update would be valuable, following which a panel of experts reviewed the structure and the first draft of the guidelines during the online celebration of International Day for Universal Access to Information in 2021. 

The experts also recommended developing new guidelines by conducting desk research into how the right to information recognition has strengthened over the last two decades, through the emergence of access to information legal frameworks in 137 countries. 

UNESCO said the recommended approach corresponded with the recognition of the importance of access to information and legal guarantees for it, as provided by Agenda 2030.

A new set of guidelines was thereafter developed by a UNESCO consultant, Dr. Bouchaib Bounabat, a professor at the National Higher School for Computer Science and System analysis (ENSIAS) in the UM5 Rabat University in Morocco, in cooperation with representatives of academia, civil society, and the International Conference of Information Commissioners. 

A revised version of the new guidelines was subsequently presented to access to information experts during the global conference of the International Day for Universal Access to Information 2022 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) 2023 workshop in Geneva, Switzerland. 

Both meetings endorsed the revised version of the new guidelines. 

The Guidelines, published with support from the Multi-Donor Programme (MDP) on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists, was also reviewed by Ms Anjali Bhardwaj, Ms Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe, based in Madrid, Spain; Mr. Toby Mendel, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, and Dr. Magued Osman. 

Underscoring the importance of the publication, UNESCO argues that the right to information “constitutes a paramount pillar and an imperative requirement for human development considering the emergence of knowledge societies, where more and more information is being produced, particularly by public bodies. Indeed, while exercising their activities, different branches of the governmental produce, receive and hold Public Sector Information and Data (PSID). Therefore, put at the heart of RTI, PSID disclosure and dissemination, is a real catalyst for good governance practices implementation, but also a prerequisite to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” 

UNESCO also observes in the publication that 136 laws had been adopted worldwide by 2022 providing legal guarantees for Access to Information.

The Guidelines contain recommendations for UNESCO Member States, including to: 

  • Provide for and /or reinforce the right to information as a constitutional right, and make sure that it is not and cannot be countermanded by other laws
  • Ensure that access strategies to Public Sector Information and Data (PSID) are inclusive, involving all groups with most difficulties to access to information: the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, rural populations, digitally low-skilled or illiterate persons, and those of low socio-economic status. 
  • Consider PSID availability and openness in a broad framework, to all public information and documents collected or produced by public institutions at national level, and local level, through public funds, and/or as part of partnerships with the private sector, NGOs or intergovernmental organizations. 
  • Recognize and integrate the legal value and the authenticity of any format holding public information, and of any the medium, as well as all means, ways and media to collect and disseminate PSID. 
  • Set-up appropriate assessment instruments to measure progress made in the fulfilment of the state of its duty to guarantee PSID access. 
  • Ensure all necessary support for PSID requests, and define clearly appeal process in case of failures to provide information, principally aspects related to the review bodies and the binding degree of their decisions. 
  • Mitigate carefully public information withholding, by ensuring mutual consistency between RTI laws and data privacy legislation, establishing a clear timetable for unlocking restricted information, and leveraging Data sanitization techniques, to enlarge accessible PSID scope. 
  • Encourage and support PSID Proactive Release, mainly by conducting “harm test” based assessment that check if there is a foreseeable clearly proven damage in disclosing a governmental information 
  • Exercise copyright and intellectual property rights related to the management of data and information, in a way that facilitates re-use and interoperability 
  • Set-up an oversight and appeals body for PSID disclosure, empowered with necessary legitimacy and strong leadership to achieve its missions of steering, hearing of appeals, investigating complaints, issuing eventual binding resolutions, and controls and compliance auditing.
  • Reinforce institutional capacities necessary to conduct PSID disclosure policy, mainly PSID disclosure practices formalization, customized training and awareness campaign about RTI and PSID dissemination, at the benefit of both public and administrations, and establishment of institutional incentive system to drain financial resources, specifically through PSID monetization strategies. 
  • Implement appropriate practices for PSID Resources governance, integrating the application of FAIR principles (namely Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reuse of digital assets) to manage data velocity and complexity, efficient records’ management and planning, measures and practices to build trust in released data, and PSID disclosure impact on IT development action plan.