September 28: International Day for Universal Access to Information


September 28 is the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). In a separate blog post, Iván Székely, senior research fellow at Blinken OSA, summarized the evolution of the right to access to information. According to him, “In parallel with the attempts to define the content of FOI ever more precisely, a very broad sister concept emerged: ‘the right to know.’ Naturally, it is a sort of moral right rather than right in the legal sense, encompassing access to all information that is necessary for fighting against all forms of social injustice, poverty, famine, disease, exploitation of the environment; in sum, a precondition to survival. As author and activist Aruna Roy put it, ‘The right to know is the right to live.’”

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that not only information has to be accessible (with, among others, favorable conditions to institutional transparency, journalistic work, and information requests), but it is the responsibility of governments to proactively guarantee accessibility, by sharing information. “When authorities fail to proactively share health-related information and data or block access to such information, populations suffer adverse impacts and cannot fully enjoy their right to health. Informing citizens in times of crisis should be an integral component of any campaign aimed to address health emergencies,” states the UNESCO Concept Note for IDUAI. Furthermore, UNESCO differentiates the legal and practical dimensions of the access to information, thus promoting the significance of education, claiming that “Without the right, the scope of access is limited; without the use of ICTs [information and communication technologies] and the development of competencies, the right is limited.”

“In times of emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to protect the right to access information, so that communities can protect themselves and their families, journalists debunk the falsehoods and report the facts about the disease, scientists and policymakers provide us with directives and guidance on how to cope with the pandemic, citizens can know the measures to prevent and mitigate the risks. That’s why we need public information without delay, with strong and effective institutions to keep citizens informed.”

According to a note published by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, “strategies against the pandemic will be successfull only if the state considers its citizens partners. The government can expect co-operation from citizens only if the background of its decisions is transparent, its emergency communication is comprehensible, and all information necessary for responsible self-protection against the disease are shared.” To support this, the human rights organization Article 19 compiled a list of health-related information that governments should publish daily, in a commonly agreed to, open, and reusable format:

  • Number of identified and suspected cases disaggregated by health status, location, ethnicity, gender, and age; number of health care workers and other key workers affected;
  • Number of persons died both in hospital and outside, in intensive care, needing ventilators, discharged, or in quarantine, disaggregated by location, ethnicity, gender, and age; number of health care workers and other key worker affected;
  • Number of tests conducted and results disaggregated by location, ethnicity, gender, and age, number of health care workers and other key workers tested, criteria for eligibility for testing;
  • Number of people contacted and missed using contact tracing, number of people employed to conduct tracing;
  • Availability of health care facilities providing testing, stockpiles of supplies and equipment, hospital beds, waiting times, disaggregated by location;
  • Names and locations of hospitals, health, social and other care facilities, and prisons and other criminal facilities affected, including number of cases disaggregated;
  • Number of scheduled medical and other procedures that have been cancelled due to the pandemic, disaggregated;
  • Algorithms, models, and underlying assumptions used to estimate spread of disease and impacts; evidence about other pandemics and data; epidemiological and behavioural predictions;
  • Names and biographies of the members of all external groups or committees providing scientific, economic, or other advice to public bodies; copies of all minutes of meetings, working documents and advice provided to governments;
  • Existing and planned trials for new preventative vaccines, drugs and measures, treatments and cures, with detailed results;
  • Existing and planned studies on infection levels with disaggregated results; and
  • Emergency and contingency plans and evaluations, preparedness tests, purchasing and stockpiling plans, communications plans, and situation reports.

To celebrate IDUAI, UNESCO organizes a press briefing and several talks, between September 28 and 30, online.