September 28 is the International Day of Access to Information. In the past decade, a number of civil organizations and coalitions realized that it is not enough to fight for the cause of the right of access to information of the society and the media merely in simple individual cases that evoke sympathy in civil society and the media. It is necessary to have this right—that we deem as a fundamental human right—recognized at national, international, and global level alike.
This right has several names and relatives: “Access to Public Information,” “Freedom of Information,” or “The Right to Know,” the latter being popular in the civil sector; these are corresponding notions, but all relate to public information and not to the private life of individuals, for example. We have explored the development of and relationships between these notions in a blog post earlier. The highest level of international recognition is UNESCO’s support and the International Day of Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) declared in 2019. This year’s global celebration takes place today in Tashkent, Uzbegistan; the main theme of the accompanying conference is artificial intelligence and freedom of information.
As far as declarations are concerned, the progress seems continuous, however, there exist a number of countries where this right is restricted either by legal, bureaucratic, or technological means. The International Federation of Journalists, for example, on the very eve of proclaiming IDUAI, published the list of those countries that had closed down media outlets or blocked internet access; such lists can be prepared even today.
Freedom of Information principally relates to current information and current documents—how can archives that preserve documents of the past, join here? First, it is evident that documents that had been accessible when they were current, cannot be closed from the public only because they were transferred to an archive. Second, digital information management is blurring the boundaries between current and historical documents. Third, access to information about the recent past has important current value for society, in itself.
Blinken OSA has always strived for facilitating access to documents of recent history. It did and is doing it in various ways: first by its collection policy that is focused primarily on documents of the Cold War and the violations of human rights, and most of all, by the way it processes and describes the documents. This process has international standards that Blinken OSA is following, but by showing events, minorities, and views that are underrepresented in public archives, and by presenting aspects that are missing from mainstream media and common talk, even with the personal notes of the archivist, Blinken OSA serves the publicity of information and documents as a sort of “counter-archive.” Providing unrestricted onsite and online research facilitates access by technical means.
The largest European organization responsible for rights and culture, the Council of Europe, after multi-year preparations and negotiations and with the professional contribution of Blinken OSA, adopted the Recommendation on a European Policy on Access to Archives in 2000. After adoption, a pan-European survey was launched, led by the late Charles Kecskemeti, then Secretary General of the International Council on Archives, and Iván Székely, Senior Research Fellow at Blinken OSA. The result of this work was the publication of the Handbook on Access to Archives in English and French. Twenty years after the first investigation, the Council of Europe is repeating the survey encompassing all its member states, with the professional leadership of Iván Székely; the fieldwork of the survey is about to begin soon.
Pandemics and wars create unfavorable environments for the prevalence of freedom of information, however, its importance is manifest during such periods the most. The approach and active contribution of archives dealing with the recent past play an important role here, and Blinken OSA has its share in this.
Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives