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Seventy-seven civil society organisations ask UN to link access to info and the environment

Thailand's government attempted to censor information about the country's worst flooding in decades, which has displaced millions
Thailand's government attempted to censor information about the country's worst flooding in decades, which has displaced millions

Philip Roeland

In an initiative led by ARTICLE 19, 77 civil society organisations which are members of IFEX and the Freedom of Information Advocates (FOIA) Network are calling on the United Nations to champion access to information laws, transparency and free media as key requirements to environmental and human sustainability. The UN is holding a summit of world leaders in Rio in June 2012 (Rio+20) to discuss the environment and sustainable development goals.

"The right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas related to development and the environment are fundamental to ensuring sustainable development and environmental protection," the 77 signatories said in a submission sent to the secretariat of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) on 31 October. The aim is for the recommendations in the submission to be included in the Rio+20 summit declaration.

The groups are calling for a new international convention governing access to environmental information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters. The joint submission includes a call for the summit declaration to propose a UN Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

They are also requesting that member states and the UNCSD make explicit the importance of an "independent civil society, transparency and the free flow of information" in the final report of the June 2012 UNCSD.

"Twenty years after the Rio Earth Summit, governments need to make strong commitments and take action to ensure that information is available to the public," said Dr Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director, in a separate statement.

Numerous cases of government repression against those who share environment-related information have been reported by IFEX members in recent years. These include the jailing of comedian Zarganar after he questioned the Burma government's handling of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and arrests and censorship of Chinese journalists for reporting on toxic food scandals.

The vital importance of the free flow of information in environmental matters was highlighted in late October when the Thailand government censored the website Thaiflood, which was warning citizens about massive flooding that killed at least 400 people and displaced millions since July.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the government tried to censor high water warnings, worrying they may cause "panic" and demanded the Thaiflood website submit reports for approval before they post them. This would likely result in the censorship or delay of life-saving information. As a result, Thaiflood staff moved their operations out of the state-run Flood Relief Operations Command to a private office. While the move allows Thaiflood to continue to send uncensored information, it also means the group no longer has access to government information on the flooding.

CPJ adds the context that the government has come under widespread condemnation for wrong or conflicting predictions about the intensity and direction of the water runoff. The floods have been called Thailand's worst in five decades.

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