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Access to information: Key to development

When residents of Bangladesh’s Khulna municipality along the Rupsha River began noticing a spike in health problems in their community, they turned to community leader Masum Billah for help. But the residents had noticed something else too: an influx of heavily polluting rice and wood husk mills dotting the land along the river.

A farmer listens to his transistor radio as he returns home from work near the village of Koumboula in southern Niger June 30, 2005.
A farmer listens to his transistor radio as he returns home from work near the village of Koumboula in southern Niger June 30, 2005.

REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

IFEX-member Article 19 has been working with local citizens, including Masum, to fight for better environmental protection in vulnerable coastal areas like Khulna using Bangladesh's Right to Information (RTI) Act. Under the RTI Act, Masum filed a request with the Department of Environment seeking a full list of mills in the area and their certification status. The results showed that half were operating illegally. Masum's organisation has now launched a legal action against the Department of Environment and the local development authority seeking the removal of the illegal mills.

Access to information is the lifeblood of a free media and democratic society, a fact worth remembering as we mark World Press Freedom Day. Journalists need access to information to investigate and report on stories—and we need access to the information they report. Without it, important stories don't get told. The right to access information is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the freedom “to seek, receive and impart information” and recognised—at least on paper—by more than 100 governments around the world who have adopted freedom of information laws. Yet for too long, it has been left out of key development initiatives, including the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDG). We need to correct that omission.

As the 2015 target date for the MDGs approaches, there is a growing call to realign future development goals along a rights-based model—one that includes freedom of information. The move has been powered by development and free expression organisations around the world—including many in the IFEX network. And there are indications their voices are being heard: a UN panel appointed last year to study the issue recommended establishing a specific goal to safeguard “the public's right to information and access to government data” as part of a larger measure of “ensuring good governance and effective institutions.” Promising words that require measured optimism.

Access to information is about power. It empowers citizens to demand a greater share of government resources to better their lives and to make more informed decisions about their future. It gives civil society organizations the tools they need to allocate scarce development resources to those who can best use them. It means local health authorities and schools are better able to serve the needs of their communities. And it means a free media that can expose abuse and corruption and hold its government to account. Not surprisingly, many governments and private sector players remain hostile to these efforts.

But these holdouts are on the wrong side of history, clinging to an outdated vision of government rooted in opacity and top-down decision-making. Across the globe, there is a growing hunger for information sharing, and as more and more people gain access to information and communication technologies, the move towards greater transparency will be harder to counter. IFEX member Media Rights Agenda, a Nigerian-based free expression organization, has made this connection. It recently released an app that enables local users of android mobile devices to download Nigeria's Freedom of Information Act to their handsets, tablets and other devices. Access to information, literally, at their fingertips.

Access to information is inseparable from any serious discussion of long-term socio-economic wellbeing. On this World Press Freedom Day, let's finally put to rest the idea that truly sustainable development can exist outside of the right to free expression, and imagine a world instead where each works to strengthen the other, for the public good.

Check out IFEX's World Press Freedom Day web page here.

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