`Right’ Out, `Access’ Used Instead for New UNESCO Day

19 November 2015

By Toby McIntosh

UNESCO’s decision to declare name Sept. 28 as “International Day for the Universal Access to Information” instead of “International Right to Information Day” has sparked comment and raised questions about the derivation of the change.

Dropping the word “right” has bothered some activists who consider UNESCO’s chosen name using “access” too long and weak. But others have urged overlooking the different words and concentrating on celebrating the new recognition that could flow from the official designation.

The reasons for the alteration remain a bit obscure, but FreedomInfo.org has pieced together some of the story from official and unofficial sources.

The original proposal, campaigned for by African nongovernmental organization activists for several years, was for “Right to Information Day” (RTI Day).

This name was changed to “International Access to Information Day” (IATI Day) in the proposal sent to the UNESCO Executive Board, apparently with the support of the three African countries that sponsored the resolution. In addition, a pre-meeting memo from the UNESCO Director General calls the IATI language “wider and more inclusive.” It emerged from the board slight longer: “International Day for the Universal Access to Information” (IDUATI).

Advocates of RTI Day said they were “quite pleased with this outcome” while noting that the wording decision was out of their hands.

A Nov. 18 note circulated by Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda in Nigeria states, “As seasoned advocates yourselves, you would know that we obviously had no control over this decision and could not have intervened during the debates at the session of the Executive Board to oppose it.” Ojo wrote representing The Working Group of the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), which pushed for UNESCO action.

Looking ahead, Ojo wrote:

It is our belief that whatever the Day is called does not prevent the global freedom of information community from celebrating the Day in any way it wants to and that the name has no negative implications for the essence of the Day.  Our effort was aimed at securing official support for the idea of setting aside of a day to raise awareness about the importance of the right to information throughout the world and to ensure official recognition for such a Day.

Regardless of what UNESCO has chosen to designate the Day, this objective has now been realized and it is up to us to pick it up and run with it in such a way that the underlying objective of awareness-raising is achieved and the right becomes meaningful throughout the world.

It is our view that the most urgent task before us is to initiate a conversation about how to take maximum advantage of this development to celebrate the Day in 2016, which will be the first official celebration of the Day.  It is not too early to begin that conversation.

Modification Made During Process

The new name was noticed by civil society advocates in late October, after the Executive Board resolution was published on the agenda for the UNESCO General Conference in Paris.

 

Looking back, it appears that the three African countries sponsoring the resolution agreed to the name change more than month before the Executive Board met Oct. 19. The name International Access to Information Day is recommended in the Sept. 4 document sent to the Executive Board in advance of the meeting.

Two official sponsors of the resolution, Morocco and Nigeria, serve on the 58-member Executive Board, which approved the designation Oct. 19. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) Angola was the third sponsor. FreedomInfo.org efforts to reach country officials and UNESCO officials about the name change have so far been unsuccessful.

UNESCO DG Supported IATI Day

The UNESCO Director General (DG) sent “comments” to the board Oct. 13, in advance of the board meeting in which she supported the proposed designation of an international day and favored using IATI Day.

“The wording proposed would carry a wider and more inclusive focus and provide a wider framework for related activities,” according to the DG, Irina Bokova.

This section of the memo continues (accurately quoted here), concluding:

This may call for clarification regarding the point made in the proposal on the call through the General Conference proclaiming 28 September as “International Right to Information Day”, which may presumably be read as “International Access to Information Day.”

UNESCO Financial Support?

The DG’s memo also notes the possibility of a need for UNESCO funding. It states: “The Director-General would like to draw the attention of the Executive Board that the adoption of this initiative would require financial and human resources which are currently not provided for under the Approved Programme and Budget for 2016-2017 (38 C/5). The Director-General considers therefore that it is essential that adequate extrabudgetary resources be mobilized in order to implement this initiative.”

UNESCO currently supports a variety of right to know programs in countries around the world. Recognition of the passage 250 years ago of the world’s first freedom of information law in Sweden is figuring in plans for celebration next year of World Press Freedom Day Conference, being organized by UNESCO and Finnish Ministry for Education and Culture, May 2-4, 2016. WPFD is May 3. (See related FreedomInfo.org article.)

Name Discussed at Board Meeting

The name was not the subject of discussion at the Executive Board meeting, according to one well-placed source, but details are scarce, and another source said the name was discussed.  One point of discussion by the board, raised by Sweden and others, according to one source, was whether a right to information day would conflict with other UNESCO-recognized days, World Press Freedom Day and World Radio Day. The Executive Board’s “decisions adopted” document does not summarize the debate.

The board’s decision, forwarded to the General Conference, endorsed a slightly longer name. The word “universal” was added to create “International Day for the Universal Access to Information.”

The longer name stuck as UNESCO’s process moved forward. The Communications and Information Committee approved the resolution Nov. 11, apparently without debating the name change, although the minutes are minimal. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) Support for creation of the day was virtually unanimous in the committee, with the only objection coming from a Zimbabwe official, sources said.

The General Conference approved the resolution Nov. 17. (See previous FreedomInfo.org article.) The resolution recommends passage by the UN General Assembly. A UNESCO official told FreedomInfo.org that amendments are not likely at that level.

RTK Day History

Sept. 28 has been celebrated as Right to Know Day for a dozen years. The day was created in 2002 in Sofia, Bulgaria, at a conference of freedom of expression advocates from 15 countries. The event also spawned the Freedom of Information Advocates Network. The Sofia conferees first chose: “Freedom of Information: Right to Ask Day,” but abandoned that moniker in favor of Right to Know Day.

National access laws go under many names, but many activists argue that the title of an international commemorative day should recognize that access to information is a universal human right recognized by the United Nations and other international bodies.

The name was discussed in 2011 when the declaration calling for UNESCO endorsement was approved at an African conference, and afterward. (See previous FreedomInfo.org article.) The recommendation was made the African Platform on Access to Information, adopted at the Pan-African Conference on Access to Information, organized by the Windhoek+20 Campaign on Access to Information in Africa in partnership with UNESCO, the African Union Commission (AUC) and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, in Cape Town, South Africa, Sept. 17-19, 2011.

The declaration supported “Right to Information Day.” (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) According to attendees, the word “information” was intentionally substituted for “know” during the drafting of the declaration. UNESCO officials reportedly preferred “Access to Information Day,” but civil society groups insisted on beginning with “right” to emphasize that access to information is a UN-decreed human right.

UNESCO official Guy Berger, then and now the UNESCO director of the Freedom of Expression and Media Development, wrote to FreedomInfo.org in 2011 to clarify that UNESCO was agnostic on specific wording.

At the time, those who preferred “know” stressed continuity with Right to Know Day and argued that “know” is a more meaningful and encompassing term. The ultimate value of dispensing information is to enhance a right to know, it was said. The obligation of governments is not just to dispense raw information, said one contributor, but also to provide it in useable formats with context.

“Information” proponents, however, called “know” ambiguous. Getting the information is key, one stated, and what happens afterward is up to the individual.  They also noted that the right to information is widely referenced in international official context.

The subsequent campaign for UNESCO recognition of Right to Know Day was led by The Working Group of the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), which included representatives from several African groups, including Media Rights Agenda and the Africa Freedom of Information Centre.

No guidelines exist for the creation of international days, according to the UNESCO website, which currently lists 42 international days. The UNESCO General Conference expanded the list, adding “World Day of Romani Language” and “International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem.”

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