ARTICLE 19 has submitted its response to the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression regarding her upcoming thematic report on the critical relevance of freedom of expression to sustainable development for the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council. In our submission, we highlight the importance of freedom of expression and information pertaining to a broad range of social and economic rights and sustainable development. Informed by our experience across the world, we also outline the existing gaps in the protection of freedom of expression in crucial areas of the development agenda with a specific focus on the role of independent media and investigative journalism. Finally, we also elaborate on the importance of access to information for equality, inclusion, participation and empowerment of women as well as indigenous communities.
ARTICLE 19 has long argued that the right to freedom of expression and information is a prerequisite to achieving sustainable development. As an ‘enabling right’, it empowers people with knowledge to demand services, to hold governments and companies accountable for their actions in general and developmental projects in particular. It also promotes accountability on development issues as it does for more political matters. Information on budgets, spending, regulations, and decision-making means people can work from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance and participate in important decisions that affect their lives.
These are the reasons why ARTICLE 19 has supported efforts taken towards integrating respect for human rights with the development and anti-poverty agenda, such as the inclusion of the right to information and freedom of expression in the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and its recognition as necessary enabling mechanism for public engagement across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), incorporating its Goal 16 and implicitly into many other goals and targets.
In our submission, we highlight how three interconnected aspects of the right to freedom of expression – the right to speak, the right to know and the right to be heard – must be recognised and respected in the development agenda. We then highlight key gaps in the protection of freedom of expression and information in the development agenda, in particular:
- The need to adopt comprehensive national right to information laws: Although133 countries have adopted right to information laws, these laws often do not comply with international standards in this area. For instance, they do not cover all public bodies, have very broad and vague exemptions or lack an independent oversight body that should ensure the effective implementation.
- The need to improve effective implementation of right to information laws: The implementation of right to information laws often remains problematic across the globe. A pervasive culture of secrecy and the lack of openness and transparency for public institutions creates particular barriers for groups and communities at risk of discrimination. These groups are also prevented from accessing information due to barriers such as illiteracy and the digital divide.
- The need to improve data collection: The lack of data also hinders availability to measure progress on the implementation of obligations to protect a range of social, economic and cultural rights, as well as the progress of achieving the SDGs.
- The need to strengthen mechanisms for public participation: Weak processes and commitments to public participation remains a serious threat to the effective protection of social, economic and cultural rights. This is especially crucial for groups at risk of discrimination such as women, refugees and internally displaced persons, indigenous communities, and people living in poverty. These groups are often prevented from taking part in public affairs and engaging in decisions that affect them.
- The need to protect media, human rights defenders and whistleblowers: Independent media, investigative journalists and human rights defenders working on development issues face serious barriers, threats and challenges in conducting their work safely. These include censorship, attacks (ranging from threats, killings, attempted or actual assaults, abduction, disappearances and killings) and failure from authorities to effectively investigate them leading to widespread impunity. Protection of whistleblowers is equally problematic due to the lack of comprehensive legal and policy framework.
In order to address these problems, we recommend that the Special Rapporteur highlight the following in her report:
- States should adopt comprehensive right to information laws in line with international standards and best practices and ensure they are fully and effectively implemented in a way that guarantees this right to everyone;
- States should ensure the public has access to reliable and accurate information about all matters relevant to social, economic and cultural rights as well as ensuring that accurate, reliable and comprehensive information and data relating to sustainable development are collected on a regular basis and maintained in an organised and systematic manner;
- States should ensure broad public participation in decision-making processes by including groups at risk of discrimination, such as women, refugees and internally displaced persons, indigenous communities and people living in poverty. Their right to public participation should include the right to be timely informed about how, when and where to exercise their right and the existence of proper mechanisms;
- Restrictions to the free flow of information related to sustainable development should be removed, such as censorship, banning, blocking and any obstruction to dissemination of related information by the media and other means. Special protection from attacks such as physical violence, intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest or detention, legal harassment such as SLAPPs should be afforded to journalists, human rights defenders, activists and others who exercise their right to freedom of expression;
- Whistleblowers should be protected by comprehensive laws covering both the private and public sector. Laws protecting whistleblowers should be effectively implemented allowing them to use such laws and defend themselves in courts;
- A gender-sensitive approach to access to information should be included in law and policies on the right to information in a way that addresses structural obstacles and barriers for women to access information that is relevant for their lives and exercise of their rights, such as challenging societal and cultural norms, addressing the digital divide and illiteracy.
ARTICLE 19 will be continuing its work on sustainable development for the rest of 2023 by engaging in the lead-up to the SDGs Summit in September. At the summit, mid-term review of the implementation of the Agenda 2023 will be conducted.