International Day for Universal Access to Information

Access to information: a human right and a precondition for democracy

IMS Director Jesper Højberg: In the Global North, access to reliable information is often seen as a given. However, in large parts of the world this is not the case

This past week has marked yet another celebration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information. For readers and citizens in the Global North, and especially northern Europe where IMS is headquartered, access to reliable information is often seen as a given. Simply, it is a human right. However, this is far from being the case in large parts of the world, which is why a constant focus on the issue is paramount. 

Universal access to information is a key human right for several reasons, and the fact that it is increasingly challenged globally is highly worrisome. First of all, informed citizens are the basis of any functioning democracy. Without reliable information people cannot make informed decisions when electing political leaders, just as these same leaders cannot be held to account for any wrongdoing or mismanagement if truthful information is not available. Information is the foundation for accountability. Without the right to access information from public bodies, transparency and accountability in our institutions are lost. It is our right to know what is happening around us — from how the State spends our taxes to the status of the pandemic in our local communities. Freedom of information is integral to the fundamental human right of freedom of expression – a pillar of any democracy and what IMS and many others fight daily to preserve. 

Furthermore, unreliable or inaccessible information of all sorts does not just undermine the necessary trust that democracy requires, it can also have immediate real-life effects ranging from attacks on individuals to whole communities. The most recent and horrific example of the latter is probably the forced Rohingya exodus from Myanmar in which online propaganda was used to incite offline violence — and, just as horrifyingly, justification for the violence and subsequent impunity for the perpetrators. 

The information battleground 

It is a fact of modern history that the information sphere is a battleground. However, with today’s digital technology literally at hand, the battleground as we knew it from, let’s say, The Cold War has been expanded enormously. The speed with which computational propaganda can be created and distributed today is as impressive as it is frightening, which is why all pro-democracy actors must also increase their efforts in the fight for access to reliable and truthful information.  

The list of examples of bad actors’ behaviour and means to thwart information in today’s world is long. Most blatantly are probably the internet shutdowns that has become increasingly popular among autocratic and semi-autocratic leaders that causes complete information blackouts for various periods of time. This has been the case in Belarus, India, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe to name but a few recent examples. In the same end of the spectrum is the blocking of certain websites and obstruction of distribution of print media by regimes. Such efforts are not very sophisticated given how the purpose and initiator is obvious to all observers.  

Covert repression of information 

A more sophisticated threat to freedom of information and access to information stems from how illiberal leaders around the world are actively trying to put critical media out of business. This can happen in various ways such as creating market incentives where media prey on one another in a race to the bottom when it comes to quality of news and information, which leaves the public less informed. It can also happen through giving regime-friendly outlets a tax break or via other forms of economic advantages that skew the competition, through filing SLAPP suits against independent media on bogus claims of defamation or criminal activity such as publishing sensitive information, or through so-called media takeover where, for example, regime-friendly businessmen acquire a critical media outlet and through the ownership change the editorial line. 

Among the covert tactics employed by bad actors we also find various efforts of intimidation. Here, journalists as the carriers of information, are often targeted. This happens both in the physical world when covering protests, court cases and other critical events, but certainly also online. One of the most descriptive cases comes from the Philippines where Maria Ressa, journalist and founder of the independent online media Rappler, has shared how she in the worst periods have received hundreds of rape and death threats daily. Imagine being met with threats to your life every single time you check your email account or log on to social media – harassment as an inescapable part of your life. Luckily, Maria Ressa has not stopped her indomitable fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines because of the threats received from state-sponsored troll-armies, but for some reporters the toll of critical reporting is — understandably — too high. For some, harassment leads to self-censorship on certain sensitive subjects. Others simply leave journalism altogether. Of course, both consequences negatively affect the amount of reliable information that is available to the public causing democratic concern. 

How to improve Access to Information 

As with all the other crises we currently face globally there is no silver bullet that can ensure access to reliable information for all people. The issue needs to be address at many levels and across several sectors simultaneously. Undoubtedly, this is a massive task, but the good news is we know what many of the required solutions are. 

At the most basic level information infrastructure must be in place. That means having electricity, internet access at a price you can afford and national legislation securing the right to information. For millions of people these fundamental rights are still not fulfilled. Much work is still needed in that regard. 

More directly related to the core work of IMS is media viability, which is essential to the dissemination of reliable information in societies. Globally, the media business models are challenged, but many outlets are experimenting with new ways of generating revenue. One common trait for some of the most innovative IMS-partners is how they are connecting with their audiences. There is an understanding that media outlets must meet audiences’ demands in a better way than legacy media do today and have done previously when advertisement revenues were higher. The notion of “just” delivering the news is being expanded with additional localised context, perspective and a relatable tone of voice — all done to (re)connect with the audiences. Finding a sustainable business model does not come easy and the tools needed obviously differ from one context to the other. However, financial support and advice are key to crossing the threshold to economic sustainability. 

For the audience side of the information-equation there is a clear need for increased media literacy skills. Even though most people can probably be fooled if a source looks credible enough – as it occasionally does when false news stories circulate the mainstream media – increased awareness and education can have a huge impact. With basic tools and knowledge of information evaluation many citizens will be capacitated to distinguish between reliable and questionable information, which will in turn help create an environment where mis- and disinformation is not as widely spread. Any improvements of media literacy skills require changes to curricular around the world. For the short-term, one option is for media to increase their focus on fact-checking and in a transparent way display the tools and principles applied for the audience to learn from. 

Tech companies and governments: Step up! 

Naturally, one cannot write about access to information and the spread of computational propaganda without mentioning the role of tech companies. An increasing number of people are receiving their news through channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp and until the tech companies step up and take real editorial responsibility as the arbiters of truth they have become, the information disorder will continue. Bringing in third-party fact-checkers to debunk misinformation spread on the platforms is, after all, a band-aid solution to a much, much bigger problem of divisive content being more profitable for platforms than factual content. If we want the online sphere to develop into a space favoring truth, reliability and human rights regulation is needed.  

Civil society representing people from all over the world are rightly and already advocating for more regulation, but pressure and advocacy from civil society groups and media representatives will not be able to do the job alone. Democratic states and international bodies like the European Union will have to be at the forefront of this battle if real change is to be implemented. The international community of democratic states will need to move from recognising access to information at a principle level to actually stand up for citizens’ right to truthful information in practice. This requires standing up to autocratic leaders and tech companies alike. 

Access to information is a precondition for democratic development, just as it is for maintaining trust between citizens and those in power in any democratic state. The above-described issues ranging from safety of journalists and policy and law reform to regulation of online platforms all need to be addressed and they need to be addressed simultaneously. It is within IMS’ strategic mandate to push for these changes through partnerships and collaborations with other actors. If we are to secure a free flow of truthful information new forms of coalitions between civil society, international institutions and governments must materialise. IMS is working tirelessly to do just that and the celebration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information is a timely reminder that the battle for the truth is in no way over. We have a massive task ahead of us, and it is one that cannot be postponed.