Islamabad — Civil society representatives, government officials, and members of the international community agreed that access to information is necessary to create an informed public and achieve sustainable development in Pakistan.
They were speaking at an IPDCtalks event, part of a global discussion series of UNESCO’s International Programme for Development of Communication, in Islamabad on Thursday. The event was held to mark the 2018 International Day for Universal Access to Information, which falls on 28 September each year. It was organised by UNESCO in collaboration with the European Union delegation in Pakistan, and the embassies of Sweden and The Netherlands.
The 2018 topic for the worldwide IPDCtalks was “Good Laws and Practices for Open Societies.” The discussions at the event highlighted the need and importance of the right of access to information in the Pakistani context.
Vibeke Jensen, the UNESCO Representative in Pakistan, said access to information has a fundamental role in open societies.
“It provides people the ability to seek, receive, and impart the information they need and want,” Ms. Jensen said. “It allows every girl or woman, boy or man to understand the society they live in and build a society for the future.”
She said enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) laws is the first stage but often it appears that the next stage requires more work.
“The next stage is that these laws are implemented in the spirit in which they were designed,” she said.
Ms. Jensen said access to information is crucial because without it citizens cannot make informed decisions.
Access to information is also part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and falls under Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. More specifically, indicator 16.10.2 calls on UN member states “to adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information.”
Goal 16 is especially important for Pakistan because it will participate in the high-level political forum that will review the progress of the goal in 2019. Pakistan needs to be ready in terms of having reviewed its own performance on Goal 16 target and indicators by then.
During the first session of the IPDCtalks, speakers discussed how free media can support the SDGs. Asad Baig, Executive Director of Media Matters for Democracy, said the government needs to understand the value of free media.
“Media are tools for public good,” Mr. Baig said. “The government should understand and use media for public good rather than for propaganda.”
He quoted Media Matters for Democracy’s recent study of the practice of self-censorship among Pakistani journalists, which revealed as many as 88% of the respondents curtailed their professional expression and nearly 79% self-censored their personal speech in online and offline settings. Mr. Baig said this is a cause for concern and the reasons behind it need to be examined more carefully.
Vlastimil Samek, Director of the United Nations Information Center, said it would be excellent to get a sense of the news media perception among the Pakistani public through research.
Other talks and discussions focussed on the role of duty-bearers in promoting access to information and the practice of right to access information by the right-holders.
Speakers included Haroon Baloch from Bytes for All, Usama Khilji from Bolo Bhi, Jannat Fazal of the Digital Rights Foundation, and Azmat Hanif Orakzai, the Chief Information Commissioner of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission. The team behind Damaan, a web-based TV channel from Dera Ismail Khan, made a presentation about their work reporting on local public safety and health issues.
European Union’s Deputy Head of Delegation to Pakistan Anne Marchal said the discussions showed that access to information is all about accountability, participation, and efficiency that are the fundamental elements of a good democracy. Ms. Marchal encouraged participants to exercise their right to access information regularly and raise awareness about the right to information laws in Pakistan.
The IPDCtalks were followed by an interactive session where participants engaged with the information booths set up by civil society initiatives, such as Mishal Pakistan, Khan Meter, and Media Matters for Democracy, and the information commissions of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.