No year could be more appropriate than 2020 for the world to celebrate its first International Day for Universal Access to Information (September 28). The pandemic has exposed how important it is for information to flow freely and serve as the basis for decision-making by both governments and citizens. Never is access to information as important as at times when critical decisions are being made that will affect lives, livelihoods, and rights.
During a health crisis such as this, accurate information can help save lives, meaning that timely access to information can be a matter of life and death. It is reasonable to think that the pandemic would have played out differently if the outbreak had started in a country other than China, a state in which the space for civil society is closed in both law and practice, forbidding citizens from exercising their freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly. The death of one of the whistleblower doctors who first warned the public about a SARS-like virus spreading in Wuhan, only to be arrested for ‘spreading rumors’ by the Chinese authorities, sparked renewed demands for free speech, which soon trended on social media and were quickly suppressed.
Even in countries with a functioning civil society, such as Brazil and the United States, misleading and false information has at times drowned out vital messages about public health precautions and the extent of the pandemic. The resulting confusion has had deadly consequences, and these two countries now lead the world in deaths from COVID-19.
During a pandemic, the difference between life and death may boil down to whether citizens enjoy a regular flow of vital, accurate information or if this is withheld or distorted by self-serving state institutions. This was the intuitive understanding of countless civil society efforts throughout the world that have focused on facilitating the public’s access to information alongside access to vital goods and services such as food, water, sanitary supplies and medical attention. Rather than seeing it as a luxury that could wait for better times, civil society’s efforts recognized access to information as a basic necessity in the context of the emergency. And wherever governments were not fulfilling their duty to provide information, civil society has readily stepped in.
Around the world, people have found it hard to access accurate information to protect themselves and their communities against the virus in languages and formats they could understand; already vulnerable groups were not adequately reached by government information; and the spread of misinformation became a pandemic of its own, often encouraging unsafe behavior or the targeting of excluded groups as scapegoats.
In response, civil society groups such as Local Youth Corner and Crusaders for Environmental Protection in Cameroon, the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations, Malaysia’s North South Initiative and Doctors of the World in the United Kingdom, have compiled information from credible sources and translated it into a variety of relevant languages and formats, including audio, video, infographics and sign language. These groups then disseminate the information through various means, from paper flyers and community radio spots to social media, messaging apps and even loudspeakers mounted on vehicles driving around villages, particularly reaching people who have not been served by official channels, such as migrant workers, refugees and people affected by conflict.
To combat misinformation, civil society has also called for government transparency and responsible journalism, and formed collaborative networks such as LatamChequea, to produce and disseminate verified COVID-19-related content, expose disinformation and train journalists in the use of tools to verify information. The battle against disinformation has been joined by artists who use their talent to share information in ways that resonate with and mobilize people. A young Somali painter who contracted COVID-19 herself, Nujuum Hashi Ahmed, realized that people were not complying with preventative measures and that illiteracy deprived many in her community of access to vital information, so she started using her paintings to spread awareness and promote safe behaviors. In South Africa, the Ndlovu Youth Choir has worked to dispel myths and misunderstandings about COVID-19 and shared basic health guidelines through their music, while the Ghana Graffiti Collective has used street art to create awareness and encourage solidarity with migrants. Solo artists and collectives from all over, from India to Uruguay and Zimbabwe, have spread awareness, promoted safe behaviors, encouraged solidarity and helped raise funds to support vulnerable groups through music, dance, film and the pictorial arts.
Information developed and shared by civil society has helped people understand not only how to avoid infection and seek treatment if needed, but also how to access support schemes and assert their social, political and economic rights as the potential for violations under states of emergency drastically increased. Many organizations working on women’s rights have redoubled their efforts to ensure access to sexual and reproductive rights and prevent gender-based violence under lockdown. In Turkey, for instance, Mor Çatı realized that the state was failing in its duty to communicate the fact that women experiencing domestic violence could still go to the police and that shelters were still open under the emergency; in response, it took to social media to let women know about their rights. In Lebanon, ABAAD, a resource center for gender equality, launched a campaign so that people would share their hotline number from their windows and balconies, and produced ‘camouflage videos’ with the number embedded in tutorials and subtitles, so that women could safely watch and reach out while confined with their abusers. Countless other civil society groups have reacted in similar ways around the world, from Malawi to Mexico.
As civil society groups have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, often filling the gaps left by unwilling or inflexible states, they also had to work hard to preserve the conditions in which they work – which included calling for government transparency and accountability, and demanding public information and evidence-based policymaking in response to the pandemic.
In many countries, bloggers and social media activists have used their platforms to criticize the state’s handling of the crisis and corruption in the distribution of emergency supplies, risking arrest for doing so. In some cases, the exposure of corruption in the awarding of contracts has led to the removal of high public officials. In country after country, numerous civil society groups, including the domestic chapters of Transparency International, have worked to track state financial commitments made in response to COVID-19 to assess whether funds were correctly and efficiently allocated.
In Nigeria, Connected Development has urged transparency from the state and invited citizens to use its social accountability platform, www.ifollowthemoney.org, to monitor spending and advocate for improved healthcare facilities. In South Africa, the national branch of the International Budget Partnership and its partner CSOs have supported informal settlement residents to monitor and report on failures in the delivery of critical hygiene services, encouraging oversight of state budgeting and spending decisions.
Chile’s Fiscal Observatory Foundation has reviewed state contracts and purchase orders and demanded accountability where established procedures were not properly followed. Mexico’s Centre for Economic and Budgetary Research has also attempted to gauge the budgetary impact of the state’s social and employment programs announced in response to the pandemic, but reported that a lack of transparency and public information prevented it from doing so.
This points to a problem – lack of access to information can prevent civil society from playing its much-needed watchdog role to its full extent. But it also suggests a solution, embodied in civil society’s efforts to push governments to fulfill their duties to guarantee the right to access public information. Being public in nature, information held by governments truly belongs to the people. Civil society has a key role to play in realizing this freedom, because timely, reliable access to information is inseparable from the other fundamental freedoms that civil society relies upon and defends, such as the freedoms of opinion and expression. As such, the freedom of information is nothing less than the soil in which civil society’s roots grow and the air that it breathes. As governments, civil society, and individuals around the world continue to grapple with this pandemic, they should also mark this inaugural International Day for Universal Access to Information by redoubling their commitment to openness, active transparency, and accountability.