Free press and access to information; solid base for SDG implementation

krishna sapkota

Krishna Sapkota
“Development consists of the removal of various types of un-freedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.”

This proposition by noted economist Dr Amartya Sen, also a Nobel laureate, challenges the mainstream concept of measuring development by economic variables. According to Dr Sen, removing the shackles of various types of un-freedom is development. Further, he defines ‘freedom’ in light of citizens’ access and opportunities to the things they have reasoned to value while stressing on the need to guarantee substantive individual freedom to make citizens active agent of change rather than passive recipients of dispensed benefits.

Adhering to the thrust of the above concept, the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 16.10, has recognized ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements, as part of the targets for measuring their implementation.

Going further, the SDG goal 16.10 (1) is about the safety of journalists which comprises global indicators such as number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months.

Likewise, goal 16.10 (2) deals with the issue of access to information with indicators including number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information.

However, Nepal’s Sustainable Development Goals Baseline Report-2017 prepared and published by the National Planning Commission (NPC) presents targets and indicators for the safety of journalists and access to information but not any baseline. Without any concrete baseline reference there may be no objective measurement of progress or achievement in this area.

So, it is pertinent need for the Nepal government to set indicators, sub-indicators, targets and baseline on its own bearing in mind the specific need and context of the country, committed to the international agreements. Other goals and targets of the SDGs will not be achieved with the weak status of media and people’s access to information as strengthening the latter does not only limit to goal 16.10 (1 and 2) but is equally important to increase oversight of the implementation of all other goals and targets. Hence, the objective evaluation has paramount importance.

A free and accountable press cannot be imagined until there is an environment for journalists to work in a safe manner. It is the free press which can verify and validate the objective implementation of all other goals.

In regard to the benchmark of safety of journalists, the UNESCO sets an indicator i.e. number of countries promoting fundamental freedoms by ensuring the protection of journalists and combating impunity for attacks against them. Similarly, Global Forum for Media Development has emphasized on the implementing the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

The Plan of Action aims to create a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide. Its measures include the establishment of a coordinated inter-agency mechanism to handle issues related to the safety of journalists as well as assisting countries to develop legislation and mechanisms favourable to freedom of expression and information. The Plan recommends working in cooperation with governments, media houses, professional associations and NGOs to conduct awareness raising campaigns on a wide range of issues such as existing international instruments and conventions, the growing dangers posed by emerging threats to media professionals.

Besides above two references, the ‘prevent, protect and prosecute’ paradigm developed by Article 19 can also be a good reference for Nepal while developing baseline and indicators along with future plans for safety of journalists.

The paradigm mainly focuses on enabling environment for journalists; ensuring that national laws do not interfere with journalist’s independence, releasing arbitrarily arrested and detained journalists, protecting journalists’ confidentiality sources and condemning violence and attacks against journalists.

Among other focuses are establishing early warning and rapid response mechanism, regularly monitoring and reporting on attack against journalists, protecting media outlets against attack and forced closure, adopting strategies to combat impunity, putting in place investigation and prosecution.

In regard to the access to information, various international organizations like Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), Canada and Access Info Europe have developed frameworks for assessing the implementation of Right to Information. With the objective of ensuring that RTI compliance assessment is fair and accurate, CLD has come up with Civil Society Parallel Assessment of compliance with SDG Indicator 16.10.2 taking ten Canadian public authorities for the exercise. The overall analysis of implementation is based on proactive disclosure, Institutional measures and responding to request for Information.

Similarly, Access Info Europe has developed the framework for the assessment of RTI implementation on the basis of appointment of Public Information Officer, RTI implementation plan, guidelines for receiving and responding to info requests and preparation and publication of annual report and RTI training to PIOs, among others.

National Information Commission of Nepal has also initiated a practice of RTI audit of public agencies to gauge the status of RTI compliance. The three references could be taken as model for the country to develop a systematic assessment of RTI.

In conclusion, the issues of safety of journalists and access to information are the central elements of SDG. However, both the issues have been brazenly ignored as there seems no attention so far to mainstream the agenda into the national plan and programme. Clear, comprehensive and disaggregated national baseline is missing in NPC documents. Reporting timeline of SDG Goal 16.10.1 and 2 is also not visible which lacks commitment to advance the agenda.

As SDG is the shared responsibility of all sectors, the partnership mechanism among the multiple actors such as government and CSO is to be given high premium. There should be two separate working groups, one on safety of journalists and another on access to information. A comprehensive national advocacy plan should be charted out from the end of CSOs working on the issues. The legal and institutional mechanisms should be expanded for RTI implementation at federal and local levels.

Furthermore, the concerned government agency should continue holding dialogue with other actors and use data related to safety of journalists and access to information produced by monitoring agencies to develop baseline on the issues.

Without adequately addressing these pressing issues related to free press and access to information, there will be an incomplete ‘tightrope walking’ on SDGs. RSS